Rare photos of New York’s iconic club kids
i-D talks to Walt Cassidy about partying in the 90s and his new book, 'New York: Club Kids.'
Adolfo Gallela, Lil Keni and Waltpaper at Webster Hall, 1995. Copyright Adolfo Gallela. All Rights Reserved.
Before there were Instagram influencers there were the Club Kids, a group of fashion-forward youth who became pop culture icons through their regular appearances not only in New York City nightclubs but also on daytime talk shows, in magazines, and in fashion campaigns. Jewelry designer, artist, and original Club Kid Walt Cassidy AKA Waltpaper looks back on his experience of being an influential part of 90s club culture’s most prominent group in his new book, New York: Club Kids.
New York: Club Kids, which is out now, takes a look at the colorful and exciting life of the New York Club Kids, an existence that was punctuated with incredible parties, extravagant outfits, and total self-liberation. Personal stories and anecdotes accompany countless images — photos of Björk in the club, portraits of Chloë Sevigny, Polaroids of Amanda Lepore — many of which have never been seen before and have been taken straight from negatives. However, the book also goes beyond the clubbing and fame and takes a closer look at the important and influential work the Club Kids did: creating inclusive spaces where the idea of gender fluidity and sexuality could be explored, championing self-expression above all else, and fostering a deep sense of community especially for marginalized groups. The Club Kids paved the way by building the foundation decades ago for conversations we are still having today.
i-D recently spoke with Walt Cassidy about clubbing in the 90s, the importance of spaces that encourage self-expression, the ways social media has affected nightlife, and how daytime television may have been the original Instagram:
The nightclub culture of the 90s created such inclusive spaces. Why do you think having spaces, such as these, was so important especially during that time?
These spaces were safe spaces where we could go an express ourselves — we had teams of security guards there to protect us and oversee that we were not harmed by anyone else and that we didn’t harm ourselves, too. So just that as a skeleton was incredibly liberating. To know that we could go into a space, dressed however we wanted to, and dance however we wanted to, could experiment with whatever drugs we wanted to, and we weren’t going to persecuted. When we were growing up as teenagers we would get attacked just by walking down the street. We didn’t have a lot of the acceptance and it is still a challenge today, especially for the trans community. But I was attacked from elementary school all the way through high school. I was punched in the face, I would have eggs thrown at me — I was tormented. Something inside of me just kept going, I was never one to run and hide.
By the time I got to New York I was able to arrive into these magnificent spaces that were so inspiring and I was finally safe. It was incredible because it allowed me and everyone else to blossom and it elevated everybody’s perceptions of everything — gender, fashion, creativity. Even if you weren’t a Club Kid, say you were just a patron just going to these spaces, you would see this group of people that were completely liberated. So we were able to set an example for the everyday kid who was coming from the outer boroughs, and maybe it would give them permission to be a little more liberated within their own lives and within their own context. This was very valuable. The other thing that was valuable about the spaces was that we were being paid — we were being given employment opportunities because of our creativity. We had money that we could rely on weekly. The real tragedy when they closed all of the mega clubs in New York was that a number of creative people lost job opportunities. Most of the people that worked in night clubs were actors, musicians, and painters, and they used the income from the nightclubs to support their work. That’s why New York really suffered culturally when the nightclub industry was targeted and wiped out because all of a sudden people couldn’t pay their rent or sustain their art practices. That was a really sad moment for New York culturally.
How do you think the Club Kids of the 80s and 90s would have existed differently if technology was around during that time?
I think every young generation carries similar energy, you know? I think as a young person you are wired to just use the tools that are available to you — whatever raw material, whatever channels you can sniff out is what you utilize. In the early 90s we didn’t have Instagram or social media, but we had daytime talk shows. And we used daytime talk shows in a way that people use Instagram now. We found a way on them, we found a way to heighten our profiles enough to where we were asked to be on these television shows much in the same way that an influencer would do so today where they cultivate their identity and promote it and create an audience for themselves. We had to do that, too, we just had different tools available to us. We had nightclubs, and we were living in an analog world. So the way that we defined ourselves was not through a computer screen so we had to really wear our identities. The decisions that we made visually of how we did our hair or how we styled our garments, that told the general public what we were all about, whereas now you can go on an Instagram profile and quickly see a person’s age, and their interests, and what they do for work. We had to wear our profile on our bodies and take it into the streets, into the nightclubs, on television and into the magazines. But it is still the same process — young people understand the idea of your identity as a brand, and that was kind of a new concept in the 90s. I think it is something that is fully embraced now which I find very exciting.
