Q: How did you drift into the retail clothing business?
A: Somebody asked me if I wanted to open up a clothing store. I was in charge of running Glen Echo amusement park. What a crazy thing it was. Guessing weights and ages.
Q: Were you good?
A: It really didn't matter. The prize cost much less than the entry fee. The clothing business is quite treacherous compared to the guessing-weights-and-ages business. The guessing-weights-and-ages business, you have a 6-cent box of happy and you hope that you guess wrong and the person wins. In the clothing business it's entirely different. I try and fulfill some kind of basic needs. The words on our shirt -- "More Fun."
I had an interest in trends always -- musical taste and television programs. When I first went to New York I stood on street corners and saw what the hippies of the day were wearing. Up Against the Wall was born of that generation. I wanted to have blue jeans and crafty items. Items that people would wear in San Francisco and St. Mark's Place in New York. I haven't read Popular Mechanics too much lately, but I would if I thought there was clothing in it. I do read things like Easy Rider, the motorcycle magazine. Not because I'm interested in motorcycles. I'm interested in what they mean.
Q: You're stretching your eye?
A: Yeah, yeah. I read American Surplus every week to see what they're selling in tin cans. You end up looking for bullets so you can make bullet belts or like the old Mexicans used to wear in the cowboy movies.
Commander Salamander I started, wondering maybe I am losing my mind. Maybe I'm really going crazy. Business in general at the time, things were really hard. So every once in a while, just to escape, I'd have a good time fooling around with the people.
We had this military dog tag machine. I used to ask people what their name was and I'd type it out on a dog tag and give it to them. They weren't buying it. I had all these damn pieces of aluminum there with chains. So I started giving it away. I had people come in to see the crazy guy typing.
It made an impression on me. All of a sudden I started to realize that this wasn't a surplus store. The people weren't buying this because they were poor. They were buying it because they were dressing down. So I went up and I stood on that same street corner on St. Mark's Place where I stood eight years before. There was a generation gap! It was impossible. I couldn't be part of a generation gap! I couldn't be older. I mean, me? Nah!
I started getting a very spooky feeling. These kids weren't wearing blue jeans. They were wearing black jeans. These kids weren't wearing long hair. They were wearing short hair. And these kids weren't doing drugs. They were drinking. This was all foreign to me. But the people were the same, the location was the same. And these kids with short hair were punks. A band named Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols whom I'd never heard of, right? I walk into this store and this store is like ridiculous. Torn shirts. Spikes on stuff. This store is bizarre. All of a sudden I started putting it together. These are the same people that I dealt with in the original days when Up Against the Wall was an antiestablishment clothing store. It was just a different rule. Shock value.
So, these dog tags led to the hair spray. We found out about this stuff called Crazy Color they'd been using in beauty parlors, that was temporary. Well that was just great for me. I got a kick out of it. Come up to somebody and ask them if I could color their hair. You get a little bold toward the end of the day. Might open up a bottle of champagne or drink a few beers. It became quite involuntary. Sometimes I was a little bit past the limits of propriety in how I sort of enlisted people automatically to get their hair colored.
QL Any age, it didn't stop you?
A: No, it didn't matter who you were.
Q: Anybody get angry?
A: Yeah, of course. I got clobbered a couple of times. I don't know what these people thought. I don't even know what I thought. You get yourself in the middle of it and you realize you're doing it and you don't even know why you did it. But you find yourself doing it again because it's so ridiculous. You're just caught up in this magic role of what I call shock value.
Q: Let's talk about what you have on. You've got on a Commander Salamander Day-Glo T-shirt that says --.
A: "More Fun Today." Before it becomes a real viable enterprise, every store needs a successful product that people know that they can get. Up Against the Wall, with its Landlubber blue jeans. E.F. Sly with its Wild Mustang jeans.
Q: And at Commander Salamander?
A: It was this dinner jacket. A white dinner jacket. I was out in California at Camp Beverly Hills. They were just starting up and this place was so much fun. They were drinking champagne. They were good dancers. They were show people. June Taylor was nothing next to them.
