My friend Haoui Montaug used to live in a loft on the corner of the Bowery and East 2nd Street, where Kelley and Ping now has the ground-floor restaurant. Haoui, a locally famous downtown-club doorman, was also a self-styled impresario with a roving cabaret revue called “No Entiendes” that showcased acts from the appallingly untalented to the dubiously gifted, including, believe it or not, a very young Madonna.
Haoui died in 1991, long before the Bowery began its spectacular climb from bohemia to the upper middle class. Now his old loft is across from a place called the Bowery Hotel, where rates begin at $525 a night, and even the tattoo parlor across the street, which opened long after Haoui left the scene, has been replaced by a for-rent sign.
I swear I didn’t mean to write another hand-wringer about the ruination of another slice of Manhattan—I mean, I was just weeping and wailing over the demise of Bleecker Street a few weeks ago—but then I found out that the designer John Varvatos intends to open one of his menswear boutiques in the building that once held the fabled CBGB.
Varvatos is, by reputation, a guy who loves rock ‘n’ roll—he has used Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper in ad campaigns—and no doubt he has a genuine longing to hang his plaque where Patti Smith and Talking Heads once commanded the stage. (I don’t know for sure, since my repeated pleas for comment received the brush-off.)
Who will Varvatos’s new neighbors be? If he opens in a hurry, his street-mates may yet include Marion’s Continental restaurant, Pat Field’s (a fairly recent arrival, but it feels as if she’s been here forever), a few remaining kitchen-supply houses (including one recently selling saucers for 75 cents each—they’re overpriced), the Bowery Poetry Club, Downtown Music Gallery, and the Salvation Army. But Varvatos had better rush, lest these survivors are swept away in the next few months too.
Am I just a sentimental fool? Am I the last one at the party, too drunk to notice that the real Bowery, now squeaky clean and sober, left the room years ago? I decide to walk over to CB’s—maybe Varvatos is hanging around outside and he’ll give me a quote?—and at first I can’t even find it. But then I recognize the curved metal skeleton that once held the famous white canopy. A sign in the window directs interested parties to (not a joke) email@example.com.
While Varvatos may indeed think of himself as a rebel, a recent visit to his extremely posh shop in the irredeemably gentrified confines of Soho finds T-shirts decorated with pictures of guitars for $125 and a jacket made from a cow for $3,495. The entire downstairs looks like the lobby of a Victorian hotel that has been taken over by a rock band—faded oriental carpets and plush divans next to cymbals, speakers, and turntables. (Is it an homage to the Rolling Stones on tour in Brighton?) There are even vintage vinyl LPs for sale— a copy of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1972 Trilogy is $20. Maybe Varvatos bought them at Downtown Music Gallery?
Desperate to locate an old-timer to give me a little perspective on the subject, I decide to ring up Deborah Harry. The legendary Blondie was the unrivaled queen of the Bowery in the ’70s and ’80s. She remembers where she and her bandmates got their clothes back in the day, and it certainly wasn’t at boutiques selling $100 T-shirts.
“The bum stores along Houston Street,” she recollects fondly. “They sold a lot of fun, interesting stuff from barrels or racks out on sidewalks. You’d find great stuff for a nickel in those days.” When even a nickel was too much, she says, “it seemed like there was really good garbage. I’m not in the garbage business any more, but when I first moved here and we didn’t have any dough, we found great stuff in the garbage.” It was all part of an aesthetic Harry calls the Lower East Side look, a style composed of “trades, vintage junk, and ripped-up stuff.”
This was all good until Harry encountered fashion designer Stephen Sprouse, who lived a floor above her on the Bowery between Prince and Houston, a block that is relatively unchanged today if you overlook the Whole Foods behemoth colonizing the southeast corner. “Stephen took me in hand,” she recalls. “He scolded me for looking like an idiot—one day cowboy boots and a ’40s dress, then something else. I was always experimenting. I was a disaster area. I learned over the years, but back then I had no money; I threw stuff on. Stephen really organized me.”
Sprouse, who died in 2004, is perhaps best remembered for splashing graffiti on Louis Vuitton satchels, a style he created for his old friend Marc Jacobs, another downtown veteran who made good and eventually became Vuitton’s creative director. (Can we expect an LV store on the Bowery soon?)
Sprouse convinced Harry to try out a different silhouette, “very ’60s French movie,” she says, and decidedly influenced by the look of Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless: “trench coats with berets, boots, narrow lapels— going against the ’70s wide lapels.”
To this day, Harry follows Sprouse’s advice about what to wear onstage (she performs next on November 8 at Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza.) “Steve said I should dress simply and monochromatically,” she says. “He taught me that makes me look longer—it makes more of a statement.” For her upcoming concert, she is considering “a black ballet scoop-neck mini dress, but I might change my mind. I might start out with a trench coat.”
Does Harry get over to the Bowery much these days? “I go to Pat Field’s sometimes—I love Pat. But I think it’s not a romantic place for me anymore. I was a young person coming to New York, and I had my romance with the city at an unusual time. There were so many great opportunities for artists and young people. We could be paupers and still have a great time.”
She sighs, recalling the New York of her youth: “It was a bankrupt, garbage-strewn dump.”