Every gay club to have come on the scene since Trade opened its doors in 1990 has tried to emulate its impact. As illegal rave culture redefined British nightlife, Trade's home, Turnmills in Clerkenwell, became the first venue in the UK to be granted a 24-hour license, marking a new dawn of the London scene.
Trade was a weekly haven for post 3 AM party boys. Named by promoter Laurence Malice as a safe place for queers to get some safe after-hours "trade" away from London's parks and illegal basements, it was the first legitimate after-hours club in London. This weekend, after 25 years, it will close its doors for good in one final, flamboyant swan song.
I first went to Trade in 1995. As a teenager in the 1990s I'd leave my parents' house on Saturday night for another "sleepover" at the home of whatever fake girlfriend I'd invented that month. In reality, my weekends were spent in Soho bars and clubs like Heaven and G-A-Y, before ending up at Turnmills on the Sunday morning.
The first time I went, I waited over two hours in the pissing rain to get in, watching the smoke from the main dance room they called "Dante's Inferno" billow under the doorway onto the street. The door policy was simple: "You don't have to be gay or a member to get in, but your attitude and look will count." The door bitch Tom was infamous, but after a few weeks he became my friend. I never did find out why he started letting me skip the queue every Sunday, but since his side-eye could fuck with even the hardest queer, I never asked.
Through the door and down an elaborate metal staircase, we spilled out onto the heaving mess: blokes, bears, lesbians, transsexuals, not-sure-yets, and their straight mates. The path to the dance floor was known as "Muscle Alley," and I'd slip and grind between the biceps and hard-ons of the ripped men side-stepping out of time to music that was always too fast for them to dance in time to and still look composed. I took my first pill there (technically, it was just half, but it was enough). We'd queue patiently under the arches that surrounded the dance floor in line for dealers serving up cocaine under one, ketamine under the next, pills in arch three. (Maybe it wasn't exactly in that order.) I'd never dare tell my parents where I was going at weekends. Section 28 was still in force at the time, and the mainstream media—propelled by righteous moralizers like Mary Whitehouse—saw us as freaks, spitting disgust at our life "choices." Trade was a sanctuary—a paradise of inclusion, unity, and belonging. The leather heads and butch dykes from monthly fetish night Fist mixed with Soho's drag queens and twinks. In the outside world, I was shy and repressed, but in Trade's dark abyss, I screamed and danced with all the city's other misfits and freaks. Under those lasers we celebrated life away from a judgmental British culture that was yet to accept us.
Trade was part Berghain, part Studio 54. Visually, like its organizer Laurence Malice, it was camp and flamboyant and outrageous, everything presented with a sardonic sexualized humor. This was, after all, the man who, in 1995, dropped his trousers and flashed his pants on stage at Trade in Le Palace, Paris, in protest at the French government testing nuclear weapons on islands in the South Pacific.
"Trade will not return to Paris while Chirac is in power, but thank you for having us this time," Malice said on stage to a packed-out club. David Guetta, who was running Le Palace at the time, never invited him back.
For Trade's first 12 years it was a behemoth. Madonna famously visited, as did Jean Paul Gaultier. Bjork crowd-surfed, and even Posh and Becks popped in. Did Grace Jones go once? Apparently yes. And no, depending who you ask. We do know that Malice took glee in having a Princess Diana lookalike swan across the dance floor and give a short wave before disappearing. "She was there," swear so many to this day. What we do know for sure is that Cher was turned away. Her entourage and demands for a VIP area could not be met. There were no VIPs at Trade, Malice told her management, who scuttled back to the waiting limo. Axl Rose got told to fuck off too when he came to the door not long after making some homophobic comments in the press.
I remember the tall black drag queen with the balloon tits, whose legs were so long I'd have to speak to her crotch until she'd lean over to kiss my cheek to say "hi." I remember the boy with the angel wings I fell in "love" with when he snogged me in the toilet queue. I remember the one-night stands, 15-minute toilet romances, dickheads, and divas. It was at Trade I kissed the boy who would later become my soulmate, and a girl who is still my best friend. I even snogged two straight women in their 40s because they gave me my first line of coke. The place is the venue for my own personal highlights reel, soundtracked by Tony de Vit's peerless mixing.
Trade earned a kind of respect from the mainstream dance music industry that other British gay events had never quite commanded. By the mid-90s, it had begun to host events across Europe, notably in Ibiza with Manumission. But it's a tough grind staying ahead in London's fickle night-time economy. Trade inevitably became a victim of its success as other venues petitioned to open later too. Rival after-hours nights opened, and the shift to Vauxhall and a funkier house sound made Trade's banging industrial techno feel outmoded. It re-imagined itself staging special events, with the birthday parties becoming annual reunions for old friends as new scene faces went elsewhere.
Turnmills would become victim to gentrification when the lease was declined for renewal in 2008. But even 13 years after its weekly events ended, Trade's power still resonates on London's evolving gay scene. Trade defined an era and ruled unrelentingly, and nothing can ever take its crown away.
Cliff Joannou is Deputy Editor at Attitude magazine.
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TRADE: THE FINAL will take place on Sunday, October 25 from 2PM to 9AM the following day at EGG London.
The "Trade: Often Copied, Never Equalled" Exhibition is at the Islington Museum, London.