Raggedy Dandies

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

A half-Mexican brunette who lives near Bevo Mill, Johnson holds degrees in apparel and theatrical design (with a minor in costume history) from the University of Missouri and handles all of the company's domestic accounts. "Barb is the heart, I'm the face and Luis is the comic relief," Johnson sums up the partners' respective functions.

Martinez is a Carondelet resident and military veteran who lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for several years, earning his keep doing warehouse maintenance and other heavy labor. Young -- a folksy blond Arnold resident whose feathered-bangs-bombshell appearance is reminiscent of the front row at a Mötley Crüe show circa 1985 -- has also walked a blue-collar career path, with stints as a receptionist and an auto-parts store manager. Each is married, each has three kids. What started as just another gig for them at Rock Star has steadily earned their appreciation and become a trade of passion.

"Anybody can go into Dillard's and get FUBU," says Martinez, a Puerto Rican bear of a man with a menacing goatee rendered less so by his class-clown demeanor. "But you can't find a 60-year-old jacket."

Rehydrating after a live-music late shift, Deb Johnson, 
the "face" of Rock Star, contemplates taking a nap 
upon her valuable vintage merchandise.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rehydrating after a live-music late shift, Deb Johnson, the "face" of Rock Star, contemplates taking a nap upon her valuable vintage merchandise.
Luis Martinez utilizes the Rock Star forklift to situate 
the truckloads of clothing that come in via the 
warehouse's Houston-based sourcing affiliate.
Jennifer Silverberg
Luis Martinez utilizes the Rock Star forklift to situate the truckloads of clothing that come in via the warehouse's Houston-based sourcing affiliate.

Rock Star's physical space is a seemingly never-ending, split-level labyrinth of cement rooms and clothes-filled plywood crates bearing black felt-pen drawings of space robots, the handiwork of ex-employee and Spiders' band member Jaxon Noon. With its industrial-size freight elevator, poor lighting and hard-to-find rear stairwell, the warehouse would make a fine venue for games of laser tag, paintball or hide-and-seek.

The building's reception and office areas are equally stark, albeit far more orderly. Litter cleanup at the intersection of Ninth Street and St. Louis Avenue must be a low priority for the city's maintenance department: Broken glass and potholes are part of the landscape. The area is an industrial no man's land for the most part, the sort of neighborhood that doubtless teemed with waterside industry a century ago but has subsided with the waning of Mississippi River commerce.

Having gained entry to Rock Star's offices by ringing the bell and getting buzzed in, one is met by the output of the vintage stereo Martinez picked up during a recent Operation Brightside cleanup. There's a barebones bathroom to the left of a "lounge" area that features wood-paneled walls, a card table and a steel sink. (This last sees plenty of use from greasy paws and industrial-strength soap after a hard day's work.)

Young's southeast-corner office is windowless and denlike. Immediately to the west sits Johnson, surrounded by Post-It notes, a giant Led Zeppelin banner and assorted rock paraphernalia. Martinez's office, nearest to the sink, is the tiniest. But it also contains perhaps the most precious décor: a wall-length Afghan rug depicting the illustrated Kamasutra.

"It's got all the positions," Martinez says proudly.

Equally extensive are the descriptions inscribed on the barrels at Rock Star Rags' invite-only public sale: '70s Jumpsuits, '80s Cha-Cha Dresses, Euro P.J.'s, Star Trek Tops, Mod Psychedelic Blouses, Solid Poly Disco Shirts, Velvet Pants, Plaid Golf Pants, '60s Mod Psychedelic Go-Go Dresses, Letterman Jackets, Jogging Suit Bottoms, Cheerleader Skirts, Red Windbreakers, Men's Vintage 1940s Ties, Nurses' Uniforms, '70s Denim Jackets, Lee-Wrangler Jean Shorts To-Be, Euro Ribtops, '70s Maxi Skirts and Disco Denim Skirts. To name but a few.

The time is eleven o'clock in the a.m. on a Friday in mid-April, and while most city types are at the office pressing the flesh in their starched shirts, a few dozen tattooed zombies fresh from a hard day's night taking in a local live act until last call are picking through Rock Star Rags' polyester-laden barrels.

Most (if not all) of the members of this motley crew are acquaintances of Johnson who have ties to the St. Louis music scene. The ones who aren't musicians consider it their duty to sack up and shimmy to the Hi-Pointe, Lemmons, the Rocket Bar or the Creepy Crawl three or four nights a week. It's part of their ethic: dingy nightclub as satellite office, Stag as evening coffee.

Johnson roams the sales floor with a white foam mask covering her nose and mouth, her allergies in full bloom from the pollen of spring. Assisting her with the T-shirt barrels is her pal Sara Brion, a ringer for Pixies and Breeders guitarist Kim Deal whose KSHE sing-along to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" is pitch-perfect.

From the middle of the bin, Brion uncovers a tiny maroon shirt bearing the words "Omega Love" on the chest, which is quickly snatched up by a Hefty bag-bearing young woman who migrates to the warehouse's first-floor scale for checkout.

Johnson places the sack onto a gray industrial scale near the baler. Total haul: eighteen garments, including three windbreakers, one gold fall jacket, one baseball jersey, one Bruce Lee karate shirt, one Hawaiian shirt, one scarf, two solid-color long-sleeve disco shirts, one long-sleeve '60s floral-print shirt, two pairs of old-school sweatpants, one long-sleeve Western shirt (with snap buttons) and four tit-tight T-shirts. Total weight: eight pounds. Cost: $1 a pound.

"You've pretty much got the whole world in there," says Jeff Lopinot, the co-owner of Verve Hair Salon on South Grand Boulevard. Lopinot schedules twice-monthly trips to Rock Star for his stylists, on the salon's dime. "I look at fashion magazines or walk around Nordstrom's and I see everything I can get at Rock Star Rags. Any high-dollar joint, you can get the same stuff at a vintage clothing store."

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