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The latest exhibit goes behind the strict door policies of Studio 54

During the mid to late 1970's, New York's disco scene emerged from the underground to the mainstream, and became one of the city's most culturally defining eras of history. The nightclubs that thrived during disco's heyday is the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of Sex. Dubbed "Night Fever: New York Disco 1977- 1979: The Bill Bernstein Photographs," the exhibition is centered around 40 photographs, that document a glimpse into the happenings within exclusive nightclub scenes at Studio 54, Xenon, Paradise Garage, and many more.

Bill Bernstein—whose interest in photography came from imagery by Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, captured these unseen photographs over a two-year period, allowing a different look into the real communities that these clubs created, bringing together people from the LGBT community and breaking societal barriers. Divided into sections by clubs, the photographs also include interviews from some of the club regulars, revealing more details about certain images. Also included in the exhibition is a pop-up disco soundtracked by an original Richard Long Audio System— a fixture within these nightclubs, and a fully operating bar offering 70's inspired cocktails. Here, Bernstein weighs in on the stories behind the photographs that freeze the city's short-lived but much adored era in time.

How did you start photographing New York's disco scene?

"After I left college, I was hired regularly by The Village Voice. Fred McDarrah—who was the head photographer there, sent me an assignment to go to Studio 54 to cover an event. I wasn’t really interested in disco scene, although at that time it became extremely popular after the release of Saturday Night Fever. Earlier, I had actually out of curiosity tried to get into Studio 54, but wasn’t able to because I wasn’t cool enough. So this night I knew I was going to get in as I was on the press list. After I got in and covered the event, I decided I wasn’t going to leave with the rest of the paparazzi. I waited for the regular crowd to come in at about 10 or 11pm. I thought I was never going to be able to get in again as it had such a strict door policy. I ended up leaving at 6 or 7 in the morning the next day and was totally fascinated by the scene inside."

What was the atmosphere inside the nightclub scene like?

"What drew me into the scene that night, that kept me going for the next couple of years to clubs in New York City, was that I saw this inclusiveness that I’d never seen before. I saw gays, transgender men and women, straights, really old, really young, African American. I saw a real mix of various cultures all partying together harmoniously, having fun on the dance floor and really enjoying themselves. In terms of really mixing and partying together— I didn’t see any transgender men and women during Woodstock. What I saw in the late 70’s was a victory dance for all of the movements that happened; the civil rights movement, the women's movements; all the LGBT movements that were happening at that time. From a photojournalist point of view, that’s what caught my eye. The outside view was not inclusive and accepting but once you got into the door, you were in a different world."

What kept you photographing clubs until the late 70’s?

"Looking back on it, disco was really a fad. It was something that all of a sudden, took over the culture. Rock radio stations overnight turned into all disco— major rock bands started dipping into disco. Style grew out of this disco craze which resulted in a lot of different styles mixed together. If you look at the history of New York City during the mid to late 70's, it was a really bad time— New York city was near broke, there were garbage strikes and trans strikes and the city was told to drop dead when they asked for money from the general government. Artists flocked from all over the world to New York City because it was cheap and these people ended up at discos at night. So, the fashions and environment they created was extremely creative."

How did people in the nightclub react to you as a photographer?

"I never ever had someone tell me, 'Don’t take my photograph.' I wasn't going on special 'party' nights that were celebrity only where paparazzi would be expected. I considered myself to be more of a portrait photographer, so I decided my focus was going to be on the regulars that went there as to me, they were the most interesting."

Were there any regulars within the club that particularly stood out to you?

"There was a women named Disco Sally, who was about 78 years old. She and her husband were both lawyers—he had passed away a few years earlier and she was broken hearted. One night someone suggested that she should go to Studio 54. She was about five-foot tall, grey hair but full of life and very spunky. She ended up having a great time at Studio 54 and became a regular there. Celebrities, would end up lining to dance with her."

How did the exhibition with the Museum of Sex come about?

