Death of a Downtown Icon: Remembering Benjamin Cho



They partied together, sometimes lived together (Mr. Cho lived for a time in an 18th Street townhouse with Ms. Lyonne, Waris Ahluwalia and the Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur), sometimes dated (Mr. Cho introduced Marc Hundley to Mr. McGinley, and the two were together for years), collaborated and posed for one another’s photos. Many of them were branded with Mr. Cho’s own hand-drawn, stick-and-poke tattoos.


Mr. Cho in his Seventh Avenue showroom in 2007.

Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times

“For many people, Ben was the city incarnate,” said his friend Carrie Imberman, an antique-jewelry dealer. “Even for me, and I’m born and raised here.”

When Mr. Cho died on June 3, his work had not been seen on a runway in nearly a decade, and he had fallen out of touch with many of his 3,000 best friends. He had struggled with heroin for years. As his addiction took hold years earlier, he would joke bitterly to friends that he wouldn’t live to see his 40th birthday. He was wrong, but just barely. He was 40 years old.

A law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a continuing investigation, said that Mr. Cho was found in his apartment by a relative. Next to his body, drug paraphernalia were found. The official said that investigators suspected an overdose, but that the investigation was continuing. Emergency medical workers pronounced him dead at the scene. The city medical examiner’s office said the cause and manner of death were pending further study.

His death, friends say, ends not only what was once a promising career, but also a chapter of New York’s cultural history, when Lower Manhattan still had pockets of blight and buzz not entirely obscured by luxury condominiums, before cellphones were standard and social media inescapable.

“You didn’t need much to survive back then,” the actor and artist Leo Fitzpatrick said. “It was the best times of our lives.”

‘His Fashion Dream’

Mr. Cho was born on Nov. 24, 1976, in Cambridge, Mass., the second child of Young Ae Kim-Cho, a classically trained opera singer, and Young Chung Cho, a physicist who worked for NASA, and grew up in Ohio and San Jose, Calif.

“He was charismatic, and super-intelligent,” said his sister, Dr. Catherine Cho, a neurologist in Manhattan, as well as strong-minded and self-directed: He declared himself a vegetarian at 13 (Dr. Cho recalled her grandmother trying to sneak him meat) and came out as gay not long after. (He was voted homecoming king regardless.) He had an abiding interest in clothes, drawing elaborate costumes for superheroes; Dr. Cho thought he would be a costume designer. Instead, after graduation, he went to Parsons in New York in 1994 to study fashion design.


Opening Ceremony at its opening in 2002. Mr. Cho’s designs are on the left.

Daniel Lew

“He was the first to get out of the ’burbs and go to New York and live his fashion dream,” said Cynthia Leung, a friend since Mr. Cho’s high school years. “Asian-American kids, including myself, were pretty shunted into being future doctors, lawyers, computer people — professionals. For many of us, meeting Ben was, like: ‘Wait a second. You mean you like fashion too, and you are going to Parsons and to New York City, and, wow, you actually know how to vogue?’ He made me believe that an alternative path was possible — at least to imagine it.”

Mr. Cho did not last long at Parsons, dropping out after four semesters. Things came easily to him — friends remembered him as a polymath who could draw as well as he could design, who could dance and play the cello — and he felt more advanced than the rest of the students in his class. He worked a bit around the fringes of the fashion industry. Ms. Varel knew him as a sometime model booker; Mr. Hundley met him when he was doing hair and makeup on a fashion shoot. Day jobs were not the point.

“It’s hard to tell what we all did,” Mr. Hundley said. “It felt like we didn’t work.” They lived for the evening, when they would dress up and go out every night, to clubs like the Tunnel or to Squeezebox, the famous parties at Don Hill’s.

“There was no such thing as an isolated night out with Ben Cho,” Ms. Imberman said. “It was always three or four nights strung together.”

Mr. Cho quickly made friends out and about, his uniform a mix of favorite pieces. “Always a black-and-white striped shirt, always a leather bracelet, always a hint of silver,” Mr. McGinley said. “He never wore sneakers; it was always beat-up Beatle boots.” (The silver was often chains or safety pins; the boots, always fake leather.)

“When you’re young and you’re out, your friends have friends, you all meet and you’re like-minded,” said Ms. Sevigny, who didn’t recall exactly where and when Mr. Cho entered her life. “It’s all a little blurry. It was pretty fast and full-on as soon as we did connect, as can happen in your 20s — that falling in love with everyone all the time.”

More than one friend said they assumed he would go farthest of any of them. He was, Ms. Lyonne said, “the wittiest, sharpest, funniest, smartest, most creative, most fine-arts-talented of the lot of us.”


Looks from Mr. Cho’s fall 2007 collection, left, and from his fall 2008 collection.

