This is the twelfth installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor JamesMichael Nichols' 30-part series "After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past" that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
What did your journey to becoming a fixture as a designer and personality within the New York nightlife scene entail?
I'm originally a San Francisco queen from the house of MORE. I started sneaking into clubs and dive bars at a very early age and at 17 I met the love of my life/best friend/fairy godmother/sister Mani Motarjemi aka Manicure Versace. He was the first person to ever put red lipstick on me. I've always had crazy style and dressed like no one was watching, but he is the one who introduced me to my San Francisco drag family, who I connected with instantly and effortlessly... as if I had been searching for this group of people my whole life.
There were two main places that I would say shaped the kind of person I am today -- one is a gay dive bar called Aunt Charlie's. During that time if you were an artist or performer in San Francisco, gay or straight, that's where you went. The owner, Barry, would let us do whatever the fuck we wanted as long as we were respectful to him and the people around us. We made art, put on shows, fell in love, did naughty things -- lots of legendary moments, some of the happiest years of my life. All of the kids from that time are continuing to kill it and make a name for themselves. The other place was the STUD -- a dirty, gritty bar with a stage and the most incredible energy. Any performance or look I've ever seen in New York or Brooklyn, I saw it first ten years ago in San Francisco at THE STUD from someone from the house of MORE or the house of SALAD.
Moving away from San Francisco was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, but one that I needed to make. I was stuck in an abusive relationship, I was partying too much and I was constantly making art for trade or for free -- not to mention the terrible techies were starting to take over! I knew that if I wanted to grow as an artist I needed to venture out and, you know, spread my wings. Before I moved to New York I was working as a costume designer for drag queens and performers in San Francisco. One of the performers I made costumes for was Kimi Recor (Draemings), a brilliant singer/songwriter/artist who was one of my first muses, and I started to visit New York with her for her recordings. My friends Frankie Sharp, Cadi Storm, Julie B, Zana Bayne and my late friend Vanessa Mckenna, who just passed away, were my lifelines when I first came to visit. They took me under their wings and introduced me to everyone and, being a social creature, my circle expanded. This led to the meeting of Gabriel Magdaleno and Dylan Monroe, who were the first ones to really turn me on to NYC nightlife. I fell in love with those two instantly. I had never seen such perfectly beautiful creatures, and we all agreed that New York style was boring and that I should just move here and shake shit up a little. So after harassing but convincing messages from Cadi, Vanessa and Gabriel I bought a one-way ticket to New York City during the winter of 2011 with the hopes of becoming a designer.
How does your work as a fashion designer intersect with your role as a prominent nightlife personality?
Fashion is a universal language, and those who speak it tend to find one another. That's how I met Susanne Bartsch. I was out one night at one of Ladyfag's parties and I ran into my baby Dylan Monroe -- he was standing next to this beautiful woman with long black hair, amazing legs and incredible style. I had no idea who she was and introduced myself. With a big smile on her face she handed me a party flyer, and complimented this black sequin kimono I was wearing. I told her I made it and she got excited and asked me if I made things for other people as well. We exchanged phone numbers and made plans for me to make her something.
I was nannying at the time for a very cool, open-minded family and during the day when the kids were at school I would go to Susanne's house and go over designs. Around that time Greenhouse was getting ready to reopen and she needed someone to start hosting Vandam -- and so she asked me. I was hesitant at first, because that's not why I had moved from San Francisco, but I looked at nightlife as an opportunity to showcase my work. 99 percent of the time everything I wear is something I dreamt up and made -- headdresses and all. It's a good way to force me to come up with new work. I mean, I wouldn't want to hire someone who wore the same thing every week so I push myself to not only come up with new costumes, but completely different aesthetics too. Sometimes I'm camp, sometimes glam, sometimes avant, sometimes nostalgic. The club is a runway for the strange and extraordinary -- just look at the legacy of Halston.
Describe your aesthetic -- where do you draw inspiration from for your work?