"When my book—Disco came out last November, the curator of the Museum of Sex approached me with a lot of interest in this era of New York City and the sexual revolution within the time. At first, they used one of my photographs for their subway advertisements. Then, we had a meeting where they discussed the idea of the exhibition. Initially, I felt that it was a little off course for my work, as they wanted to focus on the sexuality, which wasn’t necessarily my main focus. However, I felt that was also an interesting side element to it as this was a subcultural norm that was happening within these clubs that weren’t happening anywhere in the mainstream culture. I worked with them particularly on the choice of images. My goal was to create an environment where you would walk off the New York City streets in 2016 and end up in a club that looks and feels like 1977 or 1978."

Amongst the pictures within the exhibit, is there any particular one you carry a special attachment to?

"There’s one picture that was taken at Studio 54 of five people in a couch—four guys and one women. The men are all crowded around her, and she looks like the Queen Bee, and the men are her drones. She just looks like the Queen of the hive. To me, that’s one of the very first images I took and it had a real impact on me because they're so interesting to look at, yet they are there to be seen and watch—It’s this tiny little freeze of people at the club that night."

Does this exhibition carry a lot of nostalgia for you?

"This really is very nostalgic for this because theres so many people involved in this project that had contributed and are really dedicated towards that time. So there’s a lot of additional knowledge you can learn from that era that was written by people about that time."

When people come and see the exhibition, what do you hope they leave with?

"There’s going to be shock value when they see some of the photographs. When I show my book to millennials, the main comment I get is that people wish they were alive during that time. During that late 70's period, there was a lot of homophobia out there, and clubs were a form of escapism from the reality. I think people will gain a lot of knowledge in terms of what the era was about and to see what made it so incredibly unique in New York’s history. It was, in many ways, a sneak peek of the inclusiveness that became part of mainstream American culture."

Night Fever: New York Disco 1977-1979, The Bill Bernstein Photographs is currently running until February 19, 2017 at the Museum of Sex, 233 Fifth Avenue.





She’s the designer who had girls covered in temporary tattoos, whilst holding bouquets of cauliflower at her debut show. NATALIE CHUI interviews Carmen Chan to find out why everyone’s abuzz about this breakout fashion designer for #LOVE.

Carmen Chan basting a quilt with the words "peaked last year" doodled on. Photo:Natalie Chui

“Do you want to cut my hair?” is not the question you would expect to hear on a Tuesday night in the middle of Central Saint Martin’s fashion studios. But sure enough, amidst surrounding BA final year Fashion Print students, one of them, Carmen Chan or Channers, as she labels herself, is asking me to cut her hair. “Do you trust me?” Not really sure what sort of response to expect. She disappears for a few seconds and reappears with a pair of proper hair dressing scissors and a yellow comb. “Just cut a straight line above my eyebrows” as she points to her Rei Kawakubo-esque bob and draws a line over her fringe. “Don’t worry, I like the choppy look.” At this point, despite knowing Channers for roughly three months now, it’s still an unexpected act as she throws the weight of her hair literally into my hands. None-the-less, her charm is infectious and I begin cutting her fringe.

Walking into the fashion studios is a busy environment, with designers covering every inch, its an area where you suddenly become much more conscious of your movements, as to not disturb anyone. However, walking to Channers’s table, you begin to feel yourself loosen up and the rush seems hardly present. “I only work in the studios,” Channers tells me, in her low, monotonous voice. “I try to never bring my work home.” For most designers, their lives revolve around the studio but with Channers there’s a clear sense that her life isn’t always inside. We often meet towards the evening and most times, once the day is finished, Channers is off to a different occasion in the night, one night its to the V&A to meet up with her best friend Liam, with whom she shares her table in the studios with, the other its dinner with a “sort-of boyfriend” that she’s casually dating. “So far, I’ve never stayed until 10PM, maybe 8 and that’s it.” A rare statement heard in the design studios, when the closing time is 10PM.

