"It was a statement of individuality and sexuality and tapping into an inner fabulousness."
In 1997, Club Kid ringleader Michael Alig went to prison for the murder of Angel Melendez, his drug dealer and occasional roommate. It was a dark ending to what some consider to be the last hoorah of Manhattan's nightlife, beginning in the early '90s up until then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani cracked down on nightclubs which were vessels of culture from new forms of electronic music like techno to hip-hop and fashion. Centered around Limelight, a massive Chelsea club within a former church, Alig along with his mentor James St. James-- a trust fund fixture on the club scene known for his outlandish outfits-- created a community for misfits around the nation who flocked to NYC's nightlife where they were celebrated. They also created a movement with a clearly defined aesthetic where gender was fluid, tapping into your inner fabulosity was the only requirement, and everything was DIY. The designs Alig, James St. James, and their now better-known cohorts RuPaul and Amanda Lepore put together were wildly more imaginative than runway clothes at the time and even served as inspiration for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier who used to frequent Limelight.
Two decades later, as all things '90s have been resurfacing, the club kid spirit remains strong on the runway. For fall, it was louder than ever in collections by The Blonds, Hood By Air, Comme Des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Manish Arora, Degen, and even Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld sent out raver candy necklaces. Even if designers didn't have Michael Alig and his crew in mind, the Club Kids' ethos of being fabulous and being famous for being famous is strongly woven into our current cultural fiber, from the dominance of reality TV to tumblr stars like Molly Soda-- which has also popped up on the runway. Designer Lindsay Degen sees a link between the reemergence of club kid fashion and online personas. "To my love of the nightlife personas- I think creating that type of persona definitely resonates with people today because we have all kind of created online personas and some people are even pseudo famous for their online personas," she said via email. "Maybe the club kid of that time is more similar to the MySpac-er of the early 2000's or the Tumblr fame of now."
Ahead of Michael Alig's release from prison next Monday, we spoke to Out columnist and long-time NYC nightlife arbiter Michael Musto, who extensively covered the club kid scene in the '90s, about the movement's fashion, politics, and what might be next for Alig.
Have you noticed a resurgence of club kid fashion? Lady Gaga kind of brought a nouveau club kid style to the world. On the nightclub scene in New York, club kid style has been hot again for seven years. The promoter Susanne Bartsch, an empress of counterculture nightlife who’s been throwing parties since the ‘80s, had a club called Happy Valley eight years ago and it seemed to bring about a new wave of club kid fashion that’s been with us ever since. It’s club kids under the new rules so they’re not wearing apocalyptic chic because towards the end the Alig group was wearing gas masks and fake blood. Their look became more and more alienating.
How did the aesthetic start? It was a play on kiddie aesthetics because Michael and the kids would run around in rag doll wigs, clown makeup, and lunch boxes so it was like saying, “We’re a bunch of kids but we’re really bratty kids and we’re doing things that shouldn’t be done by anybody.”
What were some of the politics involved? It was a statement of individuality and sexuality which ran the gamut and it was a form of tapping into an inner fabulousness within themselves and bringing it out. I think a lot of these kids felt connected and a family with Michael as their leader, as twisted as he was. They felt a safe haven within that community which they never would have felt in their hometowns. That’s the best thing nightlife can provide: a home for disenfranchised people to come together and create a family where you’re celebrated for the things you might have been made fun of back in the high school cafeteria.
At the time, how much of the general population was aware of the club kids? It had a very wide reach mainly because I remember being on a lot of daytime talk shows with the club kids. I was sort of the elder statesman of the group. I wasn’t a club kid; I was a reporter so I was their critic but I would also champion them against the puritanical people and talk show audiences who would say that nightclubs are the end of civilization. Just from those shows alone like Geraldo, Joan Rivers, and Sally Jessy Raphael, there weren't very many people in the country that didn’t know about the club kids and weren’t either afraid of them or attracted to them on some level.
How much of their fashion was boundary pushing versus an outward expression of how they felt inside? It was very boundary pushing and to me it was a blending of Japanese anime, fractured fairytale Mother Goose chic gone amok, apocalyptic chic, and a heavy influence of British outrageous performance art in the person of Leigh Bowery -- he was a big influence on Michael Alig. So you put all those together and it did reflect the alienated, special K-fueled club kid ethic and also an attention-getting device because they wanted to be noticed and famous at any cost.
When Michael Alig is released from prison, how do you think he’ll handle being back in the world? He has a lot to catch up on but I just hope he stays away from night clubs. I don’t think that’s where he should be. Nothing will be learned if he goes back to the open bar scene. I think he should reinvent himself and people should enable that as opposed to enabling past types of behavior.