Raggedy Dandies

The fashion-forward minds behind Rock Star Rags, St. Louis' invite-only vintage clothing warehouse

If looks could kill, the softball team yukking it up at the table directly in front of the stage at Lemmons would be dead by now.

There should be a law against this, these weeknight warriors who take it upon themselves to single-handedly ruin a set of experimental synth pop by Brooklyn, New York-based singer-songwriter Tim Garrigan, a local boy made good sharing a homecoming bill with Ben Hanna of Grandpa's Ghost.

Garrigan has drawn a respectable and respectful crowd. But these fuckers at the front table are drinking and shouting while they scarf down Lemmons' cake-thick pizza, concocted from the Black Thorn Pub's maroon-sauced recipe. Their obnoxious patter is so grating that audience member Eric Abert, bassist for Collinsville rock band Ring, Cicada, and his dining companions are contemplating telling the softballers to hit mute on the remote.

Sikki Nixx of the Misses and Scooter Hermes of the 
Jennifer Silverberg
Sikki Nixx of the Misses and Scooter Hermes of the Phonocaptors
Sunyatta Marshall of Fred's Variety Group
Jennifer Silverberg
Sunyatta Marshall of Fred's Variety Group

Each swig of liquid courage brings the would-be confrontation closer to reality. But there's one formidable roadblock: a seven-foot, mustachioed brute with "Moose" emblazoned across his T-shirt, who looks like he's been ripped off a roll of Brawny.

Moose, who is drinking beer straight from the pitcher, sports a conspicuous piece of duct tape on the rear of his shorts, the ones he wears while rounding the bases after hitting 500-foot home runs through the windows of four-family flats. But nobody tells Moose he needs to find a good seamstress, and nobody is going to tell Moose and his teammates to shut the hell up.

So it goes, and so Abert pours himself another beer and sinks his teeth into a third and final slice of Black Thorn pie, careful not to soil the vintage three-quarter-sleeve blue cotton football shirt he's wearing. Stenciled across the chest are the words "Parker College of Chiropractic" -- the hallmark of a Dallas institution that trains its students to treat the spinal columns of folks moronic enough to quarrel with the likes of Moose.

Abert didn't graduate from Parker College of Chiropractic, isn't currently enrolled there, is not even aware it's located in Dallas and, for good measure, knows not a single breathing human who has ever laid eyes on the Texas school's campus. But he loves the shirt because it's one of a kind, the type of garment that inspires wide-eyed "where-in-the hell-did-you-score-that" looks from the hipster patrons of Lemmons.

Parker College of Chiropractic shirts are not likely to end up arranged by size on the racks of the Gap anytime soon. But what Abert and his fellow rock stars wear is likely to influence those who design the Gap's next fall line. And thanks to a secretive north St. Louis outfit called Rock Star Rags, what Abert, Nadine, the Electric, LoFreq, the Spiders, the Phonocaptors and a handful of other upwardly mobile St. Louis-area acts are likely to be wearing is high-quality vintage clothing.

If you haven't heard of Rock Star Rags, that's because Rock Star Rags doesn't want you to hear about it. Housed in an unassuming warehouse on St. Louis Avenue a few blocks east of Crown Candy Kitchen, the store opens its doors for "public sales" maybe ten weekends each year. "Public," mind you, is a smidge misleading: One must be invited to these sales or initiate contact with Rock Star's domestic account manager, Deb Johnson, to be included on exclusive e-mail invites.

Johnson and her Rock Star Rags cohorts score the occasional garment at weekend yard sales, but the lion's share of the company's clothing arrives on its Ninth Street loading dock via an affiliate sourcing operation in Houston, Texas, that gleans precious old coats, trousers and assorted other duds from textile-recycling warehouses in the Southwest. Also prominent in this complex commercial fray are a cloak-and-dagger network of "pickers" who, legend has it, are apt to strip the slacks clean off a freshly decomposing corpse if the dead legs sport the sort of plaid pattern that will fetch dozens of dollars on eBay or at a trendy Chicago boutique.

Why the hushed, high-stakes approach? Because good Parker College of Chiropractic shirts are hard to come by.

"There's a limited supply out there," confirms Viv Vassar of Hey Viv Vintage Clothing, a New York City-based online retailer that specializes in plus-size vintage. "I've built up a network of suppliers. You could roast me over a fire and I wouldn't tell you who they are."

Rock Star Rags does business in 49 states (sorry, Alaska). Even at that, 75 percent of the store's commerce is tied to the Japanese market, where Americana is all the rage. The Japanese clients remain as incognito as humanly possible. Ditto Rock Star's absentee owner, San Diego resident Mark Goldenhersh, the eccentric founder of the 34-year-old company once known as General Vintage.

You'd think the place was Fort Knox or something.

In many ways, it is. If Moose were for hire, he'd make an ideal security guard, and perhaps take care of the duct-tape issue on his rear end in the process.

Deb Johnson, Luis Martinez and Barb Young are swapping war stories in the Rock Star Rags break room, which features a generous collection of vintage Playboy centerfolds taped to the walls.

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