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The House of Mod

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Every day at Paraphernalia was an event. “We wanted to make Paraphernalia a terrific place to spend an afternoon,” Young says. Ask anyone who was involved about his or her favorite moment at the shop, and no two remember the same things. The store would stay open until midnight some nights. Sometimes, the clothes would not be hanging from racks; they’d be shown only on video. Other times, the vitrines would be painted black. “It was really about doing anything you could do that shook up the status quo,” Schumacher says. “We all just sat around and thought of anything you could do that went Fuck you in the eye of convention. And that’s what we’d do.” Betsey Johnson stuck three neon bikinis in a tennis-ball can and sold them that way, and made dresses from bright, transparent plastic disks that could be moved around and rearranged.

“Take it from me,” Johnson says. “There will never be another chunk of time of such pure genius, from the invention of pantyhose to landing on the moon to the Pill to the drugs. And it was the first and last time that fashion really, really changed.”

The bold optimism of that period has an obvious hold on designers’ imaginations this spring: Dolce & Gabbana revived Paraphernalia’s silver fabrics; Prada went Twiggy-short and accessorized with geometric plastic jewelry and flat silver sandals; at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs showed bright floral dresses—in rubber.

To those who lived through it, however, nothing will ever quite compare with the originals. Ellin Saltzman, the former fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman, avows that the hottest thing she’s ever owned was a white Paraphernalia Mongolian lamb coat, and Anna Sui still dreams about the pleated minidress—black and pale-pink crêpe—that she didn’t buy in spite of its “perfection.” “I’ve been overcompensating ever since,” Sui says. She still keeps, perfectly preserved, a folder of Paraphernalia ads she ripped from Mademoiselle as a Detroit teenager in 1968.

Anna Sui still dreams about the minidress she didn’t buy in spite of its “perfection.” “I’ve been overcompensating ever since,” she says.

Ultimately, the brand’s explosive success led to its downfall. “In order to keep the prices down, we had to make more clothes,” Young explains, “so we started to franchise.” By the end of 1968, there were four Paraphernalia stores in Manhattan, one in Southampton, and 44 in the United States. Soon, the brand had become far too diffuse to mean anything at all. And what it represented those first few years no longer mattered much. Debauched socialites and outré Warholians were confronting their inevitable hangovers, and the world was moving on to an era that was far darker.

Young and Rosen had a falling-out, the chain went public, and Rosen and Puritan left the business. Rosen bought the license to Calvin Klein jeans in 1976, and after his death in 1983, Puritan was bought by Klein and his partner, Barry Schwartz. Young started a fashion consultancy, then moved to London to open Escalade, sort of a Paraphernalia in reverse: a shop that brought American fashion to Londoners and was anchored by a hamburger joint called the Long Island Expressway. He was instrumental in launching the career of Kenzo, loaning him the £2,000 he needed to make his first collection for the store. Later, he worked in tandem with a French company to bring Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons to the American and European markets.

And then he changed his life completely. For the past five years, Young has been living in rural Kentucky and working as a missionary.

Schumacher went to Hollywood, and Johnson joined forces with two Paraphernalia managers to open Betsey, Bunky, Nini on Lexington Avenue before ultimately going into business for herself. Paraphernalia franchises remained open until the late seventies, long after the flagship closed. But like all great things whose time has passed, it just wasn’t the same.

“The whole thing had ended!” Johnson says. “Everybody was OD’ing.” She lets out a dramatic sigh. “In the seventies, everything had to be made of cotton and flowers. I guess it was all right that it ended the way it did. It couldn’t have lasted.”


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