Its fortunes have changed over the years, but Jimmy Webb, of the seminal punk boutique Trash and Vaudeville, has a fair claim to be the reigning Mayor of St. Marks Place. A self-described "runaway boy," Webb arrived in New York without a penny to his name in 1975, the same year that Trash and Vaudeville—an East Village institution that's dressed every CBGB fixture from Joey Ramone to Debbie Harry—opened its doors.
According to Webb, he'd dreamed of working for Trash and its founder, Ray Goodman, since day one. But his former drug addiction and on-the-streets lifestyle—he lived in a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park just before the riots—made him a less-than-attractive hire. But he eventually cleaned up his act, and in 1999 Goodman gave in. Webb rose to become the shop's top employee in less than a year, and Webb is now Trash's heart and soul, and outfits everyone from new-wave punks and drag queens to Beyoncé, Slash, and his pal Iggy Pop in skintight jeans, spikes, and leather. Here, Webb speaks with Style.com about the old neighborhood, the importance of authenticity, and why the spirit of punk isn't dead just yet.
It's busy in here today. Is this the norm?
You know, this store still seems to be a mecca. It's a destination point. For everyone from Beyoncé's mother, who was shopping in here for the tour today, to Roberta Bayley—she was the door girl at CBGB for a long time. But I'm sorry that St. Marks Place isn't such a mecca anymore; it's just us. It's great to be the king of rock ’n’ roll clothing, but it would be great to have some princes around, too. The block has changed.
An expression I use a lot is, "You can take the boy out of the gutter, but you can't take the gutter out of the boy." I don't think you can take the history of St. Marks Place away, or the feeling or the energy. You'll always see a girl with a great leopard miniskirt and a boy with a great Mohawk. But you don't see it as much. There's not your wild tranny and your hooker and your leather daddy. There's not a pack of boys dressed like the New York Dolls on the corner, handing out flyers for their music show. You don't see the plethora of colors blending together on the block anymore. That's the biggest change.
What do you miss most about the old neighborhood?
I miss the diversity of all the clubs, the diversity of the lifestyles, of the cultures. There used to be a gay bathhouse next door that went on to become Kim's [Video & Music], and you had your punk rockers and all your little record stores, which technology has destroyed—it's not just rent. Can you even buy a record anymore? Everyone, like, Facebooks about their shows. Flyer-ing days are over. So I miss all that.
How has Trash and Vaudeville survived?
What I think has kept it alive is being the real deal. Being really punk rock. Being very, very authentic. I have no problem with, like, a pair of bondage pants being at a mall in Ohio or Dr. Martens being everywhere. Because this was the first store that ever sold Dr. Martens ever in America, with a letter requesting to be sold here to my boss, Ray Goodman. It still hangs over his desk. It all started here, and I think you have to bow down to where it began. Even for my staff, I always try to hire authenticity, whether it's the best little punk-rock boy that's a little dusty and dirty, and he's got that punk-rock stench, and you watch him working with some older guy buying creepers, or some tranny buying a pair of size 11 high heels, or a stylist doing the Madonna tour. We do a lot of that. But he does it with the authenticity of a punk-rock boy.
Can you really be an authentic punk in 2013?
Yes. I smell it. I see it. Because it's a spirit. For me, punk was something that just happened. I'm a runaway boy that came here and just made out really, really good. I came with my clothes in a pillowcase and no money in my pocket, knowing no one, in 1975. When I first came [to New York], it was the realness [of punk] that I felt drawn to. You know, as Johnny Rotten says in The Filth and the Fury, it wasn't even a fashion statement to stick safety pins in your clothes. You just did it to keep them together. And then you became so attracted to them, and they became so sexy and fabulous, you just, like, loved the safety pins. And I've got to say, New York is the most amazing city in the world. But I was talking to Iggy the other day—Iggy Pop, obviously—about New York and how it's changed, and I was like, "Hey, you know, I don't know if that guy can come to New York anymore, like you and I did." But I think you can still be an authentic punk when it's in your spirit.
