Patrick McMullan on Studio 54, Fashion Week, His Fantasy Party, and More

Patrick McMullan, the event world’s most prolific photographer, weighs in on everything.

By Ted Kruckel April 6, 2011, 2:16 PM EDT

Patrick McMullan

Photo: Amber De Vos

I used to throw parties for a living, and now I write about them, and I feel pretty confident when I say that probably no one, living or dead, has been to as many parties as Patrick McMullan. Certainly no one has taken as many party pictures as he has. He just launched a new online venture called PMc Magazine, which features interviews and photo essays about all sorts of new and emerging talent. It reminded me of the old Details, which, before it became a young men’s magazine, was a chronicler of the downtown life and nightlife scene where I met Patrick in the 1980s. So I figured it was high time I got his words down on this page.

Tell me about your job at Details.
I followed the columnist Stephen Saban around and took pictures for his monthly nightlife column.

What was different then?
In those days, the parties were just parties. Everything now has a sponsor or a charity or is a book launch. In the days of Studio 54 and Area, a party was its own thing. Bianca riding in on a white horse at Studio 54—that didn’t have a sponsor.

What do you miss from those days?
The people. Steve Rubell. Andy [Warhol]. Eric Goode is still around, but I never see him. He always used to greet you at Area with a smile and a drink ticket. I miss Liz Tilberis.

What don’t you miss?
Drug dealers. Falling-down drunks. People are more responsible now.

You’re known for always asking before taking a picture. Surely someone must have said no?
Well, I remember at Studio 54, Ted Kennedy was there partying and he didn’t want his picture taken. Often it’s husbands out with someone who isn’t their wife. But my philosophy is, if you don’t want your picture taken, stay home. I’m not out to make anybody look bad. But I’m not everybody.

I saw on your site this very sentimental video taken on the last day of the fashion shows in the Bryant Park tents. Tell me about it.
Fashion Week was so great when it first started in Bryant Park. You could go to every show. Fern Mallis told me, “Of course you could go to every show. There were only 46 shows in the beginning.” And everyone did. The same people would just get up and move to the next thing. And there were like three or four big parties a week. Now there’s hundreds of shows and parties. I still go. But I don’t look forward to it like I used to.

You’ve been to everything. Tell me about the best parties you’ve ever been to.
The Vanity Fair Oscar party can’t be beat. I don’t go anymore because they’ve licensed the photo rights to Getty [Images]. It’s great because you watch the whole thing on screens, and then the people just come in, like right off the screen. And the stars are so excited. It’s their night to have fun.

I also remember the old fashion parties. Armani threw a lot of great parties. Linda Gaunt was the person; she did a great job. Huge parties—I remember one at the Armory—but they greeted you and made you feel welcome. And I think of those Versace parties with the models. Linda and Naomi and Claudia. There was really only one supermodel era, and that was it. What was great about those parties were that they were whole evenings. They went on for hours. You had time to take in everything and everyone. I think of the first Love Ball. It went on forever. First the crazy cocktails, then the dinner, and then one show after the other. And the dancing. All good parties have dancing.

Oh and that party Time had for its 75th birthday. That was amazing.

What about the Costume Institute party at the Metropolitan Museum?
So much hubbub. I can take or leave it.

Tell me some of the things that make a good party.
Good security helps. If I see Chuck Garelick or Ty Yorio, then I know it will be under control. I don’t get why these publicity teams sometimes have tough guys at the door. It mars the whole evening.

I like a seated dinner party if it is a small group, but for larger events I think it is better when you seat yourself. At so many galas, there’s great decor and great people, and you feel trapped at your table. People want to get up and move around. Give them a dessert buffet.

Talk to me about step-and-repeats and the ubiquitous red carpets.
Well on the one hand, it’s helpful. You know you can get the big names. But then it can be tacky. These people jumping in each other’s pictures. I hate that. And the PR people can be so controlling. I’ll take a picture of someone who looks great. I love it when people take the time to put together a great outfit. But then I’ll want to see that person in the party, moving, talking, and the PR people are like, no, you can only take their picture in front of the red carpet. Why would someone go to all that trouble to look good if they only wanted their picture taken in front of a vinyl sign?

What’s your fantasy party?
It starts out with a seated dinner on the floor of Madison Square Garden. All dark, but you know there’s vastness around you. Then there’s room for everyone. All your friends come in and take a seat, and it is the best show ever. Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga. Madonna. And of course Liza. I love my divas.

Then a great gift bag. I got a great gift bag [the other night] at the Botanical Garden’s Orchid Dinner. I’ve been waiting to open it. Let’s see … there are some candles. Reed & Barton something. A copy of Veranda. Oh, there’s some datebook with a crown on it … I can’t read it … Mrs. John L. Strong… who is she … oh, let’s see, I think this is a wine stopper …

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