Indie documentary ‘Love Is in the Legend’ displays how fashion came to know Voguing

The recent documentary ‘Love Is in the Legend by Myra Lewis, a former Patricia Field buyer and salesperson, explores the 1988 seminal downtown event ‘A Ball to Remember’ also spearheaded by Lewis, which introduced Seventh Avenue to the competitive dance culture, thus helping its trajectory into popular culture spoke with Lewis, the film’s producer, director, writer, and music supervisor about the self-funded indie project, which is currently streaming on platforms such as Amazon Prime, YouTube Video, Apple TV, and Google TV in three languages, with a fourth soon to come. The film includes current-day interviews with Marc Jacobs, Patricia Field, model Connie Fleming, and ball cohorts JoJo Americo, Steven Perfidia Kirkham, Richard Alvarez, and House of Magnifique’s Cesar Valentino. Lewis shared how the movie came to be in person at recent New York house music dance parties (seemingly resurging, according to this reporter) and over the phone.

“This film is the missing link to how ballroom came to popular culture,” Lewis said.She recalled that about seven years ago, when she researched the topic via publications, books, the internet, and television, the former Patricia Field employee who co-founded the ‘House of Patricia Field’ felt the narrative neglected to convey the role of the boutique factually.

For context, it’s vital to understand the store’s role in merging uptown and downtown, fashion and nightlife at that time. Patricia Field was a seminal 1980s clubwear-centric store on 8th Street in Greenwich Village, once known for its array of trendy shoe stores and eclectic fashion.The store had a private label collection, the preeminent body-con dancewear of the day. Designed by Richie Cruz—who also worked in the showroom where Pat Field wholesaled her infamous clear backpacks—the line took cues from traditional girdle material and sexed it up. Mesh miniskirts, halter bras with wide elastic bands, leggings, and biker shorts made for the dance floor predated Skims by about 40 years. The store also pioneered sportswear and ski-inspired looks for the Avant Garde set. After discovering the New York nightlife scene, Lewis found her way to the boutique while working at the Palladium. ​She met Pat Field at the Paradise Garage where she convinced the retailer to hire her on the spot. Growing up in upstate New York, Lewis felt repressed and sought an inviting space to express her creativity. She found this and a like-minded community at the legendary Paradise Garage nightclub, where house music legend Larry Levan presided at the DJ booth. “Paradise Garage was an underground members-only club that didn’t serve alcohol. It was the antithesis of Studio 54. It wasn’t about glitz and glamour, but it was hardcore for people who could dance for 10-12 hours,” she noted that the celebrity crowd was also much different—think Grace Jones, Keith Haring, Madonna, and Eddie Murphy versus Cher, Halston, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger, who frequented the legendary Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager nightclub.

It was there she met the dancer Danni Xtravaganza— who invited her to walk at Uptown Harlem balls—and other competitors from houses such as Xtravaganza, LaBeija, and Pendavis, who competed at Harlem’s Elks Lodge, a scene that was recreated on Pose. Lewis practiced Voguing in the backrooms of the shop with co-workers who joined her in the competitions vying for trophies.”It was underground in Harlem. It was a place to find community and be free with your expression; it wasn’t the MTV scene. The common ground of the Paradise Garage was where the ball kids, Pat Field kids, and Keith Haring pop-shop kids met and came together,” she said, noting that even Levan was connected to the balls.”I found it beautiful. I experienced alienation and needed very much to belong. In the 80s, balls were not fashionable, trendy, clubbish, or even on the downtown club kid radar as an activity or scene. This was fierce, serious competition. While Harlem house members hailed from all over New York and New Jersey, ballroom was not a phenomenon anyone sought out if they did not belong to those communities,” she added.Lewis would emcee the first downtown debut ball at The World nightclub with her Pat field crew, which earned trophies and formed their own house with the blessing of Harlem house parents such Pepper Labeija, Mother Angie Xtravaganza, and Mother Avis Pendavis who also served as judges. In the meantime, Paradise Garage ended on September 27, 1987. The film festival award-winning documentary centers on Lewis’ idea to commemorate the first anniversary of its closing with a downtown ball. Americo was crucial to the project as he discovered archival footage of the six-and-a-half-hour event and was equally enthusiastic about documenting the House of Field’s place in ball history.  “I only found spurious mentions of the House of Field and our Harlem Red-era status despite our involvement documented and credited in pop culture features like Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 song ‘Deep in Vogue’ and Jennie Livingston’s ‘Paris is Burning’, both of which post-dated both our first and second downtown balls of 1988,” said Lewis of her research finds.

