Lelaine Lau’s Cultural Salon

My favorite memories of Lelaine Lau are her Sunday-night bingo parties at Bungalow 8, where my ex provided her with many of the prizes. She had a warehouse full of neat stuff like Prada bags and Cartier bracelets that were given out to blasted bingoers. Nowadays, they’d give out a plastic bag with a Swatch in it — maybe. She had “club royalty” types obsessing over things like B-6 or N-17. She never does the expected thing and is sometimes rewarded for it; I’ve always seen her as a wayward artist or an intellectual who feeds at the teat of nightlife and can’t figure out why she’s here. Lelaine is a bright woman — well-read, cultured, and a breath of fresh air from the usual promoter dweebs and their crackberries. I actually go places when she asks me to, as opposed to trying to figure out how to block some fool from emailing me an invite to listen to the same songs I heard the night before at a party celebrating the birthday of some skinny chickadee who thinks Dickens is the punch line of a bad joke and Hemingway is a street in the garment district.

Lelaine’s salon parties are just one of a slew of alternative-type events attended by peeps who see most nightlife as the same ol’ same ol’. And I’m not talking about too-cool-for-school penniless hipsters — I’m talking mainstream clubbers looking for anything but the next mash-up mix. In its way, Merkato 55 is this sort of event, and those loft parties springing up downtown are over the top. I guess I should give a birthday shout out to Aaron, and I would also thank Foss for the masterpiece, which is way too hot to mention here!

You’ve worked in many capacities at clubs, including hosting Sunday nights at Bungalow 8. What does your nightlife resume look like? I think most of my background has actually been more restaurants than nightclubs. I was a manager and maître d’ at Balthazar as well as a maître d’ at Mercer Kitchen — and this was before I really started working in nightlife. Later you recommended me for a position at the door at Home and I was also a host at Lotus for a little bit when they first opened, when Sunday nights were Bingo Night.

What are you working on now? What is a cultural salon? 403 is a cultural salon which I founded in the summer of 2005, and the mission statement is this: “403 is a cultural salon which seeks to encourage the discussion and exchange of ideas through presentations on arts, culture and humanitarian concerns.” It’s a monthly four-hour event which includes dinner (light fare) and then I’ll have a speaker come in, maybe an artist, a documentarian, a photographer, or somebody who’s doing interesting work and have them talk about their work and their experiences for about 45 minutes.

So you’re essentially a curator, a party promoter and an event planner? You’re curating events for artsy people. I like to think that it’s for artsy and intellectual people. My life before I moved to New York was 180 degrees from where it’s been. I was an activist for nine years, and I mean hardcore; I’ve been arrested for civil disobedience, I was a full on tree-hugger, the whole nine yards. So my life was very different before I came here and I’ve always had these disparate sides of myself. I’ve got the activist side that fights with the side that wants to be glamorous, wants to go out and do all of this and that has access to a lot of influential and interesting people. And so 403 was a way for me to reconcile these two sides.

How many people come? Average about 50.

How much does it cost? $40-$60 depending on where I’m holding it.

And where are you holding it? Well, I did it in conjunction with Soho House in 2006, but lately I’ve just been doing it in private lofts. It is nightlife, but it’s a different kind of nightlife, and I think it appeals to those of us who are maturing and want something more than just going out to a bar. I’ve created a community, which has been the most rewarding part, there is an engaged community of people who like what I’m doing.

It sounds like somewhere I could meet people I would be able to have great conversation, because it is hard to meet people the right people in this town. Is that what you do full-time? The salon is something I do as a side thing. I ran a fashion start-up for three and a half years, which I just left last year.

So why aren’t you doing this once or twice a week — is it too much work? Well, I haven’t had one since the economy has tanked, and it’s going to be really interesting when I do. I actually have a number of prospects on the back burner that I’m trying to pull together, so it’ll be really interesting to see what the response is.

So what’s an example of a person you would have speak? I’ve had people like Toure, who’s a writer for Rolling Stone … he has a book called Never Drank the Kool-Aid that is a compilation of all of his Rolling Stone essays and is very entertaining. I’ve had a gentlemen named John Badalament who spoke on the social constructs of gender and how it affects our relational lives. I met him through some friends, and he was so fascinating. When I met him, we sat down at a party and we didn’t stop talking for four hours, so I told him he had to present at 403. I’ve also had one with Rex Weyler who is one of the founders of Greenpeace International, and Palden Gyatso, my most recent one, was a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned by the Chinese for 33 years.

So who are the people going to these events? It’s a little bit of everyone. I would say it’s mostly in the 30s age group, but of course it can range from 21 to 50. So the core of it is people in their 30s, the people who are sort of getting tired of just the club scene. It’s generally on Monday nights because I’m not going to try and compete with anything else, and on Sundays I think people still want to stay at home. It’s been interesting, but the reaction’s been great. When I first looked into salons, most of the ones that I found at the time that I started this were very specific. They were either all artists, or all literary, they all had a very specific focus.

Do you have the history of the word salon in this context is it like 1600s French? Yeah, it’s a 17th-century idea of a salon. I think at the time, women were not part of the educational system, and so wealthy women would sort of sit in their beds and call people to them to educate them.

And how did you come up with the idea of doing the salon? Were you the first salon on the scene? Yeah, I think there are people who have gotten some more notice than I have, they’re better funded or they have websites and I don’t have any of that, but still, their events were not exactly like mine. Especially since no one was doing anything like this for an open demographic of our peers. I’ve fought with myself a little over whether I want any press, whether I want to go out there and get sponsorship because my salon has been very under-the-radar and I kind of like the informality of it. But I don’t know anyone else who was doing something exactly like mine when I started.

Do you throw it in lounges, restaurants, etc? I never really wanted to do it in a restaurant. For me, the idea of a salon is very much about being in a private home. It’s a different sort of way of going out and I’ve always wanted to maintain an informal and intimate feel, as if you’re in someone’s living room.

So you’re a hospitality person who has created a spin-off on the traditional way of going out. Yeah, it’s a different option for people who still want to go out and want to be social, but not within a club environment.

Do you cook for it? No! I usually hire a caterer. 403 references the apartment number where I first held 403, at 199 Lafayette, the building where La Esquina is. The summer they were building La Esquina, was the summer I started doing it with my partner Yves-Claude. He had a very old-school type loft, a little gritty, and he changed the art once in awhile but he didn’t care what I put on the walls and he actually did all the cooking.

It’s good to see someone thinking outside of the box. You took your hospitality skills and now you’re doing this salon idea and there’s one coming up soon. Yeah, it’s really a good way for me to sort of indulge in my intellectual curiosity and to pull together a good social group.

You also have a blog; tell me a bit about it. Basically it’s an extension of my salon. There are some people that I can’t physically get at the salon, and I love writing, so it’s a way for me to feature people or ideas I cannot have at the salon — whether it’s because of schedules or distance. The blog is not focused on any one theme or idea, it’s really just my random musings. The title of it, Bluestocking, is another word like a saloniere — an educated, intelligent woman — although bluestocking originally had a sort of derogatory connotation.

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