Walking into China Chalet on a Friday night, you might've spied Telfar Clemens inadvertently rubbing elbows with model Dara Allen on the dance floor, seen Vaquera designers Claire Sullivan and Patric DiCaprio behind the DJ table or noticed Luar creator Raul Lopez in the line for the bathroom while model Seashell Coker lounged at a red light-bathed table. But whether you recognized anyone around you or not, the people you were seeing would almost certainly be the tastemakers helping define what "cool" looks like in this decade of New York history.
That's why this unassuming Chinese restaurant's shutdown, announced earlier this month, provoked such social media sorrow from New York's young fashion set. One of the many casualties of the pandemic, China Chalet's closing represents the end of an era.
Leon first started going to parties at China Chalet in 2001, he says, when artist Glynnis McDaris invited him to an event there. Just a few years later, Leon and his business and design partner Carol Lim began hosting Opening Ceremony's Christmas parties at China Chalet, a tradition they repeated year after year. The venue started to feel so much like home that Leon threw Lim's 40th birthday bash there.
"[There were] male strippers in tow as well as an ice sculpture tequila shot luge in the the shape of a penis," Leon remembers. "This was a special night."
That combination of humor and anything-goes-ism is what characterized many of the events that took place at China Chalet, regardless of who was hosting the party. According to Juliana Huxtable, an artist, performer and model who frequently deejayed events at China Chalet, part of the appeal was the space itself — the fact that guests could smoke inside; the combination of tables to sit and talk with friends but also plenty of room to dance; the mirrored hallway leading to the dance floor. But it was also about the ethos of doing all that in a place that functioned as a rather mundane dim sum restaurant during the day.
"It sustain[ed] a beautiful merger of secrecy, glamor and smoky sweaty pissy grit," Huxtable says in an email. As a DJ who found her footing at LES, Chinatown and Bushwick raves, Huxtable says it felt right for her to play on China Chalet's "sort-of-shitty sound system in a party of hyped, exquisite aesthetes."
Huxtable first started attending parties at China Chalet in the early 2010s, when Sex Magazine and "other young cultural aggregators" began hosting events there. But it wasn't until a group called the Glam Collective started throwing their Club Glam parties in 2016 that the space found its "fullest iteration," she says.
Glam Collective is the name that Dese Escobar, Fiffany Luu and Kyle Luu gave themselves, and while it's hard to pin any of the multi-hyphenate trio down to just one job, their combined fashion cred is impressive: Kyle Luu styled Solange for the Met Gala, and the three of them have done creative work for brands like Nike and Balenciaga. Club Glam was largely Escobar's brainchild, and the parties — promoted through Glam Collective's memorable Instagram "Glampaigns" — quickly became the place to be for New York's up-and-coming fashion and art scene.
"It was a specific night where people got to wear their best looks," Escobar says on the phone.
Beyond the good 'fits, she notes, Club Glam parties at China Chalet also became a place for building real connection with likeminded creatives. When Glam Collective announced that China Chalet was closing, Escobar says she was flooded with messages from people saying that they'd met dear friends and romantic interests there. It also served as a source of professional connections within the industry.
"It became a form of networking and it created a lot of collaborations," Escobar explains, giving the example of a photographer and model meeting at Club Glam and beginning to work together. "It became a form of inspiration or exchange between the fashion community and people who existed in downtown New York."
What was perhaps most remarkable was that even though China Chalet became such a notable spot that it was capable of drawing huge names — Timothée Chalamet, Cardi B and Naomi Campbell were just a few who passed through its doors; and Pat McGrath hosted a party with Vogue there — it somehow remained a genuinely welcoming space for kids who took the subway to get there, had never owned designer goods and knew they'd need to save up a bit to make sure they had the $15 or so cover charge come Saturday night.
"There was no sort of politics at the door; we left all of that behind. It created a safe space for everybody to come out, get dressed in their best looks and just enjoy their night," Kyle Luu says.
At their best, Club Glam parties at China Chalet provided a gathering space and creative outlet for people who genuinely love capital-F Fashion without the side of exclusivity and "you're not cool enough so you're not welcome here" vibe that can accompany many fashion week events or shows. In one night you might have seen someone wearing head-to-toe Telfar and someone else wearing a head-to-toe green screen suit. Both were welcome.
Though parties at China Chalet are ending, Glam Collective wants the spirit of Club Glam and parties like it to continue to exist even if they have to take place in a different venue after the pandemic is over. To support the ongoing health of NYC's nightlife scene and those instrumental in creating it, Glam Collective has partnered with photographer Wolfgang Tillmans on a project called Support Nightlife NYC, which is raising funds through August 10 by selling posters by artists like Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar. All the proceeds will benefit queer nightlife creators. Glam Collective is also working on creating its own merch, set to launch at a yet-to-be-announced date.
Whatever the future of nightlife in New York looks like, its trajectory — and the trajectory of fashion as a whole — has undoubtedly been influenced by the scene that China Chalet and Club Glam fostered. The legacy created by both is worth remembering.
"Glam separated and unleashed the joy, wit and audacious romanticism of fashion from joyless careerism and body fascism of the industry itself," says Huxtable. "It was libidinal excess and editorial joy."