Chuck, my partner, went out there and helped set up their inventory system. I don't know how he did that. He never set up ours. But I went out there and he said to me, "Tony Awards are tonight. It's going to be a funny thing, cause everybody's going to wear the same thing. They're going to wear used dinner jackets." I said, "You're crazy." "Yeah," he said. "They are. They all came in and bought. Famous people. You ought to buy some dinner jackets." So I said, all right, send me 500 dinner jackets. Lo and behold, people bought these things like crazy. We started to have a product.
All of a sudden we were spraying people's hair that were wearing these dinner jackets and putting on all this ridiculous makeup and giving them a dog tag. The dog tags were starting to take time. I was running out of dog tags. I had to buy more. We'd be walking down St. Mark's Place. It suddenly occurred to me these kids are wearing buttons like crazy. So we started handing out buttons.
We started investing this incredible amount of money in every customer. You got your button. The buttons cost us 12 cents. They could cost us 9 but we get involved in the extra colors and the art work and everything so that's 12 cents, okay? Now you can get your hair colored, that's another 20 cents. That's 32 cents, okay? You get a dog tag. That was 60 cents. Now we're up to 92 cents. And walk out. But you would tell somebody you were at Commander Salamander.
I used to stand in front of the store at nights and listen to what people said. I didn't know what it meant to me, so I'd listen to what it meant to other people. "Look at this crazy place," they'd say. "It's a sex shop." I couldn't figure that out. They knew that it was foreign. But they didn't know what it was. I didn't know what it was and I was the one creating it. So I fully forgave them. We gave away our buttons and God knows how many cases of champagne. The police could lock me up but I don't know how many kids under 18 got their first glass of champagne from us till we stopped doing it. So it became a store dedicated to music.
Q: Dedicated to music?
A: Music was something you watched. People wearing performing type clothes. Shock. Dazzle. It is not a punk store. It carries everything that a punk could want. It's definitely not a sex store. But if you wanted to be an exotic dancer, it's a good place. It's certainly not a place that Liberace would buy his clothes, although I carry a few items that Liberace wears. During Halloween we have sequins all over. And it pervades music. The hair spray's great for dancing. Off the light, glitter. The makeup is made for people on stage. Halloween is when everybody gets to be a performer. We carry greasepaints. All of a sudden we had a disc jockey booth. We had a stage. We had stage lights. So you can see what you look like on stage.
Q: But what about the troupe of black Girl Scouts I saw in here spraying their hair?
A: They're all musicians in their own mind. They are. Feeling. Festivity. "More fun today." All these things that didn't make any sense but were more fun. "More fun today." All our T-shirt ideas. We have this character right now called Bonnie Barbell. We had Commander Cat. I don't know what they mean but I guess they're the animated part of our world of music. It's a shocking type place and we plan it to be that. But we plan to be shocking good, okay?
Q: Shocking good, not shocking obscene?
A: Yeah. I mean it can be a little obscene, don't get me wrong. I have carried Yasser Arafat scarves and had them call me up about this. Say "Take the scarf out of the window!" I mean the Yasser Arafat situation came from Chuck's mother! What the heck, I happen to know more people from Middle Eastern backgrounds that are not Jewish than Jewish, what are you talking about? Why can't a man wear a scarf? A T-shirt will come in and it will have a religious symbol on it and like we draw the line somewhere, don't get us wrong. But I mean you're going to be shocked by something somewhere. We really are making fun of everything, in a good way. Trying to just dazzle the senses.
Q: Dazzle the senses? I mean you do get into S & M items, though?
A: Yeah, whips and stuff like that. But nobody buys whips from a store like me. They go buy 'em from a whip store. Somebody that's really into it, they go to a place that's really into it. This is ludicrous, for a person like that to come to a place like this. Somebody buys a whip for somebody wants to shock them. Who buys handcuffs in Commander Salamander? Not the police. Not the kids on the street. People in business suits. They give 'em to people they want to handcuff.
Q: They do it as a friendly gesture?
A: Yeah. I don't think they ever get unlocked or locked. If we didn't have keys it would be just as fine. It becomes a novelty, like the pet rock. We try and present it in a manner that it is sort of fun. There's a handcuff, there's a whip, there's a tutu.
Q: There are obscene greeting cards.
A: Yeah, right. We're not afraid to carry anything. We try not to carrying anything that infringes upon one's belief in God. I'm not going to carry the thing that's not fun.
Q: Do you ever hear from parents that they don't love the idea that their kids come home with a card from your shop?
