The Corduroy Club, located here from March 1967 to 1971, was a significant effort by the pre-Stonewall LGBT community in New York to have a social space that was outside of the control of the Mafia, New York State Liquor Authority regulations, and police arrests and entrapment. The club also hosted a number of early LGBT organizations.
In 1986, black fashion designer Isaia moved his clothing label here just as he was becoming one of the most sought-after young designers in the city. He died from AIDS-related complications in 1989.
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.
This Garment District building has had at least two separate connections to LGBT history: the Corduroy Club and the fashion house of Isaia NYC.
The Corduroy Club was a private social club started in 1966, and in this building from March 1967 through 1971, that offered the largely older lesbian and gay community an alternative to the bar scene, holding such events as dances, card parties, plays, movies, and dinners. By 1968 it had a membership of over one thousand.
The club was founded by members of the West Side Discussion Group (WSDG), initially part of the Mattachine Society of New York, that became a separate organization in 1956 and dropped its affiliation with Mattachine in 1965 after more militant leaders took over Mattachine. WSDG thus became an older and more conservative group within the homophile movement. The Corduroy Club helped to fund WSDG activities, and also hosted a number of other early LGBT organizations, including the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the Mattachine Society, and the Student Homophile League of Columbia University. Gay Scene Guide in 1969 listed it as “a bottle club – bring your own drinks for set-ups. Nice cleanly-run establishment… It’s a quiet and reserved club, crowded weekends.” Activist Craig Rodwell described it in his periodical Hymnal as “probably the only legitimate private club in New York City.” In 1970 the Mattachine Society’s Guidebook called it the “oldest and finest legitimately private gay club in the city,” noting that an existing member must sponsor another’s membership.
The Corduroy Club was a significant effort by the pre-Stonewall LGBT community in New York to have a social space that was outside of the control of the Mafia, New York State Liquor Authority regulations, and police arrests and entrapment. WSDG touted it as “the only true private club in the U.S. operated by members of a homophile organization for all homosexuals.”
Online writer Max Verga reminisced that “I first became involved with the West Side Discussion Group, many of whose members were also associated with the Mattachine Society and Corduroy Club… The West Side Discussion Group met at the time in the headquarters of the Corduroy Club.” He continued,
“Its weekly discussions covered a wide range of issues, including ways to meet people, the question of monogamy, and even gay humor. Today it’s hard to imagine the importance of providing such a forum, but in those days repression and secrecy were the rule.”
Max Varga, online writer, 2001
In April 1969, the meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) was held at the Corduroy Club and at NYU’s Loeb Student Center.
Former DOB New York president Ruth Simpson recalled that local precinct cops began harassing DOB and the club about the Certificate of Occupancy for 240 West 38th Street in the fall of 1970. By 1972, the Corduroy Club was located at 634 West 51st Street.
Isaia NYC Fashion House
In the late 1980s, black fashion designer Isaia (1954-1989) ran a showroom in this building, where his clothing line was also manufactured. Born Isaia Rankin, he was inspired by the success of Willi Smith, a New York City-based black fashion designer, to move to the city in 1979 and pursue a career in fashion. Despite the fact that he had no prior training as a designer, he soon was given creative control at the Merchant of Venice, a clothing boutique in Soho.
Isaia became known for his use of Lycra to create body-conscious styles for women. The sex appeal of his clingy miniskirts, wrap tops, dresses, and accessories made him a sought-after fashion designer in the mid- to late 1980s. In a June 1987 New York Times article, he was touted as “one of the city’s brightest young designers” whose name was “everywhere.” Isaia’s clothing line was in high demand at several city retailers, most notably at Barney’s New York in Chelsea, but also in the uptown shops of Charivari and Fiorucci and the downtown shops of Patricia Field, Ibiza, and Modern Girls. His aesthetic was inspired by the 1960s, from the work of Jewish fashion designer Rudi Gernreich to the styles of the Motown group the Supremes.
From 1986 until at least 1990, the designer’s label, Isaia NYC, was located in a modest loft at 240 West 38th Street. On June 28, 1989, about a week after the opening of Fertility, an Isaia clothing boutique at 192 Spring Street in Soho, the 35-year-old designer died from AIDS-related complications at Lenox Hill Hospital. By the late 1980s, AIDS had devastated all levels of the city’s fashion industry (as it had in other arts-related fields), yet this was rarely, if ever, openly acknowledged at that time. Isaia’s fashion house, at first denying his death, would only publicly announce two weeks later that the cause was respiratory failure, with no mention that this was a result of complications from AIDS.
Architect or Builder: Benjamin H. Whinston
Year Built: 1925
“1984-1985” and “1986-1987,” Manhattan White Pages.
“Black Style: Always in Fashion,” American Legacy, Vols. 4-5, RJR Communications, 1998, 28.
Foster Gunnison, Jr. Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
“Isaia Rankin Is Dead; Dressmaker Was 35,” The New York Times, July 11, 1989, A16.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, “The Day AIDS Hit the Fashion Industry,” The Atlantic, April 24, 2015, bit.ly/2CVMKG3.
Mattachine Society, Guidebook (1968-70).
Max Verga, “Bear in Mind: A Personal Matter of Pride,” Bent (July 2001), bit.ly/2ge4cNa.
Michael Gross, “Young Designer’s Sexy Look,” The New York Times, June 23, 1987, B6.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, research files.
William Beardemphl, “Parries and Thrusts,” Vector (April and August 1968).
Woody Hochswender, “Patterns: Isaia’s Company Prepares to Carry On Without Him,” The New York Times, July 11, 1989, B6.
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