desi santiago, the former club kid designing fashion’s coolest sets
Santiago in his studio in Newark, New Jersey. Photography Sam Evans-Butler.
For Desi Santiago's 20th birthday, notorious club kid Michael Alig flew Leigh Bowery to New York to perform at Limelight. "When I think about it, I'm like, 'Wow that was wild,'" says Santiago, who is now 43, bearded, and more likely to wear a low-key sweatsuit by streetwear brand Richardson than a Jesus-adorned lurex bodysuit styled with a spiked dog collar and prosthetic elf ears.
Back then, Santiago was "Desi Monster," a Parsons dropout turned phantasmagorical nightlife creature fond of zombiesque makeup and wildly creative DIY wigs. Along with Alig and a crew of other teenagers, he formed a coven of club kids who made going out not only a lucrative profession but a cultural moment.
Santiago's current projects, as an artist and set designer — responsible, most recently, for the inflatable spaceships that rose up from Opening Ceremony's orange-carpeted fall/winter 16 runway — all have their roots in this time, he says.
"The seeds were really planted then, because I kind of got spoiled," he reflects. At 17, Santiago moved from Newark, New Jersey, where he grew up, to study metalsmithing at Parsons. Across from his dorm on Union Square was a party called Palace de Beauté. He started going. And, in 1990, he met Alig at another party, Disco 2000, at Limelight.
"There was a small group and we were about the same age — 17, 18 years old — and Michael saw us and swallowed us up. I dropped out of school and then we all lived together. We just partied, partied, partied. We were obnoxious, we were just destroying stuff. And we were getting paid. I was making a living just going out and dressing up," he recalls. The group started a magazine, Project X, funded by Peter Gatien, the owner of Limelight, and toured club nights across the country. "We had limos, we were treated like rockstars. And it was all in this weird alternative world, it was our kingdom," says Santiago. "I was just able to be a freak."
The fun soured when heroin entered the scene, but "I never got too lost in it," says Santiago. For him, the club scene was always about experimenting and creating. "I was just under the impression that I could do whatever I wanted and it was going to be okay. That really gave me this basic philosophy of manipulating your own reality, creating whatever it is that you want to be here."
After his nightlife years, Santiago began creating large-scale ephemeral installations for parties and festivals. He transformed the entire backstage area at a Chemical Brothers show into a supernatural cave (on a shoestring budget, using mainly chickenwire), and helped oversee creative for the rave hangar at the infamous Woodstock '99 festival ("all these kids, they were all on drugs, and there was no shade on the tarmac. It was horrible. I remember at some point, we could see fires and over the walkie talkies someone was like, 'We gotta go.'").
Soon, he began splitting his time between the art and fashion worlds. He designed jewelry for shoots and runway shows — most regularly for downtown designer Miguel Adrover. One day, Grace Coddington's assistant at Vogue called Santiago, and the magazine helped get him a showroom and display space at Barneys. Though his work was soon appearing in editorials by Peter Lindbergh and Helmut Newton, meeting buyers and coordinating mass production weren't for him. "I was just an artist doing this thing that I loved. I always just loved the show, that art of the story."
And so he did what every New Yorker fantasizes at least occasionally about doing, and moved to the middle of nowhere. For three years, he lived near Lake Mohonk in upstate New York, in a barn surrounded by woods. "It was a total dream, it was a fantasy," he says. "I'm from the ghetto, I never had a lawn, nothing. It was really meditative for me." He spent his days gardening, and twice a year would travel to New York to work on fashion projects with friends, before deciding to take a post-graduate sculpture course at Bard.
After graduating, he moved back to New York and began translating his talents for creating immersive worlds into set design for fashion shows. He improvised a dramatic reflective set for Y-3 inside the Park Avenue Armory using 300 ballet mirrors, and later worked with Stuart Vevers at Loewe. Alongside hairstylist Guido Palau, he created the masks for the iconic Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. (There is something Forrest Gump-like about Santiago's career.)
But being totally subsumed in the fashion world has never appealed. Santiago has always balanced runway installations with feats of art world brilliance, like the oracular speaking hotel he created during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012, or the demonic fully interactive casino he dreamed up in New York in 2013.
"I get off on all of it," he explains. "I always like keeping a little bit outside, on both the fringe of art and the fringe of fashion, and then I pop in once in a while. I think it keeps me fresh and it keeps the work inspired. I also started a meditation practice."
Meditating, in turns out, informed his recent work with Carol Lim and Humberto Leon at Opening Ceremony. The brand's fall/winter 16 collection was a collaboration with the sci-fi illustrator Syd Mead, "and I was already going into sci-fi territory," says Santiago. "It's wild where your mind goes [when you meditate]. I've totally been going to outer space." After talking with Lim and Leon, he created a fleet of mansize dirigibles based on space vessels from Mead's illustrations. They covered an orange track runway inside New York's Pier 90, and, when the show began, levitated into the air to make room for the models. It was one of the most memorable moments of the season, and a welcome argument for the continued existence of fashion shows.
If that project landed squarely in "fashion," he's balancing it with a new project rooted firmly in the art world. Desi met Bruce LaBruce at his first solo gallery show in New York. "I had masked performers in black suits opening and closing black lacquered boxes, revealing different artworks," he remembers. The carpeted red space resonated with LaBruce. Now, some years later, Santiago will art direct LaBruce's latest movie, The Misandrists. It follows a fictional feminist militia fighting to establish a new world order, and will go into production later this year in Berlin. "I can't reveal too much," Santiago says, but as he points out, he and La Bruce both "go for the gut." The results will inevitably be sensational.
When I ask what his dream fashion week collaboration would be, Santiago immediately names Hood By Air. "My former assistant is their fashion director, so they're like family," he says. (Another one of his former assistants? Adam Selman.) "We're from the same school," Santiago continues. "They're like my kids I feel." Like Santiago, Shayne Oliver and his team can trace their creative roots to the outsider energy of New York's nightlife scene, and both have now reached the upper levels of mainstream recognition: Anna Wintour sat front row at Oliver's most recent show, and Santiago has worked with Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, and Madonna (for her MDNA tour). Next year, he will also release his first book, a monograph focused on his work with masks.
"I had a moment when I worked on the McQueen exhibition," Santiago reflects, "Where I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm in such a high-brow institution, and all of this is from when I was 17 years old and club-kidding.' Everyone thought we were such freaks then. We were the fringe, the dregs. And here we are; culture has caught up. It was empowering and humbling at the same time."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Sam Evans-Butler