I always say that my aesthetic can be summed up as a nod to the past and a wink to the future with the challenge of now. My mother Missy Echeverria and abuelita Carmen Olga Echeverria are my original muses, along with Liza Minnelli's character as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. My first introduction to glamour was watching my mother get ready for work. She is half Choctaw, half European and her face is perfectly constructed, not to mention she is 6'1" and her body rivals Jessica Rabbit. My mother's closet was my playground growing up. She would paint her face and do her hair as I would try on all her clothes and watch her in awe. She ran an avant modeling agency so I was constantly surrounded by beautiful, confident women that didn't give a fuck -- it was amazing. And my abuelita is my connection to my Spanish/Puerto Rican/Mexican blood.
Spanish and Latin culture is a huge inspiration for me, from the design aesthetic of classic Spanish costume to the intensity and passion running through our veins, to the mystery of gypsies, to the confidence, sensuality and rhythm of flamenco dancers, tribal and native jewelry -- I can go on and on. I have a lot of warrior blood in me and I embrace it, not to mention I was raised by goddesses! I've also always been inspired by Erté, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Art is a huge inspiration for me. My mother first gave me a book of Erté's illustrations when I was eight years old and from the time I first turned through the pages I knew I wanted to be a designer. Not only be a designer but I wanted to create works of art to completely transform people into the best versions of themselves -- which is why I've always been inspired by drag queens and transgender women. No one can work a look like a drag queen or a transgender woman.
Ryan Burke called the two of you a creative team in his earlier feature. Talk to me about this partnership, and what it means to function as a creative team within the context of NYC Nightlife.
I love him so much, I really do. Even though we live in the same house and I see him every day, I still try to weasel my way into his bed so I can sleep next to him, or convince him to sleep in mine. I think it's really important to belong to a tribe. I'm the eldest of five children (shout out to my babies Alex, Skyler, Victor and Scarlett) and I'm used to being part of a little wolf pack. Belonging to a tribe is instinctual for me. In San Francisco that's how it is in nightlife -- you have your house, that's your family, you go to each other's nights, you support your friends' projects and art and with that support you grow. I think that's why I'm able to survive here.
Ryan and I first met when I was hosting Vandam two years ago. He came right up to me and said, "My friends told me I should meet you and that you would be nice to me!" His beauty and innocence put the biggest smile on my face and we ended up dancing all night long. Three months later I quit my nanny job and convinced Ryan to get an apartment with me. Until that moment I was feeling a bit lost because I hadn't really found anyone in New York that actually moved here to become an artist. By that I mean someone that was actually living their dream and didn't care what sacrifices they had to make or didn't care about being famous. We also bonded over being outcasts and how we never had true friends growing up. Even in a room full of people who were just like us we didn't feel like we belonged. We still feel that way when we're out -- everyone will be running around having a great time and drinking and you can usually find us in the corner linked arm and arm being voyeurs, slightly removed. We connect through art and voyeurism.
I look at people and myself and think of ways to transform them through costume, or bring out their best features, and Ryan is a genius makeup artist and photographer and knows how to capture people. We push each other -- when we first moved in together he would spend five hours on a masterpiece on his face and then throw on a mini dress and I would be like "ABSOLUTELY NOT -- HERE! Throw on this gown immediately and throw on this necklace. See don't you feel magical now?" Or I would put on five layers of couture with opulent jewelry and then I would just have on lipstick and he would be like, "Well... you look amazing but what are you going to do with your face?" So I started getting into makeup more, inspired by him.
Our little tribe is constantly growing. We have a revolving door and I'm so grateful for the energy that my friends put into our friendships because we're all far away from our families and when one of us is sick or sad or lonely, we turn to each other so we can keep growing and keep making art and keep spreading love.
In response to an interview with nightlife legend Michael Musto about why you love gay men so much, you offered this statement: "A few years ago, I watched Eve Ensler on a TED Talk and she spoke about the 'girl cell,' the inner feminine, and how everyone -- even straight men -- are born with it, and from birth society seeks to destroy it. I relate to people who have fought to hold onto their 'girl cell,' their inner feminine, because they are warriors in a way. They are brave and they are compassionate. So, I guess, I just feel more comfortable to be free, to dress up, to say and do what I want around gay men. They’re my fellow outcasts. As a woman -- or as a gay man or a person of color -- you wake up and have the world against you. I get along with trans people, gay men: the outcasts. The lost toys come together." How do you think nightlife creates spaces for this expression of inner femininity, or "girl cell," to be explored and celebrated by people of all identities -- particularly within the parties that you host? Why is this so important?