Whenever we meet, Channers is always surrounded by at least one of her friends. Whether its fellow print student Amy, who modeled her first line-up or Maddy, an American studying fashion communications, it becomes apparent that Channers, despite her constant denial, is popular. At her first line-up, every model she used, was a friend. Thus, the title of her collection “These are my girls”, to which she always excitedly announces before presentation. Ironically, the one time where she isn’t with her friends, is when we meet to discuss her collection, which is to be modeled by friends only. “It’s a time capsule of my time at CSM, the people I’ve met and been with.” Her sketchbooks are riddled with scribbles and colour pencil markings. There are family photographs of her, at 6 years old grinning in a lycra swimsuit. “I looked a lot at the swimwear I wore in the past as a child.” Her final year collection re-imagines the multi-coloured Speedo swimsuits of her childhood, but with the grown-up mind of Channers’s current self. A polyester one piece is left with one breast fully exposed, whereas another bikini bottom is designed to leave the ties hanging vertically center. “It’s about girls who are a bit overgrown but still need to grow up.” It does bear a funny image picturing womanly figures in scantly clad bikini tops, but Channers is turning the sexual nature of her outfits away from the male mediatized gaze with her own light-hearted, humorous vision. “Carmen’s the most blasé person I know”, Liam remarks to me after a line-up that Channers regarded as “ok”, and there’s a universal feeling amongst her cohort that she’s the “one to watch”.

Channers is Malaysian and lived in both Malaysia and Hong Kong before coming to the UK, where she is on a scholarship that finances her final year. She isn’t just a natural visualizer, but she’s also incredibly intellectual, articulately conversing about English literature, in particularly “favourite” Ray Bradbury and Shel Silverstein.

Channers explains to me that Shibori, a Japanese tie-dyeing technique that manipulates material into shapes, heavily inspired her. She’s created her own version of Shibori, which doesn’t require sewing, combining multiple pleats to have the effect of a ripple in water. She disregards it as “quite basic”, though it is an arduous 45-minute process that requires two people, including her helper Ella, to complete. It involves stretching polyester over a board and stapling it down to keep shape. It’s easier written than done, as Channers has to physically repel the elasticity of the fiber. A lined plastic screen is applied over the polyester as the most integral ingredient, gloss, is spread over a wide scraper. The shortage of gloss over Easter caused her a one-week delay. The scraper is pulled over the table horizontally, scraping any remaining gloss into its pot. The screen is removed and linen is slowly rolled over the glossed polyester. The process is finished the next morning as the gloss dries overnight, resulting in large Shibori quilts. Anything else is digitally printed, a much quicker procedure where Channers photoshops her doodles together, and sends them to the digital laboratory for it to be printed onto polyester.

All the models from Carmen Channers' BA final year collection "These are my girls" in a picture shot for her lookbook by friend Gareth Wrighton

Every time Channers has to present her work to the tutors, the mood is surprisingly light. Her models fill the atmosphere with laughter as they share tidbits about tinder dates and pull faces in photos. Her work is often met with praise, especially from head of BA fashion, Willie Walters, who is sponsoring half of the materials of her collection, and if anything to go wilder. During the internal assessments, her models wave their quilts in the air, parading their juvenile spirit. As the press list is revealed, Channers has made it, though this is no surprise to anyone who knows her. Instead of being in the studios, she’s at her Dalston home, sleeping. “You guys are all going to be walking!” she types to her friends. Whether Channers goes on to complete an MA or joins a design house, she undeniably has the support from the community of friends that she’s unknowingly built.

Interview published in No Budget Magazine

NATALIE CHUI meets UK singer and producer Kelly Lee Owens to discuss her “longer” route to music and why there’s something wrong about “Doing It Yourself”.

Kelly Lee Owens photographed in Sister Ray Records by Jeffrey Pangpuithipong for No Budget

"My name means warrior”, Kelly Lee Owens tells me thirty minutes into our conversation. It’s a strong statement but one that is telling of Owen’s character. It’s a bank holiday morning and she greets me with such a strong sense of self-awareness, its equivalent to the caffeine in the black coffee she’s sipping. We meet inside Hoi Polloi, a restaurant steps away Sister Ray, the accompanying record store to the Ace Hotel where she works two days a week. When she isn’t at Sister Ray, the indie-electronica singer and producer is busy in the studio, set to drop her debut album this September. With two singles out, and four festivals to play this summer, this is undoubtedly a busy period in her life.

