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Fashion

West Side Rendezvous

We chat to a photographer who hung out with transvestites and transsexuals who worked as prostitutes in New York's meatpacking district at the turn of the 90s.

Jamie Clifton

Jamie Clifton

Being poor and gay in New York at the turn of the 90s wasn't all Paris Is Burning drag realness, there was also a darker side to all of that fabulous, fierce and ferocious stuff, as many transvestites and transsexuals worked as prostitutes and hung around the city's meatpacking district. Japanese-born New York resident and photographer Katsu Naito began shooting photos of the trans-prostitutes he saw at the time and earlier this year finally published the pics in his book West Side Rendezvous.

VICE: So most pf these photos are more than 20 years old, how come you're only publishing them now?
Katsu Naito: Well, 15 years ago, images like these wouldn't have been so easily accepted, you know? But, 20 years later, all of the sex workers have moved on and there's not so much of a stigma attached to this kind of thing anymore.

Cool. How do you personally feel looking back at the photos after all this time?
It's a huge mixture of emotions, all the feelings that you'd expect. Some of the photos are quite sexy, some mischievous, and obviously there are a couple where you can really feel the loneliness and sadness of the subject.

A lot of it was shot at the zenith of the whole drag ball craze, did that obsession with fashion carry through to the looks you'd see when the guys were working the streets?
Yeah, that's right. Many of the shots were taken when they were hustling and obviously the statement they made with their clothes was the first impression of them that the Johns would get, so they were definitely using clothes to say something about themselves.

Did that same sense of competition over outfits still exist while they were working, though?
More or less, yeah. Each one of them had their own ways of presenting themselves, which they took a lot of pride in still because it was their way of showing themselves as how they wanted to be seen when they were working the streets. Again, their first impression was the key to success, so they'd do everything to self-promote and a lot of that was done through the clothes, because that's what you see first.

So, what sort of stuff would they wear?
It varied, you know? Many of them wore eye-catching outfits—stockings, pantyhose, stuff like that—and, of course, you can never go wrong with a good pair of high heels, but a lot would just wear something obvious like jeans and a leather jacket. You have to remember that it was very cold a lot of the time, so while they wanted to dress to attract attention, they also needed to keep warm. You know this was right in the middle of the AIDS crisis, but they were all still out on the streets working and staying proud, which I thought was fascinating.

Who where their style icons?
Well, I do remember a few of them saying that they would like to be a model and I heard the name Linda Evangelista talked about a lot at the time. But she was a supermodel who wouldn't get out of her bed for less than $10,000 a day, so clearly the clothes and the labels she was wearing weren't really in the price range of the people I was photographing, but that set of supermodels in the early 90s were definitely quite a big influence.

Talking of labels, were there any that were, like, the holy grail for transvestite prostitutes?
I'm sure there were, yeah, but none of the prostitutes exactly lived a luxury lifestyle. Even if there was a label they loved, it would be completely out of the question. 

Oh, yeah, I guess it would. Did the transgender prostitutes have to dress more provocatively than the prostitutes who were born female?
Their staple outfits would be based around exposing themselves, sure. The thing is, they weren't only prostituting, but hanging out with the same group of people in the area and they all loved to take off their clothes and show themselves in as many different ways as they could.

Were any of them crazier than the rest?
Yeah, there were a few crazy ones. One would love to show his dick, so he'd sneak it out from his stretched mini skirt and start playing with it. Another one always looked like she'd just come straight out of an S&M club and was still playing her role, all leather, latex, and chains, you know? Some were sober, but most were high on some sort of drug, so there were probably levels of craziness I blocked out.



JAMIE CLIFTON