I know not everyone watches the news or reads newspapers, but everyone has a Facebook and I know that your Facebook feed is filled with horrifying images from Palestine, and the Malaysian plane that got shot down carrying the worlds leading scientists and activists for AIDS, and articles about people being mutilated and tortured all over the world simply because they are gay or transgender or because their beliefs are different. I know all of you know of someone who has been abused and I know that all of you, queer or not, have been hurt by another person at least once in your life. WHY? Why do people think it is okay to inflict harm upon another person? Why do people stop their lives, go out of their way to harass me and my friends on the street for being different? Why do people send me messages on social media platforms telling me that I'm going to burn in hell with my gay friends?
The article you are referencing, the one Michael did on me for OUT, someone said that we are all going straight to hell and that we are disgusting and should all die because of it. People are going to read this article and turn to their kids and say, "Can you believe these faggots?" and you know what, those kids are going to think that's okay and when they see someone different for the first time, they are going to see them through eyes of hate because someone close to them put that idea into their minds. Children are not born with hate in their hearts, they are taught hate by the people around them and SHAME ON THE PARENTS that teach their kids to hate.
James, I hope the people that read these amazing articles that you are putting out there are able to expand their minds and hearts and I hope that the kids who get to read this, who think they are the only ones that are different, know that there is a tribe out there waiting for them. The parties I host are an escape for people to release their inhibitions. For some people it's their only night of the week to be free, to feel love and feel connected. That's why nightlife is so important for queer culture; that's how I found my tribe, a tribe that continues to inspire me every day. A tribe that gives me strength so I can be strong for the people around me, even for the ones that hate me. If you read this, know that I love you, know that even though I've never met you I love you and I believe in you and I support you and if someone is preventing you from being the best possible you, that has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them and their insecurities.
How do you see what is happening in nightlife today as building on a historical legacy of artists, performers, musicians and personalities over the past decades?
Aesthetically I'm seeing a lot of recycled fashion and recycled art. I think that because of social media it's inevitable for people to subconsciously piggyback on things that have already been done and I think people are afraid to be too original because they might not fit in. I think it's weird that everyone wants to fit in here in New York. Even if they are trying to be different and innovative, you can tell when people are actually just being trendy because they are scared.
I think the truly innovative people that I'm seeing are playing around with gender and sexuality. I think that's what our generation has to offer -- the idea of acceptance and blurred lines of gender. It's causing discussion, debate, new laws to be made and it's causing more art. THAT is the movement that's happening and I'm so glad that The Huffington Post is seeing it. It's groundbreaking and I'm grateful that you're not afraid and I'm grateful that you are present for the incredible change I hope to see. The world is changing and I hope that the bigots jump on this evolution because you're going to get left behind. The way that I present myself is in the form of a drag queen -- but a drag queen is a man, dressing as an interpretation and exaggeration of a woman. Well, I AM AN EXAGGERATION of a woman and this is how present my interpretation. That's the way I've always designed -- I want my designs to have no boundaries; young, old, tall, short, male, female, trans, skinny, fat. When I create things I don't give myself boundaries or follow rules or have a particular gender in mind. I want to help people live out their fantasies and make them feel beautiful.
What do you see as the future of nightlife in NYC, particularly in terms of the way it intersects with fashion?
I'm seeing more and more fashion that I see in the club on the street and in stores. I remember the first time I saw H&M selling ripped tights and combat boots I almost fell over! Like, how is a bubble gum company selling looks I've been seeing at punk shows forever and why do the popular 'Stephanies' want to dress like that all of the sudden? Or how all the girls walking down the street these days totally look like drag queens and they don't even know it? Look at female pop stars these days... ITS ALL DRAG!
For more from Domonique Echeverria head here to visit the artist's website. Missed the previous installments in this series? Check out the slideshow below.