Owens music has been making sound waves for her unconventional musical style in which she fuses synths, electronica and pop together. At first chord, her music is fearless and almost intimidating, but fuelled with raw emotion and power, something Owens has learned to gain over the past few years. Currently, she is signed to record label Not On Label, and has taken a very “modest route”. Experiences with “decent” record labels that were wishy-washy over signing her has made Owens realise the inauthenticity within the music industry. “When someone is so genuinely interested in what you do, there's this extra mile that they go and that is all that you can ask for.” Rather than sign a master rights deal, which is more typical, she’s signed a licensing deal, which allows her complete ownership over her master rights. Owens controls all her music, a rarity in an industry that is subjected as transparent. Her creative control over her music led to her being asked to curate the soundtrack for the Alexander McQueen AW’16 show in London, an homecoming for the brand. The soundtrack, a chilling homage to 80’s New York composer Arthur Russell, set the tone for the show and proved that Owens’ step back into focusing entirely over her music does indeed pay off.

Born in the humble coast of North Wales, Owens grew up in a tiny village where “everyone knows everyone else.” She was brought up in a family in which hard work was championed. “My mum never spoiled us, I don’t think she could afford to in a sense.” From a young age, Owens began working, starting as a waitress at fourteen. After meeting friends who were involved in the “2006/2007 indie scene”, Owens’ interest in music developed. “They would put on nights in Manchester and talk to me about the scene there. I was so intrigued by people just putting on shows of bands they wanted to see. They made it happen.” Initially starting out helping selling merchandise, Owens moved to Manchester after school and eventually came to London, where she gained work experience at XL Recordings and a job at Pure Groove, where she met Ghost Culture and Daniel Avery. Despite being in a choir back in Wales, which “immensely” helped her voice, Owens was still unsure of how to produce music. “I couldn't read music or anything like that,” she recalls. “So I guess it took me a long time to figure out and gain the confidence to get to the point where I would write anything."

For Owens, it’s the creative process that really reflects the sound she produces. “I do genuinely sample a lot of music on my iPhone,” she tells me when we first meet as we discuss my methodology of recording our interview on a Dictaphone. Technology and social media, though the subject of major critique in society for developing antisocial behaviour and glamourising staggering high prices, is something that Owens uses to her advantage. “Technology is your friend, it’s allowed people like me to put music on Soundcloud.”

Though she doesn’t receive an advance, her label finances all her recordings. Despite this, Owens is frank and acknowledges that lack of money, especially within London can be “bloody difficult”, yet there are still less limitations. “It’s a pool for meeting likeminded people.” London is a difficult place for an artist to work in, with rising rents and lack of governmental support for arts and culture, so it’s not an easy path, but as Owens comments “it never is though”. Even as we meet, Owens is clad in an outfit all directly bought from charity shops. “I've had two videos I’ve released, they might not be the best things I ever do but one of them is made from no money at all, second one was made from two hundred and fifty quid and we had so much fun,” she adds with a truthful nod.

Owens is refreshingly bold, but with reason. A lot of her pathway to music comes from Owens’ initiative to learn by herself and take the first step. She’s been branded as a “DIY” artist, a spirit in which she embodies but also holds some weariness to. "One thing I've realised is that there's something about "DIY” which is wrong, in a sense of the title,” She addresses, looking at me directly in the eye. “If it wasn't for other people, I wouldn’t be where I am. You're never by yourself and it’s about being open to other people, but of course, you are the driving force.” Building this network of people who can support her has become a big part of her career and her music. In the music industry, where success stories of singers rising to stardom overnight are often idealised and aspired, Owens is in contrast, slowing down the process. “I didn't rush anything even though I'm impatience in one sense, which is why I put out my two EP's myself. I'm not going to wait around for someone to tell me that my work isn't good enough. I feel it is and I'm going to put it out there.”


Freelance Journalist & Content Editor