The Fierce, Fabulous Life of Performance Artist Alok Vaid-Menon | The_ONES
Posture Magazine x The_ONES #OverTheTop: The Fierce, Fabulous Life of a Famed NYC Performance Artist
We’re proud to partner with Posture magazine—a beacon of art, fashion, and culture for the queer community—to bring you #OverTheTop, a series celebrating the stories and wild, wacky, wonderful personal style of three no-holds-barred creatives.
Breaking though the gender binary, Brooklyn-based Alok Vaid-Menon (who uses they/them pronouns) defies stereotypes on the daily. An internationally renowned poet, performance artist, educator, and activist, they are known for their keen political wit, wildly original personal style, and the kind of rich, layered writing that makes you reread sentences to soak in the goodness whether they’re writing for Conde Nast’s new Them magazine, for MTV.com, or simply an Instagram caption. Alok’s work, notably DarkMatter, a performance-art collaboration with Janani Balasubramanian, has been showcased around the world and covered in top publications including The New Yorker. And they were featured in the acclaimed HBO documentary, The Trans List (2016).
Playing up Alok’s singular style—dramatic silhouettes and vibrant colors that challenge expectations of both gender and fashion—we shot them in a set reimagining a fabulously kooky uptown apartment, complete with custom floral-stencil “wallpaper” by artist Nicky Ottav. Auntie Mame meets your favorite neighborhood cat lady. The scene paired perfectly with the bold lipstick, Dynasty-era blazers, and patterned dresses that are the cornerstones of Alok’s fabulous transfeminine style.
To start off, tell us a little bit about your style evolution.
“I think for me, style has always been about politics. I didn't get to control my race, or my gender, and all the stereotypes and assumptions that were made on the basis of that. So from a young age, I used clothing as a way to say, ‘There's something more complicated going on here.’
"Style is very much boxed into categories that I didn't necessarily consent to. I've always been a bit of a fashionista—when I was four or five I was wearing socks to my knees, velcro sandals with dolphins, a coordinated purple lunchbox, and short shorts! Style was how I began to understand myself as an individual, and eventually that allowed me to come to terms with my gender.”
“I've always been a bit of a fashionista—when I was four or five I was wearing socks to my knees, velcro sandals with dolphins, a coordinated purple lunchbox, and short shorts!”
- Alok Menon
What were some of your early style influences as you started to carve out that space for yourself?
“Cartoons are really great—specifically cartoon villains. Cartoon villain style is so important to me because I feel like it’s always been a space in popular imagination for queer and gender nonconforming people. Shoulders too big, arms too hairy, these fabulous monstrosities.
"I also take a lot of cues from underground queer-club culture, because it really feeds contemporary fashion. It can be frustrating too, because a lot of what is now put on runways was first implemented on the bodies of drag queens, club people, and queer people.
"It's also really important to me, when I'm thinking about style and fashion, to say that I feel like the current discourse about trans people starting to be recognized as models is misleading, 'cause we've always actually been the originators of contemporary fashion. It's just that our clothes made it, but not our bodies.”
When was the first time that you wore lipstick? Do you remember that moment?
“Oh gosh. When I was a little kid, I would wear my mom's makeup, so probably five or six.”
One of the things that stands out about your style is all the clashing—patterns and florals and the mix of everything going on. How did that develop for you, this idea of layering everything together?
“In the same way that I don't believe in gender, I don't believe there’s such a thing as clashing. I’ve spent a lot of time researching fashion and reading histories of aesthetics and textiles, and learned that so much of what we understand to be color coordination is actually part of a Western colonial machination. In India, we never had the same idea of prints having to align in a particular way, colors having to fit in a certain way. Whenever I'm back home in India, I see people clashing stuff all the time, and they don't understand it as clashing. What I'm trying to do with my fashion is get people to ask questions. I want people to be confused, I want people to want to explore more, and I want people to consider a completely different worldview. The thing I don't want is violence.”
