Rockabilly Couture

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Just steps from the Lorimer L stop and a few more steps beyond Williamsburg’s Kellog Diner sits SlapBack Brooklyn, a retro clothing reproduction store. It is nestled between a tattoo parlor and a nondescript black building that is marked by bright neon letters that read “BAR.” Inside the boutique, the paneled walls are painted white. The ceiling’s molding is elaborate, pink, and about a foot long. SlapBack is homey without looking homespun. It used to be a coffee shop, but you will not find an espresso bar or industrial dishwasher here. Instead, you’ll find SlapBack’s owner, Renee (pronounced Ree Nee) Didio, 40, six days a week.

For an interview, Didio, who has been nominated for an Emmy for her work as a stylist and makeup artist, insists on settling into the maroon velveteen couch that sits behind an authentic bearskin rug at the back of the store. “I didn’t want a pristine store,” she says. “I didn’t want people to feel like they couldn’t touch anything when they came into my store. I wanted women of all shapes and sizes to feel comfortable trying on the clothes.”

SlapBack Brooklyn caters to 1950s reproduction enthusiasts, from the fashion designer, Kenley Collins, to the rockabilly social media star, Vintage Vandalizm. Surprisingly, Didio says that many of her customers are tourists. “My store has become a destination shop,” Didio explains. “The locals don’t get it.”

Curious women of all sizes come from all over to shop the boutique. Most of them appreciate the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Wanda Jackson, and The Stray Cats. Most of them love and live rockabilly.

Dru Munsell, a journalist, rockabilly enthusiast, and part-time SlapBack employee, said that for her, the rockabilly trend picked up steam with the advent of shows like Mad Men in 2007 and PanAm in 2011. Shows like the short-lived Playboy Club and the British drama The Hour also served to thrust 1950s and 60s nostalgia into the mainstream.

According to The New York Times, Janie Bryant, the Mad Men costume designer, partnered with Banana Republic in 2011 to create a “Mad Mod” collection inspired by the show. Bryant has also partnered with Brooks Brothers and Nailtini to create other lines inspired by Don Draper and crew.

However, despite allusions to the same 1950s and 60s era, the trained eye can see that Didio’s clothes are not Mad Men. The rockabilly scene is more whimsical. Where piercings and tattoos seem taboo in a Mad Men world, brash ladies adorned with ink are readily accepted among today’s rockabilly set.

As the ’50s nostalgia trend swells, Didio looks forward to riding the wave. SlapBack seems to be positioned in a prime location for retail. Foot traffic is dense outside. The people who mill about are young. They are style conscious. Didio’s boutique offers them a unique new place to discover rarified brands like Sour Puss, Unique Vintage, Pin Up Girl Clothing, Bernie Dexter, and Betty Page by Tatiana.

There are a few staples that Didio says every rockabilly girl needs in her closet, and she is happy to help them find them. “You need a leopard dress,” she says. “You need a black wiggle skirt. When you’re talking about 50s and early 60s reproduction, everything is below the knee. You have three basic styles. You have a swing dress and a wiggle dress and an A-line skirt or dress.”

Didio suggests that women interested in the rockabilly trend should look for seasonal items. Swing dresses work better in the summer, she explains, because they are breathable and movable. Didio prefers box pleats over circle skirts because they offer wearers a severe hourglass shape. She warns against full skirts with too much material as they don’t fit on everyone. Additionally, she says it’s quite okay for full-figured girls to corset a wiggle dress–a style that is defined by its tight straight form.

“My opinion is that if you are comfortable in your body, and you know how to work your body, your dress is going to work,” she says.

Not to exclude the men: “Rockabilly guys wear three things: T-shirts, bowling shirts, and western shirts. They dress them up or down depending on how dressy the event.” She speaks with a hint of playful sarcasm, her signature tone.

Though the pop media seems faithful to its current love affair with pin up and vintage clothing, Didio says that the fuss about fashion misses the focus: “This whole scene is about the music.”

