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Sheena, the Punk Rocker, Now Has a Place to Shop

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, April 13, 2008

NEW YORK

Fashion companies open stores all the time and attempt to make a big fuss about them. When Prada opened its flagship in SoHo, shoppers were informed that it was not merely a warehouse of a store that would carry all the brand's divisions, it was an "epicenter," suggesting that Prada was flinging the doors open on something earthshaking.

When Louis Vuitton opened its frosted glass behemoth on Fifth Avenue, the company invited so many gussied-up guests that not all of them could squeeze inside. Security had to hold back the beautiful people with a finger wag and a velvet rope. There was a messy scene of fancy heels and craning necks and the studiously crafted sense that one was getting shut out of something groundbreaking.

So it's out of character that designer John Varvatos would open his new downtown boutique last weekend with just a flick of a light switch. But Varvatos chose to open his store in the former location of CBGB, the nightclub that, to a certain segment of the music-loving population, is hallowed ground. He runs a tremendous risk of being blog-beaten as a greedy carpetbagger -- an uptown purveyor of thousand-dollar blazers looking to profit from downtown cool.

Varvatos is a longtime music fan who has used musicians such as Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick in his advertising campaigns. But a professed love for music is not enough to save him from the sneers of those whose judgment is colored by nostalgia for a stage where Patti Smith and Blondie once performed.

Months before the store opened, cynics worried that the transformation of CBGB into a designer boutique was further evidence that corporate hubris was suffocating the little guy, the independent artist, the starving creative genius and the neighborhood eccentric.

What could Varvatos say in his favor? Until last week, he said nothing. When he began to talk, it was clear that he had been bullied into a defensive crouch.

"It was my driving force to do the right thing," Varvatos said.

The designer had been up most of the night fine-tuning the store and had the bone-tired jitters. Perhaps that is why he sounded as though he had stepped into a confessional and was requesting forgiveness for the sin of . . . what? Taking over an empty space from a business that, through no fault of his, closed in 2006.

"It felt like a religious experience when I used to come here to listen to music," Varvatos said. "I wanted to make sure what we did was credible. That we were not trading on the name. That we had respect for what was here."

Music has always had a thorny relationship with fashion. Artists use fashion to enhance their stage presence and to define their musical sensibility. Fashion uses music for inspiration. It is impossible to separate the rise of designer Vivienne Westwood from the birth of punk rock, for instance. And Debbie Harry, with her dark roots and mod flair, could certainly be described as a fashion icon.

Yet fans of rock, punk -- or that more nebulous category of "alternative" -- love to pretend that there is something sacred about their music. And that the performers aren't in it for the money. It's about the purity of the sound, about rebellion and personal expression. It's not that these musicians -- and their fans -- scorn style. They are, in fact, quite particular about the hang of their jeans, the slouch of their T-shirt or how little they paid for their overcoat.

It's designer fashion they scorn. It's the idea of being able to buy a cloak of creativity, cool or sophistication -- instead of assembling it bit by bit from the $2 bin -- that aggravates. Designer fashion makes style easy. And their music is about taking the harder, less-traveled route.

But Varvatos may have succeeded where the fashion industry has a track record of failure, in part because he seems to have resigned himself to selling his rock bona fides as much as any clothing.

He will not be putting any mannequins in the store window. Instead, the entire entry is given over to vintage albums, retro stereo equipment, newfangled turntables and black-and-white photographs of musicians. When you get to the clothes, they are mostly from Varvatos's less expensive lines, as well as some vintage pieces.

The walls remain covered in scribbled graffiti and thick layers of old music posters, band stickers, concert promotions and whatever other flotsam might have been stapled to the walls and pillars over the course of CBGB's life span. Some sections of the walls are behind plexiglass, treated like ancient cultural artifacts. The detritus-plastered pillars are left uncovered, free to be further defiled.

After Varvatos has shown off every nook and old sticker, he notes that if he hadn't taken the space, surely it would have become a bank, or worse . . . a Starbucks. Doesn't he get credit for that? The arrival of the now ubiquitous coffeehouse might once have been cause for celebration that a struggling neighborhood was gaining economic stability, but now, among the anti-gentrification set, it is akin to a warning that a crack house is moving in next door.

Varvatos is ready for the cynics to take their best shot. He expected quite a wallop from Lynn Yaeger, a Village Voice writer who, upon hearing last winter that he had taken the CBGB lease, wrote an essay that spoke of her sentimental affection for the long-lost music scene. But when she came to preview the shop, after taking it all in with suspicious eyes, she announced: "I guess it's not so bad."

Consider that a rave.

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