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Active Cultures: whipping up the electroclash scene

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Lora Chasteen says that most salespeople at punk shops in the Clark and Belmont area seem to think being surly on the job gives the fishnets and creepers they're pushing a whiff of authenticity. But she and her husband, Pier Novikov, who own the boutique Medusa's Circle, request that their employees be attentive and friendly as they help customers select just the right pair of bondage pants. Says Chasteen, "I've never fit a mold, and sometimes it's been kind of lonely. Maybe this sounds weird, but I've always liked us misfits to have a look--it gives me a sense of belonging."

Chasteen grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and when she finished high school in 1990 she hightailed it to Miami to attend the International Fine Arts College (now Miami International University of Art and Design). She met Novikov, who had emigrated there from Russia with his family in 1988, in one of her first fashion design classes, and she says it was love at first sight. After graduation they got married and opened the first outpost of Medusa's Circle in Miami Beach, selling punk and goth accessories and clothing, some handmade by Chasteen. But after two years they realized Miami tourists might be the wrong market for their wares and decided to give Chicago a try.

In 1994 they rented a storefront at 3268 N. Clark, just north of the Alley's alternaculture megaplex, and Medusa's Circle has been there ever since. The shop's selection changes according to the tastes of the owners. "We're always trying to evolve," says Chasteen. "If you step back every few years and take inventory of our store, you'll see a definite difference." A couple years ago she was deconstructing Motley Crue and Poison T-shirts and selling them by the bushel; lately the pair's embraced the ironic, flashy electroclash scene, stocking pleather and lace miniskirts and sparkly leg warmers alongside the studded wristlets.

Though people have been buying the new merchandise, Chasteen and Novikov noticed last year that clubs weren't playing the new wave and electro they wanted to hear. So Novikov asked a friend at Watusi--a trendy Wicker Park restaurant with a low-profile bar scene--if he could hook him up with a DJ slot. In September Novikov got his chance. He and Chasteen dubbed the evening "Retro-Trash Electro-Clash" and printed flyers encouraging attendees to "dress 80s." The bar was packed as he spun Depeche Mode and Miss Kittin, and the restaurant offered him a monthly gig.

The couple promoted the event through the store and Chasteen gave away trinkets like neon bracelets and eye glitter to the throngs at the bar. By February she and Novikov realized they were spending so much money on promotion that they weren't breaking even. "The major downfall of Watusi is that it's not really a club and there's no real dance floor," says Chasteen. "Every time, our friends would ask, 'So where are you going to do this next?' We got the hint."

Promoter Tony Duffy, a friend best known for the fetish parties he used to throw at Crobar and the Dome Room, took the idea to the honchos at Vision, a River North club that generally features straight-up techno DJs. The club agreed to let them have a night to prove themselves. At Novikov's insistence Duffy contacted Larry Tee, the New York promoter, label owner, and DJ responsible for making electroclash such a hyped phenomenon, and talked him and W.I.T.--his all-girl "band" of miniskirted, lip-synching minions--into playing. "I like cheesy, fun things, and I think there's enough people in this city who can laugh at themselves to make this worthwhile," says Chasteen. "If both the store and Watusi have been successful, why wouldn't this be too?"

Retro-Trash Electro-Clash takes place Friday, April 25, at Vision, 640 N. Dearborn, with DJs Novikov, Tee, and Ryan Bedlam, plus a set by W.I.T. There's a $10 cover from 10 to 11; after 11 it's $20. You must be 21 or over; call 312-266-2114 or 773-935-5950 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.

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