The House of Mod

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.”

During a research trip to Europe, Young became fascinated with London’s boutique explosion, epitomized by the phenomenal success of Biba, which opened in 1964 filled with racks of vinyl miniskirts and delirious prints. He felt certain that New York was ripe for the concept, but Penney’s wasn’t interested in investing. Carl Rosen, the CEO of Puritan Fashion, a Seventh Avenue manufacturer of basic, traditional dresses, liked the idea. Rosen, who died in 1983, had a penchant for the groovy: He held the license to make Beatles T-shirts. (It follows quite neatly that Edie Locke, then the fashion editor of Mademoiselle, says of Paraphernalia, “It was to fashion what the Beatles were to music.”) “We knew about Carnaby Street,” says Lee Mellis, Puritan’s CFO at the time, “so we were ready to do it.”

Young opened a division of Puritan called Youthquake in 1965 and got to work. “Carl Rosen said I could do the store if it would cost less than $10,000,” Young says. “So I said sure, and then, of course, once it got rolling, it was too late to stop.” He imported Brits like Mary Quant and Ossie Clark but, most important, sought out young, untested American talent. There was Joel Schumacher (that Joel Schumacher, future Hollywood director of St. Elmo’s Fire, Batman Forever, and Bad Company), at the time a recent fashion-school grad who was making a living decorating the windows at Henri Bendel, and there was also Betsey Johnson, a zany assistant in the art department of Mademoiselle—she had won the magazine’s Guest Editor contest for college students and was charming the staff with the little sweaters and T-shirt dresses she sewed at home. She was “young and kicky and with-it,” Mademoiselle’s Locke remembers. So when Young called looking for ideas, Locke didn’t hesitate to recommend her. Johnson still remembers her first meeting with Young: “I had all these crayon drawings, and I went to meet Paul and there he was, drawing with crayons.” She was hired on the spot.

In 1965, women could not wear trousers to dine at La Côte Basque—or to work in most offices. “You have to realize how square everything was,” says Schumacher. “When we opened, women were still wearing hats and gloves. There was even a union rule that no dress could be shipped unless it was a certain length.” When Betsey Johnson arrived at City Hall to marry John Cale in a burgundy crushed-velvet tunic over a pair of matching trousers, she was turned away for wearing pants. “I went home,” she remembers, “and then I came back without the pants. Definitely showing crotch.” But rules were rules; they let her get married.

For Young and his team, the thing was to shock, to stand out. In a 1966 issue of Mademoiselle, an ad for a no-nonsense Maidenform girdle runs a page away from an ad for Paraphernalia that reads, DO YOU THINK MINISKIRTS ARE TOO MARVELOUSLY MINISCULE TO BELIEVE?

Because fashion was moving at warp speed, Paraphernalia sold clothes that were—literally—perishable. “It was the first era of throwaway clothes,” Johnson says. “The look, the vibe, the groove, they were like Laugh-In—there for the impact. And they kind of fell apart.”

“It was a very innovative time for fashion,” says the vintage-clothing dealer Keni Valenti. “Now fashion is just one big vintage revival. That was the last of the really, really innovative, the really experimental. The only thing you could do now that would be like that is run around naked.”

During the day, the stars of Manhattan’s nighttime world could often be found at Paraphernalia. “There were certain people who were always out,” Marisa Berenson says, “and we all went to Paraphernalia.” Jane Holzer describes the opening party in November 1965 as “Big Deal Warhol.” “I thought it would be a good idea to have English models,” Young says, “so I hired Patti Boyd, who was the girlfriend of George Harrison at the time. I also hired Jean Shrimpton, and then let her and Mary Quant collaborate on a line.”

Johnson and Schumacher hung out at Max’s Kansas City and knew everyone who could make a party a party, and they all showed up. “We had the runway in the workroom,” says Johnson, “and a rock-and-roll band. Anjelica Huston, Apollonia, Veruschka, Lauren Hutton … rock-and-rolling up and down the runway.” Top models at that time worked only in photo shoots, not on catwalks, so having these stars was something of a coup. “The opening of Paraphernalia was the only runway I ever walked, except maybe Halston,” remembers Berenson. “And it was really fun.” Young also installed a gorgeous young socialite named Susan Burden as the store’s first manager. “She was friends with Joan Kennedy, who was married to Ted at the time, so they would hang out,” he remembers.

In the first two weeks Paraphernalia was open, the store sold completely out of merchandise and had to close until the owners could produce enough inventory to keep going.

Soon thereafter, someone from the Factory called: Could Edie Sedgwick borrow some silver clothes? Andy, after all, was covering his studio in aluminum foil. Of course she could, and they suited her so well she became Johnson’s fit model. There she is in Ciao! Manhattan, shopping at Paraphernalia with Nena Thurman, mother of Uma, who was recently divorced from Timothy Leary. Julie Christie was photographed by Women’s Wear Daily in a tiny long-sleeved minidress by Betsey Johnson for Paraphernalia, and “the Julie Christie” quickly became the store’s signature style.

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.”

The House of Mod