Left, Rahav Segev for The New York Times; Erin Baiano for The New York Times

In 1999, Mr. Cho introduced his own collection, propelled by the support of the friends he had made along the way. He started off small but became a near-immediate darling of the downtown news media. “He was very much a Paper person,” said Mickey Boardman, the editorial director of Paper magazine, which staged a photo shoot of Mr. Cho surrounded by 10 of his male friends (including Mr. McGinley, Mr. Snow and Mr. Hundley), who gamely strapped on heels and posed in his women’s collection.

His reputation grew quickly enough that by the time of his first full-scale New York Fashion Week show in 2001, a reviewer for Vogue called him “one of New York’s most promising young talents.” The following year, New York magazine named him the “junior couturier,” one of 12 up-and-comers to watch for fall, who would “give you something original, personal and maybe even meaningful,” and “give the big-league labels a run for their money.”

Mr. Cho worked obsessively and creatively (he joked that he had Cho.C.D.), often enlisting the help of friends. It was a chaotic collaboration: Athena Currey, a model who was one of his best friends and muses, would not only appear on the runway and volunteer for Mr. Cho’s hair and makeup tests, but also would lend a hand before or during the shows if the need arose. The Hundleys, who could sew, would install themselves in Mr. Cho’s apartment or studio to help for days on end.

“They would go to their day jobs, and then at night they would go to his apartment and stay up all night with him sewing,” Mrs. Currey recalled. “I would pop in and out, do the hair and makeup test, try on clothes, bring over some food. They would take turns taking naps.”

His friends rallied to every show and thought Mr. Cho destined for greatness. “We all thought that Ben was going to be the next Anna Sui or Marc Jacobs,” Mr. McGinley said.

Critics swooned, too. But Mr. Cho’s clothes, which might dangle enormous fringes of braid or sprout with giant flowers, were not the sort that were easily produced or sold, and he bucked against the pressure to be commercial.

“He wasn’t worrying about sell-through or margins,” said Mandie Erickson, who worked on his public relations and sales from his first show to his last.


An image from Lady Gaga’s music video “Bad Romance” in which she wore Mr. Cho’s faux-fur polar bear coat.


Mr. Leon, of Opening Ceremony, said, “We did sell them, but they were all one size, one-of-a-kind.”

Facing pressure to produce and sell, Mr. Cho showed his collections erratically and took several seasons off the runway. In 2008, Cathy Horyn, then the fashion critic of The New York Times, wrote that he “exemplifies the maverick designer who, despite the usual challenges (um, selling clothes), believes in working out a technical problem to his satisfaction.”

“For Mr. Cho, that might take several seasons,” she continued. “He doesn’t care. We, though, are the beneficiary of his convictions.”

The market is notoriously difficult for young designers, and was especially challenging when Mr. Cho was getting off the ground, in the years after Sept. 11. His clothes were “very, very expensive and very one-off-ish,” said Sally Singer, who was then the fashion news/features director for Vogue. “I don’t know if they’re the kind of clothes you build a business on. They were clothes that I felt were special and made sense for fashion at that time — and still, really. He just had it.”

‘Ferociously Social’

All the while that Mr. Cho was designing, he was also going out, and in 2003, he helped create a Sunday night party, Smiths Night, that would become legendary in New York circles.

The idea for Smiths Night was Paul Sevigny’s, Ms. Sevigny’s brother, and when he was programming Sway, a small, Moroccan-themed club on Spring Street in the far west hinterlands of SoHo, he allowed Mr. Cho and his friend Brian DeGraw, a member of the band Gang Gang Dance, to play only music by and influenced by the Smiths, the moony, moody 1980s British misery specialists.

“I treated it at first almost like a conceptual art project,” Mr. DeGraw said. “Obviously, I was a huge fan, but there was no way anyone was going to come out and only want to listen to these records.”


The invitation Mr. Cho drew for Chloë Sevigny’s 30th birthday party in 2004, playing on a line from a Morrissey song.

Benjamin Cho, via Rizzoli

At first, they didn’t, and Smiths Night existed as a friends-and-family affair. In the last days before omnipresent cellphones, Mr. Cho and his friends had haunted a small number of local bars and clubs that reliably delineated their social life in New York: Max Fish, then on Ludlow Street; Cherry Tavern on Sixth Street near Avenue A; the Hole, now defunct, on Second Avenue. Smiths Night at Sway quickly joined the rotation.

“That was the party that defined my youth in New York,” said Carol Lim, Mr. Leon’s partner at Opening Ceremony. “You would come a little bit early, get a beer at Ear Inn across the way and slowly walk over. If you had a crush on someone, you’d know that they would probably be there later.”