Can you tell us a little bit about the importance of fashion and makeup to Club Kids and the importance of creating your own unique identity and persona?
For any creative person or artist, your networks, supplies, and materials are all very important. What was beautiful about New York City in that time period is that it was so rich with materials and you had so much to work with. You just had to walk around the streets and scavenge it out. MAC was a new brand at the time, this was before they were purchased by Estee Lauder, and it was a really exciting new makeup brand because prior to MAC if you wanted that level of color intensity in makeup you had to turn to stage makeup which has a very costumey look. When MAC came along they offered these brilliant colors in a wearable approach. As far as fashion, what was exciting about the Club Kids was that we brought this notion of disposable fashion. We would make our outfits out of materials that we would get down on Canal Street at the industrial supply stores. We would hot glue them together and they would usually be meant to only last for one night. We weren’t creating looks in fashion that were meant to be collected, it was made as a temporary gesture. It was all made to be worn one night, and to be either disposed of or ripped apart and be made into something else. I think that was a very new and distinct element to the 90s because you get into this idea of deconstruction and how it made its way into fashion. That was a big contrast to how people approached fashion in the 80s where people were collecting Jean Paul Gaultier and Stephen Sprouse pieces — where people were really clinging to objects. In the 90s we were all apart ripping everything apart and putting it back together again and letting all the scars show. So there was an incredible honesty to the culture of that moment, and I always found that really invigorating and charming.
Were you able to keep anything?
What I was able to keep is all the photographs, documents, and ephemera — and that all served as the foundation of the book. I have been asking around about the garments and if anyone saved anything, they are very hard to find because they really weren’t made to last. This makes them special though because you have only that moment to experience something.
The influence of the Club Kids has been so widespread — what are some ways you recognize their influences on culture today?
I think the biggest influence is the idea that identity is a brand and that is enough. When we were doing that there was an attitude that people didn’t have to know what you actually did — if you were a creative voice you had to be a performer, an artist, you had to have a tangible manifestation of your creativity or a product to offer. What the Club Kids really pushed was the fact that our personalities were enough. The reality of it was that many of us were artists, I was painting and illustrating, everyone had different talents that informed their persona and their identity. But in terms of what we were delivering to the public on television and in magazines was that we are fabulous enough as we are, that it is enough that we have cultivated this dynamic look and personality and we don’t have to do anything else. That was the really kind of new and shocking idea at the time.
I think people still until this day struggle with what that is and what that means and also giving value to that. I also think that the notion of gender and the way we are discussing and acknowledging gender as being fluid, it’s this idea of blurry lines and that we don’t have to explain ourselves. We don’t have to define to other people what our gender identities are or what our sexual preferences are. We are allowed to exist in an abstract world that requires you to deal with each one of us as an individual and to not put us all collectively into a box that you can understand. I think that that is a very empowering concept that people now are adding the appropriate language and dialogue to. Back then we didn’t really have those terms or that language, we were just winging it. We were just acting intuitively. It is so exciting to see that the language and conversation has developed around the topics of gender and fluidity.
Can you walk us through a typical Club Kids night out?
I think one of the misconceptions about the Club Kids was that we were reckless hedonists that were just barreling through the night. In reality, those of us who were part of the inner workings of the group we had very structured approaches. We were hired by the nightclubs and there was also a lot of internal machinery to help support our personalities. There were teams of PR people, photographers, lighting people, security, there were all types of management behind the scenes. We had our own offices in the clubs that we would go to during the day where we would plan out different events. We had our own magazine.
