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NaNa: L.A. punk to its roots

Once upon a time, L.A.'s cool kids flocked to NaNa to buy their Docs, see the latest street styles and just hang out.

April 05, 2009|Steffie Nelson

No doubt you've noticed the high-fashion takes on Dr. Martens by designers Yohji Yamamoto and Raf Simons, or the classic eight-hole boots that Cory Kennedy, Tennessee Thomas and other L.A. It girls are sporting in lieu of heels these days. Apparently, the grunge revival is right on schedule. But what most fashion followers don't realize about these working-class staples turned rebel regalia turned teen trend is that without a local company called NaNa, which was the brand's chief U.S. distributor in the '80s and '90s, Docs might have stayed the sole province of British punks and postmen.

The last NaNa store closed its doors in October 2001, but the community that grew up around it -- a community that produced celebrated costume designers Nancy Steiner and Shawn Holly Cookson and Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery -- has recently reconnected via Facebook, with plans underway for a full-on reunion. In fact, before Facebook or MySpace, a store like NaNa essentially was a social networking site: a place to connect with others who, in Steiner's words, "were different like you."

Named for its founder Nancy Kaufman, a redhead from St. Louis who moved to Santa Monica after one particularly bad Missouri winter, NaNa first opened in 1976 in a 125-square-foot free-standing building in the parking lot across from Santa Monica's Ye Olde King's Head tavern, bringing subversive street style to the beach at a time when having pink hair meant you were an outcast, not a pop star.

For the first two years, Kaufman mostly sold clothes she'd made and pieces by other Westside artists, but once NaNa moved to a bigger location on Broadway (and Kaufman teamed up with two partners), the store started importing goods from England, such as the technicolor hair dye later branded in the U.S. as Manic Panic, Mary Quant hosiery and, most famously, punk footwear such as Docs and skull-buckle boots. i-D Magazine was their style bible, and Kaufman would photocopy its pages "to let kids see what kids on the street wore in London."

A mother of two grown children who today owns the funky Santa Monica clothing and gift shop Brat (its name honors NaNa employee Bobbi Brat, who died of cancer at age 26), Kaufman recalls staying up all night making overseas calls to try to track down merchandise. "It wasn't like you could get on the Internet and source something," she says. "Nothing was really easy, but it was very exciting when it arrived. . . . Street fashion really was a revolution."

NaNa continued to expand -- adding two more storefronts along Broadway and splashing the exteriors with then-radical graffiti art -- and it basically kept growing for two decades. Stores in Hollywood, San Francisco and New York followed, and NaNa launched several clothing and shoe lines in addition to stocking early Betsey Johnson and Sue Clowes, who designed clothes for Bananarama and Culture Club and started BOY London. NaNa's shoes, quite literally, became the foundation for almost every alternative look that emerged from the underground music scene, from mod to rockabilly to goth to grunge to Riot Grrrl.

A cool hangout

Not surprisingly, the store became a youth culture mecca. "If you knew about NaNa, then I wanted to be your friend," says Danica Polack, 43, an 11-year veteran of the company who used to take the bus after school from Long Beach just to hang out and was eventually hired. "If you hung around long enough, they'd put you to work!" she adds with a laugh.

As Kaufman describes it, "Some of the interview process was, 'What bands do you like?' and then, 'Do you know how to count?' . . . And that was pretty much it."

Friends of friends tended to get priority. Pam Moore, another staffer of 11 years who performs music these days as Madame Pamita, ran into Steiner, the original NaNa manager, at a Screamin' Jay Hawkins show at the Palomino and learned about a job opening. "I really wanted it," remembers the former punk rocker, who's 44 now and lives in Palms. "It was a dream job because you were a cool kid, finally. You were really something different if you were punk rock back then. People would stare at you walking down the street. It wasn't till I started working at NaNa that I found my family, my tribe, my people."

The aesthetic of the early NaNa tribe was a pastiche of punk staples such as skinny jeans, band T-shirts and brothel creepers, overdyed military surplus, vintage '40s and '50s dresses, mod suits, neon New Wave accents, bondage gear and a hint of western twang. Nobody looked alike.

"Everywhere we went, people asked, 'Who are you? What are you?' " Kaufman says. "We created our own world. They followed us, as opposed to us following them."

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