There have always been underground movements in New York, from punks to beatniks. Now comes a new one: “GHE20G0TH1K” is a subculture that, like many of the city’s most enduring fringe waves, encompasses a nightlife circuit and an inimitable sense of style—with a freedom of expression at its core.
At its most basic, GHE20G0TH1K—pronounced “ghetto gothic”—is an underground party, held in a raw New York club space every few weeks. Quickly, it has become one of the city’s coolest fêtes, playing home to a scene of new-wave tastemakers looking for an evening of uninhibited fun.
At a recent GHE20G0TH1K party, the room was filled with a crew of club kids who have merged hallmarks of athletic, urban, and Internet-inspired fashions into a single style, as downtown cult figures like the albino African-American model Shaun Ross circulated the dance floor. Among the wardrobe references in the crowd lay motocross, traditional Indian embellishments, and BDSM, which they mishmashed with the talent of seasoned Harajuku girls. Their ensembles incorporate dog collars, track pants, streetwear brand-logo sweatshirts, crop tops, bindis, racing jackets, and sometimes even those pale Die Antwoord–type contact lenses.
But GHE20G0TH1K is a whole lot more than just a party. It’s become a larger movement, with many of its adaptors using the name as an umbrella term for a style of dress, an attitude, and an overarching ideology. “It’s about having the access and power to be exactly what you want to be instead of having to fit a prescription or stereotype,” its founder, a DJ named Venus X, says of the movement’s appeal. “It’s a new world order, like punk for the street. “[GHE20G0TH1K] has caught on a lot because people have a need to be themselves, and a lot of people are frustrated by societal expectations.”
But it had small beginnings. Venus X founded GHE20G0TH1K in 2009, when the then–21-year-old New York DJ (born Jazmin Venus Soto), held the event in small Brooklyn bars. Word spread in the last four years, and it’s grown into a cultish party held in large, downtown club spaces and warehouses in Brooklyn. (The party has also won Soto a good deal of fame, and now she performs sets around the globe.)
The party’s initial draw was its music—a mashup of hip-hop, trance, and electronic beats that fuse together to form an energizing, original sound. “At first people would tell me, ‘All I hear is ghetto, I don’t hear any goth,’ but I’m trying to redefine what goth is,” Soto says. “If a rap song is about murder, that is pretty dark.” Her taste in music cross-references a variety of genres from pop to rap, to international tracks from Lebanon and Mexico.
GHE20G0TH1K culture is markedly different from other New York “scenes” of the last decade—namely because Soto’s parties are devoid of the pretention you may find at other fashion-y boîtes. Instead, there’s a generous whiff of inhibition and fun. Bindis glimmer on nodding foreheads, asses shake in calculated repetitions, and a quartet of partiers dressed as Daft Punk–type robots garner an admiring audience. “I think that in the late ’90s through the 2000s, it was like, ‘Where did all of the cool kids go?’” says Julie Anne Quay, founder of fashion social-media platform VFiles. “It seemed for a while that every party was sponsored by Veuve Clicquot. It was a crazy club-kid scene, but a sponsored scene. The power of youth culture in New York is really coming back, and I feel like [GHE20G0TH1K] is really at the forefront of it.” Jenné Lombardo, cofounder of MADE Fashion Week, explained: “I think that particularly now there is a generational shift that has happened. It’s all about the kids—a pulse is coming off the concrete of our streets and it’s really been lacking.”
That “pulse” has extended from the dance floor into the creative realm as well. The GHE20G0TH1K party, with its heavy glow of black lights, is not so much a platform for debauchery as it is some symbol of freedom. And now, it has extended onto the runways as well: it has offered an opportune environment for Shayne Oliver, designer of the fashion label Hood by Air –a brand that’s integral to the GHE20G0TH1K movement. “I guess you could say it’s kind of embedded into the culture,” Oliver said of his label’s place within the GHE20G0TH1K community (he DJs at the parties as well).
His rise to stardom was firmly cemented at February’s New York Fashion Week, when Oliver enlisted A$AP Rocky to walk in his show. Cult figures such as artist Terrence Koh, Kanye West’s art director Virgil Abloh, and designer Nicola Formichetti sat front row. Oliver says his label’s aesthetic is “kind of a literal interpretation of hip-hop and goth fashions styled together to create this new look. I think we try to keep it as sexy as possible just for the reason that everything in New York is covered up.” Lombardo, who was responsible for putting “HBA” on the Fashion Week schedule, says she was struck by Oliver’s “ability to listen to his generation, to his culture, and you really fell that in his clothes—there is a lot of sincerity. Fashion at the end of the day is just clothes, it's style that makes it interesting—personal taste and an interpretation of what’s going on.”
Hood by Air, available in renowned retail outlets like Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York (and VFiles’s own boutique), is just an example of fashion’s heightened interest in urban-inspired clothing. Labels like Abloh’s Pyrex and streetwear brand Supreme along with designer labels like Nike, Kenzo, and Givenchy are capitalizing on the current feeling that Lombardo labels as “urban and it’s definitely taking inspiration for athletic wear and hip-hop and articulating it in a different way.”
While GHE20G0TH1K’s aesthetic is rooted in black-and-white designs, it's a micro component in a larger urban trend that plays into a variety of colors, prints, and limited-edition runs. Quay says that this adaptation of urban design reflects “a lifestyle change. That thing when you go to work like Melanie Griffith [in] Working Girl in your sneakers and then change into heels doesn’t happen anymore. You need cool sneakers, you need a hoodie, you need a pair of baggy-cool sweatpants. Stella McCartney and Alexander Wang have made seriously chic sweatpants that could be worn anywhere. It’s just based on the needs of an urban lifestyle, but you still want to look really good.”
The look’s popularity has made GHE20G0TH1K feel even more relevant. It has quickly begun influencing more mainstream music and fashion acts—sending those most closely tied with GHE20G0TH1K through a loop. “I guess it’s a part of the job, the one thing that fashion does that is wrong though is that they don’t fully engulf the idea of something, they only take it for face value,” Oliver says. Soto was more blunt: “It’s very interesting to watch your brands become more mainstream, but to be excluded from that…there is so much vampire energy. I want to be careful. I’m still a struggling artist staying broke while other people use my ideas.”
For this reason, she is famously guarded about GHE20G0TH1K, rarely posting her DJ samples online, releasing word of parties only days ahead of time, and banning all photography from her events.
But GHE20G0TH1K’s fans find its demise by cause of widespread adaptation unlikely. Says supporter and artist Jeanette Hayes: “Venus and Shayne are so surprising in everything they do. I cannot see people looking at their ideas and saying, ‘Oh, that looks normal.’ They will always challenge what you think and what you know.”