Dom Orejudos was a boundary-pushing choreographer, ballet dancer, and illustrator with a penchant for leather
On Saturday, at LFW, JW Anderson added his name to a long list of brands staging co-ed runway shows. In his case, the move made perfect sense. The designer has always toyed with gender codes in clothing, particularly through his menswear offerings; it’s not unusual to see Anderson’s male muses dressed in stacked heels, cutaway sheaths, and tight, kinky-looking chokers.
The menswear looks in his AW18 show were comparatively muted, offering playful takes on classic uniforms, but one particular series of illustrated jumpers came imbued with a rich subcultural history. These illustrations were the work of late artist Dom Orejudos, also known by his pen name, ‘Etienne’. Born in Chicago in 1933, he and his long-term lover-slash-business partner Chuck Renslow became queer pioneers by drawing and lensing gay erotica which sexualised muscular, sharp-jawed, hyper-masculine subjects. At the time, Orejudos’ sexy illustrations were subversive; they challenged the pervasive link between heterosexuality and masculinity, flipping stereotypes of what ‘gay’ should look like.
In today’s world, this fetishisation of masculinity can have damaging repercussions in the form of misogyny, femme erasure and intense body-shaming but, in an era where the supposed ‘femininity’ of gay men was being weaponised against them, Orejudos’ work was bold, disruptive and partially responsible for the creation of ‘leather culture’. He also had some seriously cool friends – Tom of Finland, whose artworks were similarly rooted in the queering of hyper-masculinity, was famously part of his close circle.
Here, we break down everything you need to know about the transgressive artist.
HE STARTED OUT AS A BALLET DANCER
He may have eventually become best-known for his filthy, brilliant works of gay erotica, but Orejudos initially began his career as a ballet dancer. After studying at ballet school he received a slew of scholarships, and later went on to become resident choreographer at the Illinois Ballet Company, whilst simultaneously working for dozens of other clients.
Orejudos even staged his own ballet for a Chicago radio station, landing three Emmy Awards in the process; in the context of the notoriously conservative ballet industry, this achievement was no small feat. This glittering career is also reportedly the reason for his pen names ‘Stephen’, his middle name, and ‘Étienne’, its French equivalent – coined to shield him from controversy.
HIS ART CAREER STARTED WHEN HE TAPPED INTO ‘PHYSIQUE CULTURE’
It’s no secret that past decades haven’t been kind to LGBTQ+ communities worldwide, but censorship and state-sanctioned discrimination often led to some impressively pragmatic results. ‘Physique culture’ is one example; as early as the 1930s, bodybuilder magazines with extremely sexual overtones became a stand-in for gay porn, which at that point was illegal. Depicting oiled-up men in G-strings and the occasional flash of bare buttocks, these magazines were readily available and were used by gay men until – and even after – gay porn became legal in the 1960s.
In 1953, Orejudos became part of this scene when Irv Johnson, the owner of his regular gym, gave the artist a chance to contribute drawings to his own physique magazine, Tomorrow’s Man. Orejudos quickly developed an aesthetic signature rooted in tight leather that was stretched over rippling muscles, and usually teamed with a policeman’s helmet or a sailor cap.
HE HELPED SHAPE CHICAGO’S LEATHER SCENE
Salacious testimonies scattered across the internet fondly remember Chicago’s leather scene of the late 1950s. Alongside lover and business partner Renslow, Orejudos helped to build this scene through his involvement with the Gold Coast, a leather and S&M bar which offered gay men a space to come together and bond, and whose ‘Mr. Gold Coast’ leather contest eventually went international. They also founded Kris Studios – named after Christine Jorgensen, the first famous trans woman in the U.S. – which published a slew of leather magazines.
Orejudos was famously a leather fan himself, and was often photographed wearing it. But the importance of bars like the Gold Coast stemmed from more than mere fetish; LGBTQ+ communities have always had their sex lives heavily policed and often criminalised. This wasn’t just about fetish or fucking – in a pre-Stonewall age in particular, these rare spaces were about freedom.
HE FLIPPED STEREOTYPES AND CHALLENGED MASCULINITY
The reason Orejudos’ sexed-up leather boys are still being celebrated today is that they flipped the assumption that heterosexuality and masculinity are always linked. The men in his illustrations are hyper-muscular, their arms inflated to gigantic proportions and their dicks big enough to destroy even the most experienced sexual partner. These were parodies of masculinity with a sexy, tongue-in-cheek twist: it’s this disruptive attitude that earned him a reputation as a true queer trailblazer.
The reason they’re still being celebrated by Anderson is that his work shoots for the same aims; like Orejudos, the designer aims to disrupt, poke fun and gently subvert the idea that masculine men should be straight and that femininity should be reserved for women. By playing at the most extreme ends of the gendered spectrum – Orejudos’ masc leather boys at one end, and Anderson’s sensual androgynes at the other – the two throw everything we think we know about gender, sexuality and their presumed aesthetic links into disarray.
HIS LIFE WAS TAKEN BY AIDS
Orejudos continued to create work but lost much of his archive to a flood in the 1970s. A decade later, he contracted pneumonia on a trip to Tibet and saw his health deteriorate rapidly – this process was accelerated by AIDS, which ultimately led to his death in 1991. He was just 58 years old.
It can be easy to forget that today’s queer youth lost an entire generation of role models to the insidious virus. Treatment has improved dramatically – antiretroviral therapy and landmark drugs now make it possible for HIV+ patients to reduce their viral load to ‘undetectable’ – but the artists and pioneers whose lives it claimed shouldn’t be forgotten. Thanks to fashion provocateurs like JW Anderson, it becomes increasingly likely they won’t be.