Can American Designers Ever Get Over Disco And Studio 54?

The New York nightclub Studio 54 opened from 1977 until 1980. It was, at its heyday, the epitome of hedonism and a hotbed of sexually-charged fashions. Thirty five years after it closed, Studio 54 continues to influence American designers. Often times, the club’s sexy, hang-loose, and attention-grabbing attitude feed the imprint of their DNA. It is as if the Seventies never left


Tom Ford SS 2016 P3You Should Be Dancing: Tom Ford’s fashion video for spring/summer 2016. Screen grab: Youtube

The Seventies is a distant past, but is it really behind us? Taste may have forgotten that decade, but designers certainly have not. The influence of the Seventies in the many years that came after was so relentless that until now, we’re still looking at the period as if Ali Magraw had not been dethroned as fashion icon. Like first love, the Seventies is hard to forget.

Similarly, Studio 54, the epicentre of the era, when nothing succeeded like access, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, has not left the collective memory of so many designers, especially those from or based in New York. Short-lived yet long remembered, Studio 54 was home to the styles and the antics so audacious for the time that many who had lived through it and those who have not, still want a piece of it. One memorable caper, however, turned out to be a fallacy, denting the club’s mythic standing: Bianca Jagger was reported to have arrived at Studio 54 on a white horse, but as she told the Financial Times in April this year, she had, in fact mounted a horse that was already there. “Mick Jagger and I walked into Studio 54,” she insisted.

With or without a white stud sending guests into the club, equally striking sequins and high shine took centrestage at Studio 54. Robert Isabell—the famed event planner and floral designer who conceptualised more than one Kennedy wedding—was so inspired by it all that he inundated the club’s floor at one New Year’s Eve party with four inches of glitter. That’s the height of heels! As Ian Schrager—one half of the duo that started the club in 1977—told the New York Times, it was “standing on stardust”..

Gucci by Tom Ford's images for AW 2004Louche luxe: Gucci by Tom Ford’s images for autumn/winter 1996/97. Photos: Gucci

Fast-forward to the present: Tom Ford’s fashion video for spring/summer 2016. It was published (and posted—YouTube, naturally) in place of a runway fashion show. While no stardust was sprinkled, the Nick Knight-directed video’s nod to the Seventies wouldn’t escape even those who have never felt the heat of Disco Inferno. The somewhat bare studio in which it was shot, as well as the overall monochrome does not betray the Soul Train inspiration. Flanked by dancers, the models sashayed on a catwalk of lit, moving oblongs to Lady Gaga’s remake of Chic’s I Want Your Love. The singer appears in the video too, dancing in her usual Mother Monster way, circa 2010. It is nothing like what you’ll see on an actual Tom Ford catwalk. It’s all very dedicated-to-the-Seventies-but-let’s-make-it-cooler.

Looking back has always been fashion’s fixation. While fashion tends to vacillate between then and now, increasingly it’s wedged in then and then. To interpret the past is really reliving the past. Tom Ford may have put out a video worthy of more than a million views, but it is hard to determine if the slick performance is salute or parody, or living a dream. Perhaps, it even warrants a “not again” since Mr Ford’s obsession with the Seventies goes back to the early years of his reign at Gucci.

When Kate Moss opened the Gucci autumn/winter 1996 season with smoky eyes, military coat, silk shirt unbuttoned to the naval, and wide-legged pants, you kind of knew what to expect. By the time those velvet suits came out, you’re clear where they would lead you to. As soon as the first of those six white, silk jersey dresses appeared in the end, the deal was sealed. Tom Ford’s adoration of the Seventies was, finally, homage to Halston, the disco-era fashion giant whose ultrasuede shirt-dresses and slinky silk jersey gowns won the admiration of the stars of the day such as Margaux Hemingway and Angelica Huston.

Studio 54 in New York06 Mar 1978: outside Studio 54. Photo © Michael Norcia/Sygma/Corbis

Halston’s legacy, as journalist Robin Givan rightly pointed out, is in Tom Ford, who revelled in the Halston aesthetic and projected himself to be a social prince akin to the nocturnal prince that Halston was. Tom Ford’s bearing pointed to Studio 54, the party central where Halston spent tremendous amount of time with his pals Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger. Tom Ford was still a student then, studying interior architecture at Parsons School of Design. He was also known to frequent Studio 54, where he danced out of the closet and was drawn to older men. It is not clear if he met Halston at all—he was more into trailing handsome Calvin Klein, but Halston’s persona and his glamorous clique had a profound effect on Tom Ford.