A: I try and make it so that the parents understand it. I can understand the parents' feelings. Why do we do such a thing? I don't know why we do such a thing is the answer. We try and position the cards, by the way, so that there is this equation with height. It's happened to me twice where I'm doing somebody's hair and she might be 13 or 14 years of age, and then all of a sudden I find out that I know her daddy. Ha ha ha. It's already too late, you know, ha ha ha. I've never run into a problem. We've had people that couldn't get the stuff back out of their hair for a couple of days. It's only happened a couple of times. This is an environmental experience. Environmental shopping.
Q: Do you reach a saturation point on this?
A: Not to the point where you can say that Washington is hard to get something started in -- and once it's here it's so conservative they'll even accept this wild thing for a long period of time.
I wouldn't put colored hair in Up Against the Wall. That would have been bizarre. That's not hip, right? That's not vegetarian. This was synthetic, you know? Now I'm into synthetics. I don't know that we're any different than Garfinckel's with their finery. We'll have that colored hair spray 20 years from now. There's a great function to highlight glitter. It sparkles. I don't think that light's gonna go out of style. Most of our items aren't in style, so they don't go out of style. Our items tend to transcend different markets. Our wristband is a motorcycle guy's garment. I've heard that it's an S & M piece. I've heard that it's a punk piece. It's a wristband, is what it is. But it's all these functions that it can fill. Halloween's when they sell the best.
Q: Is there an age limit?
A: No. None whatsoever. There used to be an old shoe repair shop here years ago. And these elderly ladies would come in. They'd been going here for 30 years. We'd tell them that the shoe store was no longer here, and it used to tickle me. They'd look around a bit and then all of a sudden you'd see one of these ladies, about six months later, in there buying something. You say what's going on here? I've lost my mind entirely! They'd be buying beaded scarves, or maybe glitter panty hose. Probably going to wear them with a nice evening outfit and going to be nothing different than what she wore 40 years ago. Probably made by exactly the same manufacturer to boot. We have something for a 1-year-old. Little T-shirts. My daughter wears Commander Salamander. It's the shocking part of a person's wardrobe. I don't know what type of a person shops at Commander Salamander. I wouldn't even begin to tell you the largest percentage of how old. I wouldn't have any idea. Our merchandise mixture -- we sell very inexpensive items and we go as high as you can go. There's always the type of person wants the spectacular. We were considering for Halloween a set of armor. A $4,000 costume. We sell so many crazy things. The spiderwebs. We're getting in a jacket made out of velvet and suede and chintz and leather. It makes a spiderweb and it goes way off the arms to one side. It's $600. I never felt safer about buying something for $600 in my whole life. Why? Because there's definitely one individual that wants the spiderjacket. I don't know if there's one individual that wants to buy a lambswool coat but I know that there's some guy out there that wants a spiderjacket.
Q: Why is it all working for you and it's not working in other parts of the city? Why is the city generally so --.
A: So conservative? I think that the city is less conservative than you think. We are for everybody. I know I'm right 'cause I can point to everybodies every Friday and Saturday when they come in the store. We have customers make a purchase every single day for a week. Tourists will do that. That amazes me, but it's true. They've got somebody at home that they want to buy something for.
I disagree with almost everybody about the Washington conservative nature. I think that Washingtonians aren't conservative. There's a certain element of conservatives that you can find in any city and Washington's is more visible. The basic Washington consumer is just as trendy as any other city with the exception of maybe a small area of downtown Manhattan. One of my competitors is in Paris and New York. I think that's who competes with me a lot of times for the fashion dollar.
Q: Why do you think we've locked ourselves into this image?
A: Washington just sort of sits there with a conservative image. When you start to take apart that image it's no longer conhat cservative. It's like the mass customer. I don't know who the mass customer is. They don't exist. There's feta cheese, you put salami on it, you put some spareribs. You put it all on a sandwich, there's no way in the world it tastes good. You take it apart they taste great individually. I think that's the same point of analysis when you look at this Washington market. It's an image that's far more realistic like at 9:30 in the morning. I don't think it means a thing at 6 o'clock at night. They're just as crazy drunk or whatever as everyplace else. They might not be quite as loud as Texas. They might not be quite as up-to-date as New York. But it is definitely trendy.