The 109-minute film centered around the event that featured iconic judges from the fashion community, such as Andre Leon Talley, Betsey Johnson, Mary McFadden, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, and photographer Steven Meisel. Judge Debbie Harry is seen wearing Stephen Sprouse clothing and revelling with Willi Ninja, a preeminent Voguer. “It is stunning to grasp the magnitude of Seventh Avenue luminaries and ballroom icons present together for the first time in history under one roof in just a rustic raw space on Grand Street. The electricity of a communal atmosphere of acceptance ignited as uptown, downtown, and club culture converged to witness and experience freedom,” Lewis recalls of the event. Field, who had worked in the business since the mid-1960s, counted the design community in attendance as colleagues and friends. Exclusive versions of Johnson’s designs were carried at the store.”I would go to the showroom with Pat, and after being shown the collection, we would make changes to pieces for our order; remove a strap here or shorten a skirt,” Lewis recalled distinguishing between the downtown store and the fashion district. “For Seventh Avenue, we were the freaks, but we were the cool kids,” she added. Walking in the ball in the ‘banjee realness category’ was Marc Jacobs along with his pal, former Vogue editor and stylist Elizabeth Saltzman. The late designer David Spada, most known for his Freedom rainbow-flag ring sets, walked in his chainmail designs. Initially in the audience, model Veronica Webb jumped out of her seat to ‘compete’ with former model and artist Lysa Cooper on the runway. DJ Johnny Dynell created the soundtrack, and the New York Philharmonic did a rendition of ‘Love is the Message’ while the audience, such as Lauren Bacall and Cookie Mueller, took it all in. 

Malcolm McLaren—the multi-hyphenate impresario who could claim musician, visual artist, fashion designer, and music manager on his CV—was also a judge and witnessed his first ball at the 1988 Grand Street event. Lewis recalled receiving flowers from McLaren the next day at the boutique, congratulating the young mastermind. McLaren was introduced to Ninja there as well.”Malcolm immediately joined forces with Willi and another dancer, Cesar Valentino, to create the ‘Deep in Vogue’ song and global tour. I heard the song about a week later, and my voice in the background calling out the ten scores from the judges,” said the director.”It was the first ball to be mentioned in Page Six,” she also pointed out, referring to the infamous New York Post gossip column. For Lewis, a board-certified emergency medicine physician, mother of two girls, living in Connecticut, creating the film was a full-circle experience. “I birthed this film from the same need to free myself from the confines of societal expectations and a sense of confinement imposed by the norms to do what is expected of someone of a certain age and education. In doing the interviews, licensing, and editing work, I found my community again, opened up my voice, and stood in my authentic power to forge through obstacles and be free again,” she reflected. To wit, Lewis will be a judge at The Coldest Winter Ball hosted by the House of Alpha Omega, partnered with Google over President’s Day weekend. A lot has changed since the early days of ballroom; for instance, corporate sponsorships have helped turn the culture into an international multimillion-dollar business. Lewis says the ball culture’s origins align with today’s inclusive atmosphere.  “Shade was real. You had to earn your way, but people were accepting. Dance and music break down barriers, and fashion influences how you wish to express yourself. This acceptance came together in New York’s underground scene,” she explained. Indeed, the same sentiment, and one that resonates today, was expressed in the 1988 song ‘Can You Feel It’ by Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers of Fingers, Inc., in these lyrics:”Jack boldly declared: ‘Let there be house’, and house music was bornI am you see; I am the creator, and this is my houseAnd in my house, there is only house musicBut I am not so selfish because once you enter my houseIt then becomes our house and our house musicYou may be black; you may be white; you may be Jew or GentileIt don’t make difference in our house.”

Indie documentary 'Love Is in the Legend' displays how fashion came to know Voguing

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