As time went on, it began to draw crowds, first of downtown scene-making types, later of celebrities — Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan. In 2006, New York magazine named it the best Sunday night party in New York.

“At some point, I couldn’t even get in, it was so crowded,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick, who was for years so close to Mr. Cho that people assumed they were a couple. (Never mind that Mr. Fitzpatrick is straight.) “Cho” is one of three names he has tattooed on his body (the others are Mr. DeGraw’s and his wife’s), and Mr. Cho’s is one of only three phone numbers he knows by heart.

Through it all, Mr. Cho was “ferociously social,” as one friend put it, his pace never slowing. Meanwhile, his friends, some of whom he had been partying with for a decade or more, were growing up.

“Getting a real day job, 9 to 5, limited the amount of all-night carousing I could do,” Ms. Imberman said. (Smiths Night might rage well into Monday morning.) “We had a couple real knock-down, drag-out fights. We fundamentally disagreed about some things.”

Though many of his friends were reluctant to say so, those things included heroin. Drinking and drugs had long been a part of the going-out experience, Marc Hundley said. Then there was a time when it changed. “It wasn’t all of us doing it together,” he said. “It was maybe more private.”


Ms. Sevigny and Mr. Cho at a party in 2007.

Billy Farrell/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images

No one agrees on what catalyzed the change. Mr. Cho had a dermatologic condition that gave him great pain in his legs, and some of his friends, including his sister, suspected he was self-medicating. There was talk of a foundered love affair (a rarity in Mr. Cho’s life, according to several friends), or the cold shock of Mr. Snow’s death, by a drug overdose, in 2009.

“I think that when Dash Snow died, it was a game changer for him,” Mr. McGinley said. “They were so close. When Dash died, for me, it forced me to get sober.” Mr. Cho, in his opinion, “went the polar opposite” way.

By then, several friends had tried to intercede or offer help, only to be rebuffed. Mr. Fitzpatrick described sacrificing his relationship with Mr. Cho by confronting him. “I did say something,” he said. “I paid a price for that.”

As clever and charming as Mr. Cho could be, he could be imperious and willful, too. Anyone who offended him might be put on what several called “Chobation,” a joke that wasn’t.

“Chobation was real, man,” Mr. McGinley said. “It was hard to be on Chobation. Especially in the early days, it could be devastating.”

Mr. Cho began to withdraw from many of the friends with whom he had spent so many years. He was hired to be the D.J. for fashion events — he played the Met Gala in 2007 and Lauren Santo Domingo’s engagement party later that year — but in 2008, he staged his last fashion show. (Mr. Hundley recalled it as “a bit of a disaster.”) Smiths Night at Sway continued until 2015; Mr. Cho briefly moved with it to another bar. (Mr. Sevigny has since bought the original Sway and reopened it as Paul’s Casablanca, where Smiths songs once again play on Sunday nights.) But Mr. Cho was seen less and less.

“Everyone would always invite him and hope for a response,” Ms. Sevigny said. “He was slippery for many years at the end.”

She added, “I think we’ve all been kind of mourning him already for so many years, in a way.”

‘He Showed Me by Example’

Mr. Cho’s work is not cited very often by the generation of designers that followed him. It has made periodic appearances — Lady Gaga wore his faux-fur polar bear coat in the music video for “Bad Romance” — but for many who followed in his wake, he does not come up at all. He leaves behind a legacy that is less known than it might, or ought, to be.

“Some people who are relevant are really just of the moment they’re in,” Ms. Singer, of Vogue, said. “I think he had a lot more than that.”

With him vanishes another sliver of the vision of an earlier New York, and the possibilities it held for its young, underfunded, ambitious arrivals. It still holds those possibilities, and they still arrive, though the barrier to entry is more expensive and the bar to clear higher than it once was.

“I guess in the early days, he showed me this D.I.Y. road map to success,” Mr. McGinley said. “It was really eye-opening for me to witness. He showed me by example — how to rally a community together, how to get people to show up.”

That community was gathering last week — in person and in calls, emails and texts — to remember him, unnerved by his absence. “The difficult part to his passing is everyone I know I know through him,” Mr. Hundley said.

They don’t go out as often as they once did. Ms. Sevigny said she couldn’t remember the last time she had been dancing, and Mr. Fitzpatrick could come to the phone one night only after putting his son to bed. But they have been dredging up drawings he made, pieces he gave them. Ms. Lyonne spoke fondly of a blazer by Mr. Cho, with “too many buttons on the lapel to make sense.”

“Twenty years later, it’s still my favorite blazer,” she added.

The soundtrack, naturally, is the Smiths. In many of the remembrances, one song in particular stands out: the customary evening-ending (morning-ending?) song at Sway. Mr. McGinley called it Mr. Cho’s anthem: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

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