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Ladyfag: The Woman Saving New York Nightlife

Portrait by Richard Burbridge, Ladyfag wears a jumpsuit by Adam Selman.

It's a classic New York story: she arrives from Toronto, expecting to stay for three months before returning home to her life, selling vintage clothes and moonlighting as a performance artist. She's discovered on the dance floor by nightlife doyenne Kenny Kenny, who asks her to work for him. She starts hosting and performing at parties, and then she starts throwing parties of her own, attracting the attention of fashion demigods like Riccardo Tisci (whom she writes about in this issue's cover story). And the rest is nightlife history. In the nine years since she moved here, Ladyfag has become a force, her roving club Shade a legendary destination, her marketplace Pop Souk a wild mirage of fashion, art and club culture. She has become a frequent Fashion Week presence here and abroad, and when she's home, crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back again is all in a night's work. How does she do it? What's next? And what's the deal with her name?

What you've done is really major. It's not that easy to come into the city and end up in the center of the circle.

I don't know. I feel like that's a New York thing.

Is it?

Yeah. I feel like New York is one of those cities where, if you bring it, they embrace you. Because everyone's been here at one point. You know what I mean?

A lot of people have left with their tails between their legs.

That's true. It definitely weeds people out, but that's one of the things that I love about New York. I came here, I didn't know anybody, and now I have this entire life. Because everyone has been new here once it doesn't have that small-town mentality.

What was your impression of New York before you moved here permanently?

PAPER was part of it. I remember reading PAPER magazine in Toronto. I remember sitting there really distinctly and looking at 20 Years of Style and going through it with my friend, and we were packing my stuff and being like, "Oh my god! Imagine meeting all these people." Now I look back and I'm like, "ah, my friends, my friends." Now I'm like the jaded New Yorker. I'm still excited, but everything just seems much more normal than seeing it from a distance.

Do you think the expense of living in New York is a hindrance to having a good time?

I don't think it's a hindrance at all. I still think there's no place like New York City. Even if there's more obstacles thrown at you, that's part of living in New York -- that's always been a part of living in New York -- and people always find a way to live around other creative people.

You've embraced Brooklyn, right? You do a lot of events in Brooklyn as well.

I've lived in Brooklyn since I moved here. And even though a lot of the things I do are Manhattan-based -- I'm a Manhattan person in that way -- I spend so much time in Brooklyn, and I feel like that's where youth culture as a whole really is.

If you plan an event for Manhattan, as opposed to Brooklyn, do you do things differently?

Absolutely. Manhattan still has that different kind of caché. Whereas a lot of Manhattan people would never have crossed the bridge, now they cross the bridge to Brooklyn for something special. They're like, "We're gonna go to Brooklyn today for brunch. Or we're going to go to Brooklyn for this party."

And then there's global nightlife. Do you do much traveling?

I travel quite a bit, yeah. I definitely think there's mirror scenes in different cities and they're all interconnected and incestuous in a way. We all visit each other's cities and try and work together. Kind of like Manhattan and Brooklyn people!

How about your name? I need to understand...

There's this woman Sook-Yin Lee. She was a VJ on our MTV, on MuchMusic. She came up to me and she goes, "Oh, I'm doing this art show, and it's all about being outsiders in whatever way. Do you want to be a part of it?" I was like, "I'm not an outsider!" I didn't know what she was referring to. She was like, "Well, you're kind of this woman but you're surrounded by gay men all the time at all your events and everything you do and you don't seem like a fag-hag; it just seems like you're one of these guys." So I started thinking about it, and I did this entire performance about being a woman who is also the same as these men that she's around. The woman who runs with the wolves, and she thinks she's one of them. It was called Ladyfag: A Love Story. Because I was like, I'm definitely a lady, I don't feel like a drag queen or a transsexual; I'm a woman. And I definitely don't feel like other women in that way, but I don't feel like a complete fag, but at the same time I am!

You're also a businesswoman.

I enjoy that part of it too. There is nothing romantic about that part; that's the shitty part sometimes. I came here so I can be free and do all this stuff, and I'm like, "Wait a minute -- why am I up? It's seven fucking thirty in the morning and I'm looking at spreadsheets!"

So you're less about industry, more about the creative...

Mine is more about the community and the actual artists. I hire real DJs I have real respect for. I would never hire celebrity DJs. I love the freaks! I think there's so much talent in them. Even in fashion. If you think about so many of the biggest designers, where do they all come from? Nightclub culture.

ladyfagTWO.jpgPhoto by Matteo Prandoni/BFAnyc.com

Let's talk about that: fashion and nightlife. Who influences who?

I think it's a circle. It's not just nightlife; it's youth culture and nightlife and the arts and the creatives. They all feed each other. It's circular. I feel like nightlife is definitely this nexus, this meeting point of all these various different creative outlets. You've got the music, fashion, dance, performance. It's kind of like a petri dish, a breeding ground for creativity.

And community and information. People have a chance to network and find out what's going on.

It's also this platform, like a stage where people are actually seeing how it really works. Especially in fashion. You see how the kids actually wear it, and you're inspired by that in turn. When you think about how many designers in the fashion world were club kids...

Nightlife today usually gets a bad rap when compared to the creativity of the past.

When everyone used to be dressed up, and you could have no money and it didn't matter! But the people reminiscing are these are people who are only going to these big events in Manhattan. On any given night that you go out in Brooklyn, there's going to be kids doing some crazy show, usually either in a dive bar, or it's illegal, or they are just setting it up in a loft in Bushwick. It doesn't necessarily get tons of press, the mainstream media doesn't care about it in a major way, or they do [care about it but only] for their token articles about the Brooklyn-Bushwick underground -- but the kids are still doing it! Bushwick in particular, and Fort Greene, and all these different places are little pockets of what people in the '80s and early '90s considered downtown New York.

What happens when people are over it before it even starts because they feel like they've read about it five times already...

You want the people to acknowledge what you are doing, but then at the same time, when everyone starts acknowledging it in this kind of way, you start hating it. It's natural. In my head I can't fathom things not being possible. You make them happen -- that's what you do. Maybe that's a production thing, maybe that's a New York thing, but I live for that kind of energy. I feel like when people say, "Oh, New York, it's such a tough town, you can't make it." You have to work for it! Because everybody is working for what they want to do. Everybody is here chasing dreams. So if you're not trying to make it happen, you're not going to make it here. You're not going to make it, and you're going to find that people are overwhelming you because everyone is doing things!

And speaking of making it, your Shade parties are legendary.

Basically we're building nightclubs -- you're basically building a nightclub every time you throw a party. We completely change everything.

So why start a new party?

You can feel buzz in a city when it wants something new. Shade is now established but I can only do it a few times a year. Then I have this other party called Lowbrow, which is kind of like Shade. It's more exclusive in the sense that you have to find out about it in secret, because they're a lot smaller. And Shade is a monster.

Where is it?

They're in warehouses. No one knows till the day of. Not even staff.


Yeah, same with Shade. Nobody knows until the day of, unless you help us come set something up. Then I needed a new Manhattan party. I feel like now there's this whole thing about Brooklyn. I was doing parties in Brooklyn, these warehouse parties, and none of the Manhattan people would really be going to them... and then people started coming. Now everyone is jumping on that bandwagon. I'm still doing it. I'm gonna do something big in Manhattan! 'Cause no one's doing that. So I'm always causing more trouble for myself.

Hair by Andrew Fitzsimons for Oribe Hair Care  / Makeup by Julie Harris at the Wall Group / Digital Tech: Kevin Kunstadt

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