Iggy Pop is a friend of yours?
He's a hero. I always say my biggest fashion icon is Iggy. And Iggy's naked all the time. He loves being naked.
Slash is one of my best friends, too. But Iggy went all the way to the gutter with me, and back. His music carried me through the streets—from when I first got off that bus in New York to becoming a heroin addict and living on the streets, and then falling apart, and then climbing all the way back up. That's punk—nothing ever getting you down. Just being so punk rock that you crawl out of the trenches because you realize punk rock is living and the big fuck-you is when you come out on top and you're you.
Who else have you worked with at Trash?
I mean, obviously all the Ramones shopped here—we are the real deal. I'll tell you one of my favorite stories: Last summer, I was on St. Marks Place with Debbie Harry. We were in the backseat of her car—in the backseat of Debbie Harry's car!—zipping her into some thigh-high boots. They were for her video. And as I get to the top, we have to pull a little tighter. I did that last zip that's so sexy on a woman's leg. She sits up and kisses me on the lips. Whoa. And she told me, "The last time I was in the backseat of a car trying something on was when Malcolm McLaren came to New York and he had rubber dresses in his trunk, and I tried on rubber dresses in the backseat."
Do you always work so closely with the musicians?
The stylists come in and get the stuff. Because I kind of know what Iggy's going to want. Or I know what Slash wants. I know what Alice Cooper wants.
How are the musicians that shop here now different from the musicians that you knew when you first came to New York?
I find it odd that all these people have stylists that pull for them now. And they have no idea and don't look at racks.
The Ramones wouldn't come in with a stylist, would they?
No, no, no, no. And Iggy told me that when he's on-set now, there are all these stylists and assistants. Back in the day, there was no stylist; you just threw on what you threw on. And I know people are busy now. But in this day of Instagram and watching people take pictures of themselves all day, from every angle, I find it kind of crazy. There's never that one-on-one dressing of the soul.
What was Joey Ramone like when he would come into the store? He lived around the corner, didn't he?
Yeah. He was so cool and unassuming. When he passed away and they named a street after him, his mom asked me to speak [at the dedication]. It was pretty powerful. They had it at CBGB, and the room was packed, so full of love. And it took over a whole city block. And I said, "You know, it's funny how the Ramones just affected everything and Joey affected everything." Look what they did for style. All these years later, there's still that Ramones look. That leather jacket. The sneakers. Joey always bought pants here, his black jeans. The last time I saw him—it was about three months before his last hospital stay—he was in here with his mom. He came in and he bought the same jeans he had been buying his whole life. The Trash and Vaudeville stretch jean that we're still selling. Just shopping with his mom. That's rock ’n’ roll. So punk rock. No fear. Charlotte was cool. I'm not saying everybody should shop with their mom. But how real is that?
What's the secret to a perfect pair of jeans?
I've been saying the same thing for years: lower and tighter, lower and tighter, lower and tighter. I'm never giving that up. I don't know, there's just something so sexy on a female or male about those jutting-out hipbones and skintight jeans. But I don't want leggings. I guess they have this new thing. A mejegging? It's for a man. It's really weird.
Yeah. What's up with that? No, they gotta be pants! They can be that tight. They should be that tight! I even got Lil Wayne to go tighter.
Some people have accused Trash and Vaudeville of selling out for dressing pop stars. What's your response to that?
It's like, whatever. Are you going to bring me any money? Who's going to pay the rent? We're still paying St. Marks Place rent. Or why doesn't he deserve a pair of leopard pants? It's not rock ’n’ roll to judge. The only thing that gets you kicked out of here is if you're rude and arrogant. Like I just said, Beyoncé's mom? She's awesome. Why would I not do the Beyoncé tour? Those dirty little punk-rock kids that call me fake aren't going to bring me anything.
What did Beyoncé's mom buy?
Oh my god, she bought the most amazing, authentic studded jacket, done by hand by a punk-rock kid and painted all shitty. She loved it. On top of that, she bought leopard pants and a vinyl bra. I mean, come on. Beyoncé's cool.