young gay creatives shaking off the sex shame
Gay codes, gay apps and cruising pasts: how a new generation of designers and artists are engaging with their queer realities.
Pieter fall/winter 16. Photography Jason Lloyd Evans
As Editor of London gay scene magazine Boyz circa 2007, I was always slightly embarrassed to say where I worked because the fashion and culture characters I met would immediately turn their noses up at it. The magazine always had quality content (we had Sinitta on the cover, FFS), but there were explicit escort ads in the back and it was full of photos of saucer-eyed, tops-off muscle men at after-hours clubs. Many people disapproved. Not Christopher Kane though: when I met him in the early days of Dalston Superstore, he said he was a huge fan of Boyz, and made sure to pick up a copy every week for the pop interviews (Lady Gaga, Ciara and Kelis to name a few) and general gay juiciness of it all. Hearing him say that - as he was emerging as London's most celebrated designer - gave me a new confidence about the work I did and made me recognise that many people took great pleasure from it. Thanks, Christopher.
So it was a great joy to see gay designers embracing the more overtly gay, sexual and sometimes trashy elements of gay culture at this year's LC:M. Sebastiaan Pieter's collection's starting point was a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of S&M couple Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter posing in leather, with whips and chains. The picture inspired the pants, arm straps and penis piercings that are popular on the leather scene, and the collection brought a whole new meaning to "cruise collection"; its bold, bright red Cruise logo sweater a reference to many gay men's public sex hunts.
Pieter's limited edition "HH" t-shirt might not have meant much to most of the audience, but it did to anyone who's used Grindr and knows the app's abbreviations. "HH" means High & Horny, a signal that the person posting is after a drug-fuelled orgy, potentially one of the kind featured in the controversial Chemsex documentary. Sebastiaan's HH sweater is hardly a celebration of this - more a questioning, or at least a basic acknowledgement that it's a world he's aware of. Previous slogan tees of Pieter's include "Fun Now!" - "fun" being the gay world equivalent of the "chill" in Netflix and chill. He clearly enjoys an in-joke. "You can read 'Fun Now!' and not know what it's about," he explains. "Straight people will be like, 'Oh that's a funny jumper.' You're advertising something or showing something off that only a few people will know about. It's a hidden message in a public domain."
Current barometer of London cool, J.W. Anderson, also made it clear that referencing Grindr shouldn't be shameful, even in the sometimes snobby fashion world. His decision to livestream his show via the hook-up app was arguably more about Grindr's attempts to reposition themselves through the hiring of top fashion New York PR firm, PR Consulting (who also represents J.W.), but it's also a bold move from Anderson, who stated quite straight-forwardly, "Grindr is a widely used social platform that really reflects youth culture right now. At J.W.Anderson, we always look for ways to push boundaries when it comes to gender and our aesthetic. And of course the global reach of Grindr is undeniable. This is why for us, it makes perfect sense for Grindr to be the first outlet to livestream a J.W.Anderson men's show."
Yes, there are commercial incentives - in the same way, Diesel has decided to advertise on the app, as well as on straight version Tinder and x-rated Pornhub - but it's also part of a wider shift in the gay community's confidence in embracing or discussing their tastes, habits, lifestyle - or the ones they see around them. The Guardian, reviewing the show, also pointed out that the move showed Anderson "is in possession of the supreme confidence that allows someone to do unexpected things, such as showcase the rarified world of a high fashion show on a dating platform, where it will play on loop for 24 hours." (Pieter shares that same assuredness: "I feel like I can say these things now, because no-one's going to be shocked by them. I'm sure certain buyers will stay away from it, but I'm also confident enough that it won't affect my brand.")
Apparently Anderson had some issue convincing modelling agencies that their "boys" weren't going to be leered over on the sexual hook-up app, but he seemed to have plenty of support in the assembled crowd. The New York Times reported that A$AP Rocky approved of "gay people supporting gays", DJ Michel Gaubert thought his use of the "gay Facebook" was "fantastic" and Bryanboy - who has always managed to blog and Tweet about gag reflexes, doucheing and hot daddies, all the while keeping his place on the front row - confessed "every single person I know is on Grindr."
Whilst Anderson's show didn't actually engage with the Grindr app in any creative way (it was just a banner advert that took you to a separate livestream), last year, designer Demna Gvaslia made the fashion pack confront some of the realities of hidden gay spaces by showing his autumn/winter 15 Vêtements show in the notorious Paris "clubbing and cruising" club, Le Dépôt. The venue has been a sexual secret of many of the city's fashion designers over the years, so Gvaslia's decision to show there read like a take-us-or-leave-us challenge to the assembled editors and celebrities: if you want to enjoy the best of gay men and their creations, then come see where they might be looking for lust once all the backstage back-patting is done.
And it's not just the fashion world that has been engaging with cruising, cottaging and hook-ups. Prem Sahib's solo show at the ICA at the tail end of last year dealt with such themes (among others). Prem's show proved that such ideas can be dealt with in smart new ways. His minimalist works certainly don't scream about looking for dick in a public loo or going for a gangbang in a gay sauna; instead they explore the architecture, atmosphere and emotion of those covert worlds.
"I wonder if there's a distance that allows us to deal with these things in a less fearful, more confident way," he ponders in conversation with Sebastiaan Pieter (who, incidentally, used some of Prem's sculptures in one of his presentations a few seasons back). "There's a whole level of codification, which means that they're quite abstract ideas to play with anyway. They only mean things to few people. Also, some aspects of cruising have almost become historical."
Prem says that with chemsex hitting the headlines, "it's no surprise that people are making work related to that kind of thing. It's a reality of being in London right now, and a reality for a lot of gay men directly and indirectly. If you go on Grindr, you have to interpret those codes and what the mean, like 'GMTV' or 'HH'. They're all things to decipher from the gay experience in London. What's interesting is the confidence to put them out in the mainstream."
Prem's works at the ICA referenced public toilets and sauna loungers and at his concurrent show at Southard Reid, he made the interesting decision of advertising it in Boyz and fellow gay scene magazine, QX. (The younger me would have been thrilled to have one of the city's most significant new artists using Boyz for a piece!). "The advert in Boyz and QX was a work in itself. I liked the possibility of something disseminating locally and sitting covertly amongst the other ads. Perhaps it was something about the types of encounters that might occur if people were intrigued enough by the rather cryptic invitation."
One of his latest works for the gallery is polished steel, cut to the size of a iPhone, "painted black and has a mirror like surface, with the underbelly painted in neon orange." The object hovers on clear acrylic and the glow cast makes it seem "as though there's an app that's been left on." The piece is called W1, a reference to the postcode of the gallery and also to the Grindr way of pin-pointing your whereabouts to potential suitors.
As Sebastiaan said, "Every generation has their own experience of what it feels like to be gay. The times change and we're all different in the way that we express our sexuality." It's communally emboldening to see this current crop of creatives dealing with new gay realities without embarrassment or shame, but curiosity and confidence.
Text Stuart Brumfitt