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The House of Mod

Silver minis. Vinyl dresses. Neon bikinis. Believe it or not, they were shocking once. The year was 1965. The place: Paraphernalia, the boutique that set the city swinging.


This spring, as the mini makes one of its almost perennial reappearances on the fashion landscape, it’s difficult to remember a time when it was actually new—let alone shocking. But there was one. It was in 1965 that the mini arrived, as if from outer space, and it touched down in New York in a spaceship-sleek boutique called Paraphernalia on the corner of 67th and Madison. Once British entrepreneur Paul Young opened his doors and installed a go-go girl in the window, fashion would never be the same.

Shopping for stylish clothing in those days occurred in the big stores: Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman. “Most stores treated young people like they were there to steal something,” Young remembers. “Nobody was serving them at all.”

Chic boutiques with design ambitions, clothes displayed like art in a gallery, cooler-than-thou young salesgirls, and rock and roll blaring from the speakers—shops that marketed clothes as part of a whole, deliriously amusing lifestyle—didn’t exist. “It was like, if you shopped there, you could turn into Jean Shrimpton instantly,” Wendy Wasserstein remembers of Paraphernalia. “You could go right next door to Vidal Sassoon and have your hair straightened, too. I thought the salesgirls were the most sophisticated people in the world. I thought that just by working there, they were practically sleeping with Mick Jagger.”

“It was modern, it was clean, and that had never been done before,” says Patricia Field of the store’s spare design. “Everything else was more on the traditional side. It was completely original for New York. That is what we do not see today: the originality of design in every respect.” The space itself—all curved steel and chrome and white walls—was designed by Ulrich Franzen, the modernist architect, who also designed theater and museum spaces (for, among other clients, the Whitney) and sleek office towers, like the Philip Morris building.

Then there were the clothes, all bearing the Paraphernalia label. Some were made from plastic and paper and vinyl. Some glowed in the dark, some reflected light—there were even some that grew when watered.

“It was like, if you shopped at Paraphernalia, you could turn into Jean Shrimpton instantly,” says Wendy Wasserstein.

The silhouette was boyish, meant to be worn without your mother’s pointy bras and waist-cinching girdles. Paraphernalia was the first to market must-have trends to a young audience at relatively low prices. And they got them there fast. “If they thought of it Monday,” says Andy Jassin, who worked for the boutique’s manufacturer, “it was in the store Friday.”

Paraphernalia’s young designers did not invent mod—but Young was certainly the first to import it and drop the price. “Nothing,” says Betsey Johnson, one of the store’s designers, “could cost more than a ticket to Puerto Rico. And that was $99.” André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne, and Pierre Cardin were already fashioning dresses from white leather and plastic disks; Rudi Gernreich was slashing the top off a jersey dress. But all of this high fashion was prohibitively expensive. Most girls with the legs to pull it off were years from affording it.

Paul Young came to the United States in the mid-fifties, besotted with an American stewardess he met in Ghana, where he was working for United Africa, a conglomerate owned by Lever. United Africa had a retail division, so when he arrived in the U.S., he found a job working at J.C. Penney in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He got over the stewardess but fell in love with America, and with retail. “You have to figure out a way to make a name for yourself in such a big company,” he says, “and I realized pretty quickly that teenagers didn’t have anywhere to go, and that we should focus on them.” J.C. Penney agreed, and Young began to rise through the ranks, eventually getting transferred to the chain’s Long Island store, where he came up with the concept of promoting clothes in tandem with teen pop stars like Jan and Dean. “I really felt there was a strong connection between music and fashion,” he says, “and nobody was exploring it.”

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