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A Punk Temple Reborn: Would You Care to See the $200 Safety Pins?

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

NEW YORK -- New York City will have its very own Extreme Makeover moment next spring when John Varvatos, a high-end men's clothing brand, opens a boutique in the space once occupied by CBGB. That's right, the dingy, pungent and hallowed birthplace of American punk rock -- renowned both for the talent on the stage and the fungus in the men's room -- will be home to a store full of flat-front dress trousers and hydrating facial moisturizer.

Never mind the bollocks, here's a leather hooded jacket for $1,695.

Manhattan has been upscaling for years, so the news, which surfaced on blogs last week, managed to seem both mind-blowing and inevitable at the same time. Still, this has the feel of a Moment, and a good time to ponder what the city is gaining and losing as it sprouts Best Buys and seven-figure one-bedroom condos.

So we recently invited a couple of punk rockers to another Varvatos store, in SoHo, where they were asked to muse aloud about the club and Manhattan and punk, all the while pawing through the merchandise and dealing with sticker shock.

So, ladies and gentlemen, meet two members of the Krays: Johnny Rosado (33, singer, songwriter, guitarist) and Spencer Kray (stage name, the only name he gives, 25, bass).

These guys played CBGB more than a dozen times over the years before the club closed in 2006, after its irascible owner, Hilly Kristal, lost a fight with his landlord and decided to relocate to Las Vegas. (Kristal passed away, at 75, in August.) The Krays were onstage for one of the last shows at CBGB. On a rainy afternoon, they talk wistfully about the club as if it were an idyllic home destroyed by a natural disaster.

"It had the best sound system in the city," says Rosado, who comes across much quieter in person than he does howling on tracks like "Profane Existence." "For smaller bands that had their own sound, it was a great place to present your ideas."

"It felt dangerous," says Kray, who has two-toned hair and an air of intensity. "Fights broke out. The place exuded a kind of excitement."

Rosado and Kray look slightly uncomfortable in the Varvatos store, which is dark-paneled and sleek. A handful of staffers roam around, dressed immaculately in the browns and blacks of Varvatos clothing, much of which looks inspired by the thrift-shop side of rock fashion. On a rack is a wool overcoat that Rosado says is a dead ringer for one that he picked up on the cheap years ago.

"I got one of these for $5," he says, smiling like a man in on a joke. The Varvatos overcoat, it must be said, looks excellent on him.

A lot of the clothes here, it turns out, are basically luxe versions of the garb that Rosado and Kray have been scooping up at secondhand stores for a long time. Kray notices a shelf with a sweater of horizontal stripes that looks uncannily like the one that he has on. Except that the one in the store is made of cashmere and costs $495.

"But someone put a lot of love into that sweater," Kray says, sounding surprisingly sincere about it. "Five hundred bucks' worth of love."

Rosado and Kray both seem slightly depressed. To regulars, of course, any new tenant at 315 Bowery would be trespassing on hallowed ground. If punk had a Vatican, it was CBGB -- it stands for "country, bluegrass and blues" -- which opened in 1973 and quickly became a creative hothouse and communal headquarters for such acts as the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith. For more than three decades, the club was among the most prestigious destinations in New York's kinda-underground rock scene, a vibrant little dump and a cultural landmark rolled into one.

"A lot of vomiting," Rosado says, grinning at the memory. "I found a kid sprawled on the bathroom floor once, and I was like 'What are you doing?' because that floor was the most disgusting thing you'd ever seen."

Kray offers up a CBGB memory involving a band called the Adolescents and a gastrointestinal mishap that is too revolting to recount here.

"Not going to be a lot of puking when this place opens," he says, gesturing to a rack of pants.

Probably not. But John Varvatos (rhymes with Barbados) is hardly the worst fate that could befall rock's most famous vacant space. True, there's nothing punk about the company that owns Varvatos: the gigantic apparel maker VF Corp., which also owns Vans, Wrangler, Lee and other brands and which recently reported that it had sold $5.3 billion of merchandise in the first nine months of the year. And by all means, the price point, as they say in retail, of Varvatos's clothing is beyond the reach of authentic punks.

But Varvatos -- who is an actual person, by the way -- appears to have genuine reverence for rock. Company pitchmen have included Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Chris Cornell, formerly of Soundgarden and Audioslave. The basement floor of the store in SoHo nods to used record shops, right down to selling the vinyl LPs that line one wall. ("I bought that for $5 at Venus Records," says Rosado, pointing at the debut LP of the New York Dolls. Five dollars appears to be his spending limit.) Parts of a drum kit sit in a corner, there's an electric guitar on the wall, plus photos of Jimmy Cliff and Dylan and others.

As contrived as the bric-a-brac at T.G.I. Friday's? Certainly. But at least the bric-a-brac is music-related. Which is more than you'd get with, say, a CVS.

More to the point, punk and fashion have been brethren since the beginning. The Sex Pistols were created and managed by a guy who owned a clothing shop on Kings Road in London. It was there, in front of the jukebox in the store, that Johnny Rotten auditioned for the lead singer's job. Why, a CBGB fashion store opened last year in the East Village.

John Varvatos, the company, declined to comment for this story. A spokesman said that a conference call for reporters is planned for Tuesday, at which time John Varvatos, the man, will outline plans for the CBGB space.

Whatever is said, it's unlikely to appease the Krays. To them, this is just another step toward a lamer, tamer, pricier and more Olive Garden-ish city.

"I'd rather that there was no trace of the place," says Rosado, pausing by a row of $225 dress shirts. "It'd be better if it were just gone. Because this store will use the history of CBGB as a sales ploy -- with posters and stuff like that -- but it will have nothing to do with CBGB. It's not enough to say, 'There's a rock-and-roll feel to our clothing.' "

Kray nods. After some prodding by a reporter, he tries on a leather jacket that he describes as the only item in the store that appeals to him. To his own apparent chagrin, it looks superb.

"That's you, that's you," Rosado says, needling.

"You think?" says Kray. He looks around for the price tag. "Fourteen hundred bucks."

Rosado shrugs.

"Maybe they'll give it to you on layaway."

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