In the wake of Gareth Pugh’s LFW Judy Blame Ball, we asked some of the scene’s figures to explain what Ballroom means to them
Earlier this year the fashion community lost Judy Blame: one of the greatest mentors and tastemakers of our time. He was definitively London, and so when London Fashion Week came around it made sense that one of his disciples – Gareth Pugh – had to think of a way to honour this loss. It couldn’t simply be a show with a name-check on the press release. It had to be spectacular.
And so, with the help of his friend and collaborator, brilliant voguer and father of the house of Milan, Benjamin Milan, Pugh invited the London Ballroom scene to throw a ball in honour of the spirit of Judy Blame. A spirit which, in fact, shares many of the same key tenets as the world of Ballroom.
“We wanted the event to feel like an anarchic high mass,” explains Pugh. “Judy was uncompromising, ungovernable and fiercely anti-establishment. He was a creative extremist. He came up in the 80s and 90s where much of culture was moving toward the shallow and the acquisitive. Dumbed-down, debased and dissociated from its primary purpose: creative expression. Judy was a counterpoint to that, and we wanted to honour that with this tribute.”
“I never got to meet him,” says Milan, “but I went to his exhibition at the ICA, and I loved it. I think his whole ethos with DIY and just being rebellious and outspoken about what he believes in is very much connected to what ballroom is about: being unapologetically yourself and embracing who you are, regardless of your race, gender identity, or social background.”
“Voguing is a mode of expression for people living on the hard edge of society. It's like a family, and it's a place where exceptionalism emerges from the shadows, where, with little resources, people strive for creative excellence” – Gareth Pugh
Fashion and Ballroom, too, have always been bedfellows: “I think there have been natural collaborations between fashion and Ballroom always, and in the ballroom scene in London it's nice to have this overlap to introduce us because we're an underground culture,” adds Milan, before Pugh explains the different sides of the scene.
“We already had an understanding of the Ballroom scene as an aspirational space, but we learned quickly that there's really two aspects to it – the more commercial side that is often picked up or co-opted in mainstream culture, and then the more important side, that acts as a mode of expression for people living on the hard edge of society. It's like a family, and it's a place where exceptionalism emerges from the shadows, where with little resources, people strive for creative excellence. I could say the same about Judy and his creative family. When you take away money and labels, that is what London is about.”
And so, last Saturday night at the Old Selfridges Hotel, after a colossal show – for which Milan had also been brought on to instruct models and people from the Ballroom scene how to work their looks – the Judy Blame Ball ensued. DivaD, Jay Jay Revlon and Karteer Mugler, Harli West, and Kartel Garçon sat on the panel, alongside Munroe Bergdorf and Gareth Pugh himself. Matyouz LaDuree was brought in from the Paris scene to MC, while DJ Loffe Ninja from the House of Ninja flew in from Sweden.
It was, unsurprisingly, a smash, praising the spirit of Blame, of Ballroom, of Gareth Pugh, and of London all at once. And as the scene grows, here we meet some of the London Ballroom scene’s key players.
Category: New Way
What is voguing to you?
Benjamin Milan: Voguing is really about confidence. Owning who you are and being proud of who you are. So when you come on the floor it is about presentation.
So it's not necessarily about the perfect moves?
Benjamin Milan: Absolutely not.
How do you honour voguing in this cross over to fashion?
Benjamin Milan: I think it's really about involving the community. When I started voguing it was something I did on the side and something that I did for me. It was really personal to me. I started voguing before I came out, so it really helped me with my transition. The whole story, the background, everything. I moved to New York to learn from the city’s icons and legends – being a cisgender white gay man from Sweden, it was really important for me to do. My first job in London was the week I moved back here, for a fashion brand that wanted 10 voguers. I was the only voguer out of the 10, the others were commercial dancers. Moving on from that, when I've had the opportunity to, I've tried to bring real people from the Ballroom scenes in New York and Paris and elsewhere into things.
It’s times like these, when I have an opportunity to do so that I try to bring in the ballroom scene from New York and London, and other places too.
And what about voguing’s American heritage, how do you honour that in London?
Benjamin Milan: When you get so much from the community in America, and see the way these people – who have been through so much – turn their struggles and their personal experiences into something beautiful, then I think the best way to honour that is to learn the foundations and make it your own – not just copy it.
What’s the European Ballroom, and particularly London’s scene like?
Benjamin Milan: The biggest scene in Europe is in Paris and I feel like it’s like the heartbeat for the rest of the scenes. There are established scenes in Holland, Berlin, Scandinavia, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, and Russia is huge, which is really interesting. In the last three or four years, it's really had a boom. In the UK specifically on the ballroom scene, there's four or five main houses. There's the House of West, which used to be the House of Khan, there's the House of Milan, House of Revlon and House of Commes de Garçon, and there are also people from the House of Aviance, the House of Ninja, the House of Amazon, and the House of Prodigy. There's a lot of houses represented, but I feel like the scene here is still young and we are slowly but steadily growing. There's people in the Ballroom scene who are 007, too, which means you are not in a house.
Category: Old Way and Female Figure Performance
What are the most important traditions when it comes to voguing?
divaD: Know your foundations when it comes to voguing, no matter what style of performance you are giving. Make sure to show your understanding of ‘grace, precision, and style’, and know the importance of striking and hitting a pose. Tell a story when you are performing, because voguing is literally a vocabulary and a conversation. Ensure you have great musicality and control, because it's all about how you play around with the sounds coming from the DJ and commentator. Voguing is about knowing how to multitask: you’re listening to the DJ, listening to the commentator, watching your opponent, using your head to be creative and strategic with your movements, and, last but not least, selling face.