Our night were usually pretty full — there was usually multiple venues you would go to in one night. It was not unusual to go to three different venues in one night, and that would happen every night of the week. The way our events were usually structured was that once we got our look together, I usually took about three hours to get ready, we would pile over to the photographer’s studio where he would photograph each one of us. Those images would then be used for the magazine, for promotional flyers for the clubs, and press photos for television. After that we had to go to the club for a dinner or we would have to go to an outlaw party. Outlaw parties were created to generate energy and hype early in the evening because the club’s goal was to get as many people into the venue as early as possible so they would start drinking so the bars could make money. The underlying strategy was always, “How do we get people into the clubs before 1am?” So often what was used was an outlaw party where we would do these spontaneous — you can almost compare them to flash mobs — where we would show up in a public space all dressed up, set up a fake bar on a cardboard box, someone would bring a boombox with music. We would all party until the cops came, and if the cops didn’t come quickly enough then someone would actually call the cops. The peak of the outlaw party was the cops coming, where we would all drop our cocktails and run to freedom which was the nightclub we were working at. It was all very, “We all have to take shelter at the Limelight!” The club would then be happy because they had a club full of Club Kids at 10:30.
From there we usually had a dinner where offbeat celebrities would be asked as a guest to the dinner and all the Club Kids would sit around and have dinner with someone from a 70s television show. After that we were expected to be in a certain area of a club for open bar which was right at the front of the club so patrons would feel like, “Wow, I’m at the right place at the right time”. From there we always had responsibilities throughout the night — some people were go-go dancers, some were hosts, some did the velvet ropes to the different lounges. There were many different parts, so in order to keep the energy active in the club different things would happen at different times throughout the space. For instance, there might be a fashion show in one area earlier in the night, and then there may have been a performance on the main stage in another area, and then something else going on in the VIP. Our responsibilities as Club Kids and hosts was to help people navigate to where all the fun things were happening. Usually it would end around 4:30am and we would get paid, and then usually go to an afterparty or another outlaw party — sometimes outlaw parties would be staged after the club closed. Or we would all gather at one of the Club Kids houses because many of us lived in one of these houses at the time. There were two main Club Kids houses at the time with multiple floors and we all lived together. That is something that I don’t think people realize about the Club Kids — that there was this family unit, we all lived together, worked together, spent the days together scavenging raw materials. It was very much a family and I was always very charmed by that aspect of the lifestyle, and that is something I try and convey in the book.
How do you think your time being a Club Kid has influenced your artistry now and your approach to life?
I think it is always there — I never turned off that part of my life. I have always acknowledged it as my foundation. I think that it gave me a code of ethics to operate from and it also gave me the confidence to be an individual and to pursue my life in an authentic way. It gave me license to do that, and that was a beautiful thing. One of the reasons why I came back and did the book was because I found myself doing a lot of jewelry work and creating a jewelry brand, and in doing that I kept remembering the Club Kid days and kept looking back at the photos and seeing how important jewelry was to me without even knowing it. I was utilizing jewelry as a medium intuitively. I had no intention of being a jewelry designer, I never thought about it. But I was naturally drawn to that expression. That became the impetus for me doing the book because as I started looking back at those old images I realized I needed to unpack the experience of the 90s and of being a Club Kid because there were so many dynamic moments to it.
The images are so great — I think it really will inspire readers to take more photos of their own.
You know, I always tell young artists to keep their archive together. It is difficult now too because everything now is in a digital format so it disappears so easily. I have trunks of negatives and prints, so they are very tangible and easy to hold onto. I think with digital technology I do worry about future archives and how they are preserved. Seventy-percent of the book has never been printed or seen, we took the images straight from the negatives, scanned them, and printed them from their original sources. I fear that a lot of content in the digital age will be lost, so I think it is more important for young people and artists to really stay on top of their archive because your archive becomes your currency as you get older.
Things that you are doing and expressing in your late-teens and twenties, that is the currency that you will use for the rest of your life. Your name, your identity, and your archive — any person that is tuned into this will benefit from it as they go through their lives because you always go back to it. What you realize with maturity is that you are already doing what you are supposed to do in life as a child and as a young person. I think young people tend to think, “I have to get to this other place,” but once you mature you start to realize you were always in the place that you needed to be in from the beginning — it has just sort of come full circle with it.
A lot of younger people, myself included, tend to think this way. When it is more important to enjoy the journey and recognize yourself as always being a constantly developing and evolving person.
Absolutely, it is sort of like — you know how a stone is polished in a tumbler? You put in a raw stone and it kind of just turns and turns and turns and the stone becomes shinier, more intricate, more developed and more evolved. I think that is how life is, we are all the same stone [from the beginning] and as we go through life we just get shinier and shinier. It’s great to really understand that.