Studio 54 created an insatiable desire to party. It was a vortex that sucked people in—famous and not-at-all alike. The other regular was Marc Jacobs, who was reported to have had brought his high school books along in order to depart the club immediately the morning after for class. It wasn’t just the catchy danceable music; it was also the cohort, addled by cocaine, that made you feel mighty real, as sung with palpable delirium by Sylvester. Marc Jacobs was energised by what he saw, even when it was reportedly mostly debaucherous behaviour.

Although Marc Jacobs had leaned on the side of Seventies iconography in his post-grunge years, he pronounced “I heart Seventies” most fervently in his spring/summer 2011 collection. With frizzy hair and kohled eyes, the models strutted unto the catwalk as if just released from a Guy Bourdin shoot. While the close-to-peasant-dresses where a wink to Yves Saint Laurent, everything else could have been Studio 54 all over again, intensified for a social media-ready audience. It was all dressed up with, you sensed, somewhere to go… even if it that place existed only in memory.

Marc Jacobs SS 2011Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough: Marc Jacob’s spring/summer 2011 collection.

LV SS 2011 adHot stuff: Louis Vuitton’s ad campaign for spring/summer 2011. Photo: Louis Vuitton

Love can manifest itself as obsession. As if with his own show wasn’t enough, Marc Jacobs projected the vibe of the Seventies onto his advertising campaigns for Louis Vuitton as well. Lensed by Steven Meisel, the photographs showed models Kristen McMenamy, Freja Beha, and Raquel Zimmermann in set pieces that seemed to acknowledge the influence of the marketing of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume of 1977. The latter, shot in Saint Laurent’s own Rue de Babylone apartment—in the Buddha Room—by Helmut Newton, saw Jerry Hall ensconced in dim surroundings of plush cushions and cascades of white phalaenopsis. It hinted at nothing particularly Oriental or narcotic, but it did suggest a prelude to something carnal.

Marc Jacobs, installed at Louis Vuitton, had become one of the most feted designers in the world. He had no need to play down his love for a decade that spawned one of the most influential dance clubs of all time, even when a decade and a half earlier in Milan, a fellow American had grooved to a similar beat. He celebrated it—revisiting the visual excesses of the era, allowing artifice to override design. Is it a wonder then that some people think Marc Jacobs, like his compatriot Tom Ford, is more a talented stylist than a brilliant designer?

Studio 54, however, wasn’t the only club that made a mark during the peak of disco. Across the Atlantic, in Paris specifically, Le Palace was the discotheque du jour after the success of Le Sept, a spot that drew the glittery set of the Paris beau monde—both the brainchild of “Prince of the Night” Fabric Emaer. Housed in a 9th arrondissement theatre, Le Palace was opened a year after Studio 54 in 1978. While the latter was frequented by America’s top designers—Halston, Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, Le Palace was honoured by the best of Paris: Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Kenzo. And in place of Bianca Jagger riding a horse was a lithe Grace Jones singing La Vie En Rose astride a pink Harley!

Tom Ford SS 2016 P2I want your love: Lady Gaga in Tom Ford’s fashion video for spring/summer 2016. Screen grab: Youtube

Despite the excesses comparable to Studio 54’s, Le Palace did not have the same sway over French designers as Studio 54 did over the Americans. Yves Saint Laurent was influenced by pop culture, so did Karl Lagerfeld, but their work, unlike their New York counterparts’, was tempered by a tradition known as haute couture. Their designs, despite occasionally leaning towards the street, always had an air of elegance, a generous dose of refinement. Today, no French house banks on the sartorial derring-do of Le Palace to forge ahead.

Studio 54, as with most legends, died before its time was up. In 1980, owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were charged with tax evasion. Both pleaded guilty and were sent to 13 months in jail. On the club’s last night of operation, Diana Ross sang for the offenders. Thirty five years after the last dance, Studio 54 lives on in the hands of Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and countless others. As Gloria Gaynor sang hopefully in 1978, “I will survive.”