Thursday, April 13, 2006

Can edgy be edgy ...... when it’s everywear?

By Jeff Daniel

ST. LOUIS - Donna Knott remembers her first punk rock concert quite well. As she should.

The year was 1977, and Knott made her way to a Belleville club to hear pioneering punk band the Ramones.

“That was something I’ll never forget,” says Knott, owner of local vintage clothing distributor Hullabaloo.

And these days, who can forget the Ramones? Long after it stopped making music — founding members Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee have passed away — the band remains in the public eye as an increasingly popular fashion statement. Paris Hilton has sported the iconic Ramones T-shirt, as has Maddox, the young son of Angelina Jolie.

On his Web site, long-time Ramones creative director Arturo Vega sells not only the shirts, but items including handbags, umbrellas and matching hat and scarf sets — all with that famous Ramones logo.

But the “Blitzkrieg Bop” boys are hardly alone in their increased profile. Punk edge, spawned from rebelliousness and individualism, is more widely accessible than ever. Looking for a CBGB T-shirt, long a symbol of underground and outsider creativity? Try the Web site of the upscale department store Nordstrom. While there, check for new tattoo-inspired shirts and accessories from Hart & Huntington — think skull and crossbones — or head soon to Kohl’s for the company’s more affordable clothing line.

Or perhaps venture to a nearby mall, where the Hot Topic chain offers the opportunity to purchase a studded leather belt or bondage pants. Last week, that store’s St. Louis Galleria location — just a few hundred feet from the mall’s Disney Store — prominently spotlighted a Dead Kennedy’s T-shirt in its display window. For those who came of age singing along to songs such as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” the juxtapositions can be a bit jarring. The DKs and Disney in the same neighborhood? Back in the day, who would have thought?

“And a CBGBs shirt at Nordstrom?” asks Knott. “Now that is a little shocking.”

Vega, the man responsible for creating the Ramones designs, admits that he’s a bit unsettled with the popularity of a punk aesthetic he helped create.

“I kind of have a love-hate relationship with that fact,” he says during a recent phone conversation from his home on Joey Ramone Way in New York City. “I mean, it’s cool that things are more available, but I think the main reason that kids get these things is for fashion. It has nothing to do with punk or the band.”

Vega worked with the Ramones (he also served as lighting director) from the band’s beginnings more than three decades ago. Back then, the foursome’s trademark ripped jeans were simply ripped jeans: Years later a similar look would be sold at boutiques and retail stores as a fashion item. The shirts eventually would also make a mark of their own.

“It has definitely taken off the past few years,” Vega says. “This mass appeal is pretty new.”

But the shirt had always done well with the new-music crowd, he adds, enough that the band supported itself early-on through its sales. As for the sudden popularity of Ramones items, Vega labels it “a phenomenon.”

“You die, and you become a legend,” he explains. “And that’s what they are now, true icons, in an age where icons have less and less credibility. Plus, the Ramones have always kept that image of the ultimate underdog, and I think that appeals to young people.” He stops and breaks into a laugh:

“Of course, the designs are really cool, too.”

While the Ramones had Vega in their camp, some members of modern punk-influenced bands have taken fashion matters into their own hands. Green Day; Blink 182; Good Charlotte; musicians in all three have started clothing lines. As Hullabaloo’s Knott points out, the environment is quite different than the one she encountered in her youth. Wanting to “think and dress rebellious,” she hit the vintage stores and crafted her own look. In 1984, she opened her store, which attracted patrons from as far away as Chicago.

“It was kind of unheard of to have all this wild and wacky stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Knott, who plans to open a retail shop in the Pageant building in June. “And now, of course, much of that is in the mainstream.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, she adds, noting that a common first response is to harbor a feeling of “Oh crap, this used to be so special, so underground.” To Knott, the accessibility of edgy style should be viewed as a positive, not a negative. More democratic.

“I’m just glad that so many people can be turned on to so many great ideas,” she says.

But can fashion remain individualistic and still hold mass appeal? Can edgy be edgy when it’s everywhere?

“I do consciously think about that quite a lot,” says Dylan Raasch, creative director for Macbeth, a footwear company co-founded by former Blink 182 member Tom Delonge. “The right balance can be tough to find.”

As might be expected, Raasch uses a music act as an analogy to make his point— Radiohead, a band that tops the charts yet continues to experiment with its sound. Still, he adds, developing an individual style these days is a tough go.

“We try to come up with as many original ideas as we can, which is getting harder and harder each day,” Raasch says. “Information is traveling so fast. Everything is everywhere now.”

Josh Merrell of Hart & Huntington echoes the line about the difficulty of finding a balance between larger market and cutting edge. “It’s certainly something we consider,” he says. “How can we be sophisticated, but still keep things edgy?”

Tony Hawk at Kohl’s
In March, Kohl’s began carrying a line of skate wear branded by Tony Hawk, the most legendary of skateboarders — a subculture long known for developing its own sense of outsider style. In interviews after the partnership announcement, Hawk explained his coupling with the national department store.

“It’s about making the line more accessible,” he told the San Diego Union Tribune. “I don’t want to be an elitist.” Later, in a press release, Hawk said that “we are committed to making sure that the product, the marketing and the vibe of the line is true to our roots.”

Asked about Hawk’s move into Kohl’s, skater Scott Laird of St. Charles shrugged his shoulders and offered a nonchalant: “It’s all right.” Laird, 18, had just finished up a session with several skater buddies at a local skate park. One of them, Joe Silver, 16, chimed in with a slightly less-enthusiastic take.

“It’s kind of dumb, but I guess he’s making money,” said Silver. “But it’s kind of like, ‘Now everybody can be a skateboarder!’” Laird and Silver sport more of an anti-style than any noticeable style at all: a T-shirt that may or may not advertise a skateboard product; comfortable jeans or chinos; a pair of sneakers. Then again, these aren’t just any sneakers.

“Have to be Nike,” Laird and Silver say in unison with another Nike-clad friend, Mike Soto. The bottom line for anything worn, all agree, is comfort. As for creating a certain look, well, Silver figures that anything the skaters try will later show up on the nonskating crowd — as it almost always has.

“They’re always robbing us,” Silver says, shaking his head back and forth. “That’s why I don’t wear skate clothes very much.”

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