Music has always been a huge part of Didio’s life. Her grandfather owned a restaurant in upstate New York, she says, and there was always Big Band music playing in it. Didio’s Aunt Mary was a drummer. Her Dad listened to CBS FM, which spun the oldies in those days. She was surrounded by doo-wop influences. Her father and grandfather also loved swing. Her love of music inspired her store.

“I don’t remember what I was listening to,” Didio recalls. “And I was like, ‘Listen to the slapback on that record.”‘ (She was referring to a percussive way of using the strings of a guitar or bass to slap the base of the instrument to create a tapping sound.) The technique defines rockabilly music. A retro boutique was born.

These days in NYC, people interested in the rockabilly lifestyle have a host of venues to explore. In Manhattan there’s the Knitting Factory, Otto’s Shrunken Heads, and Tomcats Barbershop. Local Brooklyn favorites include Union Pool; Branded Saloon; Hank’s Saloon; and Cobra Club, a humble dive tucked away on a graffiti-lined corner of Wyckoff Street in Bushwick.

At the Cobra Club, T-shirt-donning bearded types and young women in understated attire arrive in droves for $3 beer in cans and $6 drafts. Inside, the counter is lined with mason jars of lemons, limes and other fruit, some of which have seen better days. The cocktails at the Cobra Club are all named after Misfit songs.

The bar occasionally caters to 1950s pinup girls, greasers, and lovers of old-school rock ‘n’ roll. Every second Saturday, patrons can enjoy a mix of psychobilly hits (a genre that blends the classic rockabilly sound with new musical stylings). On Thursdays, the bar is a regular old Honky Tonk. Rockabilly ladies and gents arrive in packs and line the streets with their vintage cars.

Larry Sparkman, 42, is the bartender and occasional DJ. He wears a loose black T-shirt and army green pants. His black hat reads, “COMMES des Fuckdown.” His beard is long and thick.

“The way the [rockabilly] girls dress is super cute,” says Sparkman. “But that scene is so intense. The styles—everything. It seems like a lot of work.”

Living rockabilly apparently does take some effort, but Didio says that the lifestyle is not only accessible, but also inclusive. The majority of people currently living rockabilly come to the style for a place of belonging. “I have dresses priced from $60 to $250,” she says. “I don’t want girls to leave feeling like they can’t afford anything.”

Unfortunately, rockabilly shops like SlapBack are fighting an uphill battle. Though international celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Lily Allen (described by Didio as “vintage ghetto”), Dita Von Teese, Debbie Mazer, Imelda Ray, and Ariana Grande are inspiring new generations of rockabilly girls and guys to adopt the trend, small shops like SlapBack are being forced to fight for their share of the market against big box stores.

“Anthropologie is moving up the street,” she says. “POP [a clothing store] on Grand just closed. It’s criminal.”

Indeed, Williamsburg locals have witnessed the increased presence of national retailers like American Apparel and Urban Outfitters. According to Didio, “retail is down all over.” However, with more options to choose from, consumers may be more likely to shop the brands they know than to seek out the type of niche items that her store offers.

Directly in competition with Didio for her rockabilly business is ENZ’s, which also sells 1950s and 60s reproduction pieces and recently opened a new location in Park Slope. Despite rumored tensions between Didio and ENZ’s owner, Mariann Marlowe, Didio says she is not afraid of any challenge.

“The scene is divided,” Didio explains. “But if she wants to have a cup of coffee, and say ‘let’s work together, and forget everything,’ I’m fine.”

Didio attributes SlapBack’s ability to survive to her recent social media success. Didio has acquired more than 1,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram. She has been able to tap into the 25- to 35-year-old consumer. “Social media is so important,” she explains. “You don’t even need a website. I’ve become something of a social media celebrity. I go to events and people ask to take pictures with me. I never say ‘No.’ I go to hand people my business card and they tell me, ‘I already know who you are.’ It’s great.”

Didio says that she looks forward to continuing to partner with people like musician Laura Rebel Angel, Project Runway star Kenley Collins, Sasquatch, and the Psychobillys and others. In the months and years to come, patrons can expect Slapback Brooklyn to be more involved in the music scene, and to start carrying menswear as early as November or December 2014.

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