“I don't believe there’s such a thing as clashing…Whenever I'm back home in India, I see people clashing stuff all the time, and they don't understand it as clashing.”
- Alok Vaid-Menon
We all have different ways in which we "dress up." What types of things do you like to wear that make you feel like the most powerful when you're about to perform?
“I first started to really dress the way I do now on stage, because that was the only place that I felt safe to do it, and to have fun with it. But then I realized, why would I just reserve this for the stage? What makes me feel the most powerful is a good chunky heel.”
Do you still rock sneakers?
“Yes! The thing about classics like Chuck Taylors is that they are constantly able to be re-invented—it's about pushing the image further and further. Their high-tops are so versatile, I remember getting my first pair in middle school, and I still wear some today! The pink Converse are a favorite.”
If you could dream up your ultimate sneaker, what would it be?
“A white platform sneaker that came with fun colorful markers for you to design it however you'd like!”
Tell us how you'd customize one of the pairs from the shoot! What would you write on it, or what would you do to it?
“I would write some of my favorite quotes and lines of poetry by other trans artists. Their words give me the courage to keep on going!”
What are some of your favorite places to shop?
“I'm a secondhand kind of person. I actually love shopping in the South and the Midwest, and my favorite place to shop in the world is Salt Lake City, Utah, for sure.”
What neighborhood in New York do you currently live in?
“Oh, gosh, I'm moving around right now, but I really have a lot of love in my heart for the East Village and the Lower East Side, but both are just changing so much that it's like simultaneous tons of love, but then also deep devastation every time I see another Duane Reade.”
“What I'm trying to do with my fashion is get people to ask questions. I want people to be confused, I want people to want to explore more, and I want people to consider a completely different worldview.”
- Alok Vaid-Menon
Who are your current style icons? Who is giving you some life right now?
“There's so many, but I'll just shout out some of them. FAKA is a gender nonconforming, black, queer performance duo from Johannesburg. Their aesthetic is incredible, I could spend hours scrolling down, being like, how are you real? I feel like trans people, especially trans people of color, are my fashion icons, because we're often having to be extra creative to try to fit into clothes that were never made with us in mind and create our own definitions of beauty.”
How has social media, Instagram in particular, affected your life and your style?
“It's changed my life, I feel like #somillennial doing this. I think for me it’s been particularly unreal because growing up trans, I've saw absolutely no representation of myself or my body. Instagram is where I began to see myself visualized, and was able to develop a community digitally that I was unable to have as a young person. It's really liberated me in so many ways—it makes you feel a lot less alone. It can sometimes feel like I’m the only trans person out there, like everyone on the street is laughing at me—and then I can just turn on my phone and in that moment I'm connected to other people going through the same stuff, and it feels like we're all in this together.”
Is there anything else—related to style, related to gender—that you'd like to say?
“I'd like to say to other trans or gender nonconforming people out there: It's all about you, baby. You shouldn't feel pressured to have to look in any particular way—it's whatever makes you feel most affirmed, comfortable, and beautiful.”
“The thing about classics like Chuck Taylors is that they are constantly able to be re-invented—it's about pushing the image further and further…The pink Converse are a favorite.”
- Alok Vaid-Menon
“I like pairing classic sneakers with flamboyant colors and prints,” says Alok. “There is something delightful about that collision of old and new, simple and extravagant.”
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Writer: Maya Harder-Montoya. Creative Director: Morgan T Stuart. Photographer: Bamby. Senior Photo Director: Asher Torres. Photo Director: Ryan Bevans. Photo Assistant: Kimari Hazward. Set Designer: Mo Pepin. Muralist: Nicky Ottav. Stylist: Shea Daspin. Hair: Britt White. Makeup: Katie Robinson using NARS Cosmetics. Production Assts: Stevie Sullivan, Kyle Stuart, Anabel Evans. Video: Rosalina Merrihue.
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