How does ballroom and fashion mix?
divaD: The culture itself is very much inspired and intertwined with fashion, not just the vogue performance categories. From day one fashion played a key part in ballroom, with voguers taking inspiration from the way the models move and pose, and the garments they wear on the runway and on the covers of magazines. Ballroom takes inspiration from fashion in the way that, for every category, you must bring a look (an effect) that you’ve designed and created from scratch, or put together yourself – especially for categories like Runway, Designers' Delight and Bizarre, you have to have something that’s one of a kind. And don’t forget the names of the Ballroom Houses come from designers themselves – Saint Laurent, for example, or Balenciaga, Dior, and Yamamoto. Ballroom and fashion are not clashing for the first time. Look at The House of Field Ball in 1988, or Susanne Bartch’s Love Ball in 1989, to name just a few.
How do you keep a Ballroom space as safe as possible?
divaD: What’s important is that when you come into the Ballroom scene you are coming into our world and our space, and therefore you are a guest. There is a place for everyone, from spectators and competitors, to commentators and judges, but Ballroom has rules, regulations, traditions – a structure. As a guest coming into this world, the structure and the rules must be followed and respected, and that way everyone gets on, enjoys themselves – we have a successful function, and we all end up going home happy.
Category: Executive Realness
House: Comme des Garçon
What is your role within the House of Comme des Garçon? And what is the house known for?
KARTEL BROWN: I’m the European Prince, and my role is to help organise, mobilise, and build the European chapter by recruiting new members across the continent, and empower and support those already in the house. I work closely with our American family, particularly my personal Mother and overall overseer of the house, Twiggy Garçon, to make sure the culture and history is being preserved, respected and taught correctly. The House of Comme des Garçon is an international ballroom house that was founded based on the principles of fraternity, education advocacy, and professional growth. The House exercises these principles through the participation in ballroom competitions.
Can you describe what makes the London voguing scene unique? What sets it apart from other locations?
KARTEL BROWN: Our capacity to survive is what makes us unique. We are a self-organising community, with very little help or support from outsiders. Our scene provides a much needed inclusive and safe space, particularly for QTPOC and other marginalised people. It allows and enables us to own who we truly are without fear of persecution. For some it’s a lifeline. It’s about supporting and uplifting each other. At the end of the day, no one understands our challenges and struggles more than we do.
I don’t think there’s anything that necessarily sets us apart other scenes other than geographically. If anything it connects and unites us more closely with the international ballroom scene. Ballroom really is one big international family, you become close and make bonds with lots of different people around the world, even people from different houses. For some of us, it’s the closest thing we have to a real family.
How do you honour the houses around the world while you’re here in London?
KARTEL BROWN: First and foremost by learning and respecting the history and culture, and then by competing and bringing home a few trophies, of course.
What about when it comes to upholding the sacred traditions of vogueing when it merges with fashion?
KARTEL BROWN: First of all by making sure the right people are involved, people from the actual community. Time and time again we see brands trying to cash in on Vogue and taking short cuts by trying to do it by themselves, or asking commercial dancers with no ballroom credentials to vogue, and then we end up with cultural appropriation. Ultimately, It’s about making sure we remain the centrepiece and don’t become the accessory.
What does voguing mean to you?
KARTEL BROWN: Voguing means so many things to me, but ultimately it’s a fight, it’s performative anger and activism, and yeah, it’s political as fuck. It allows me to express myself with no apologies, it’s about visibility and it’s about FAMILY! Ballroom is not just about the actual voguing and the fashion. Members of our community still experience and face racism, homophobia and transphobia on a daily basis in a world run by white supremacists. In the 80s we had the Aids epidemic and today we have the epidemic of violence against trans people, particularly trans women of colour, who are being murdered at an alarming rate throughout the world. It’s a crisis that demands the world to take urgent action. As a white-passing queer man of colour, it is my duty to use my privileges to speak up for those within my community who don’t hold those same privileges – Ballroom allows and empowers me to do that.
JAY JAY REVLON
Category: Old Way and Vogue Fem
Can you explain what your categories mean?
JAY JAY REVLON: Old Way the OG style is characterised by the formation of lines, symmetry, and precision in the execution of formations with graceful, fluid-like action. Egyptian hieroglyphs and fashion poses serve as the original inspirations for Old Way voguing. In its purest, historical form, Old Way vogueing is a duel between two rivals. Traditionally, old way rules dictated that one rival must ‘pin’ the other to win the contest.
Vogue Fem (derived from the French word femme, meaning ‘woman’) is fluidity at its most extreme, with exaggerated feminine movements influenced by ballet, jazz and modern dance. Styles of Vogue fem performances range from Dramatics (which emphasises stunts, tricks, and speed) to Soft and Cunt (which emphasises a graceful, beautiful, and easy flow continuations between the five elements).
What’s the difference between London and other scenes around the world?
JAY JAY REVLON: The London scene doesn’t compare in my eyes. We follow the rules and guidance from our US house members and leaders, but communicate between each other. London isn’t in its own league, but we are different, just as every other country is. As a European Ballroom scene, we’re unique in our own way, but the thing that links us all is our need to bring crazy energy to whatever ball we’re at, wherever we are.
We talk about representation within the voguing community. What does this mean?
JAY JAY REVLON: For me, it means that I’m here, and I’m within a community.
What’s your role within the House of Revlon? What is the house known for?
JAY JAY REVLON: I belong to the iconic, international, legendary, unforgettable, undeniable House of REVLON, and we’re known for being such in many, many categories across the board. But we’re mostly known for being a family.
Finally, how do you feel voguing and fashion go together?
JAY JAY REVLON: Well, they’re inextricable. They always have, for many, MANY, years, and they always will. This relationship isn’t nothing new.