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.
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.
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.”
Madonna used to come in with Sean Penn when the two lived in Malibu (and years later, NaNa’s pole climber boots became a key piece of her “Blonde Ambition” tour look), but the Material Girl wasn’t making any new fans. “She totally stole our look!” gripes Moore, referring to the black O-ring bracelets and ragamuffin stance that “wannabes” soon copied.
There was never any employee dress code, but Kaufman remembers when a new salesperson crossed a line by coming to work in leather pants that were bare in the behind. She took the guy aside and explained that some of the girls were disturbed by his revealing get-up. Her suggestion: “Maybe you could wear fishnets underneath?”
Kaufman sounds like a proud mom when she talks about how some of her employees would spend hours each day on their hair and makeup. “Or they’d come in with purple hair and they had to redo their whole wardrobe so it was purple.”
In fact, almost everyone describes their former boss in familial terms. “She was like a big sister to all of us,” Polack says. “If you had a problem that you knew you couldn’t tell your mom about, there was Nancy.” Adds Polack, who moved to New York in 1987 to open an Uptown store, “I guess they figured, half the world treats you like degenerates, why should we?”
A number of these “degenerates” went on to success in other fields. Steiner, 44, did the costumes for “Lost in Translation” and “Little Miss Sunshine”; Cookson was nominated for three Emmys as the costume designer of “The Nanny.” Dee Plakas of the band L7 also passed through, as did lowbrow artist Tara McPherson and actors Chris Pedersen and Bill Paxton, whose wife, Louise, was an employee. Warehouse worker Avery played in a then-unsigned band called Jane’s Addiction, which performed at one of the many annual NaNa Rad Bashes for a cover charge of $3.
NaNa was a place where transformation could and did happen, to employees and customers alike. To this day, former customers bring their kids to visit Kaufman at Brat, telling them, “She was the person who helped change my life.”
With the advent of MTV, though, suddenly this secret tribe and many others were on display. “It brought everything out to light,” Steiner remembers. “Where you had subcultures before that nobody knew about, now suddenly you could see them on TV and go out and try to emulate that at your store.”
It was a boom time for the company, which had started designing colorful new styles of Dr. Martens, previously only available in black, brown and oxblood, as well as countless variations on the pointy-toed buckle boots that were a staple of every alterna-girl’s wardrobe.
Michelle Ford, 41, now an interior designer in Santa Monica, was given the responsibility of opening NaNa’s San Francisco store when she was just 19, and the growing success of the business was a mixed blessing. “When the alternative thing hit,” she recalls, “the world was our oyster, because it was our clientele. Everybody had to have their Dr. Martens or their motorcycle boots.” However, because the bulk of the company’s income was generated by its wholesale business, those clients — including Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic — took priority and sometimes the retail stores were left understocked.
The company turned down a multimillion-dollar buyout offer because Kaufman had a dream in which someone was wearing NaNa shoes with pink leg warmers on a billboard: the ultimate sell-out. “None of us ever went into this stuff for money,” she says. “It was pure, 100% passion for what we did, for the music, the scene.”
In the end, though, the drive to capitalize on the alternative nation was stronger than NaNa’s punk ethos. When AirWair, the company that manufactured the Dr. Martens that NaNa designed and distributed, recognized that there was potentially an even bigger market for its shoes beyond youth culture, they started to get impatient with this band of outsiders running the show. For a while, NaNa deferred and made shoes in neutral shades that were suitable for Casual Fridays at the office, but in 1997, AirWair, with no formal agreement binding it, unceremoniously pulled the plug.
“We lost almost all our wholesale customers overnight,” says Kaufman, who still seems slightly stunned by the turn of events. “It basically just ruined us. . . . Maybe the lesson is that good people shouldn’t go into business. You have to have skin like an elephant to survive in that world.”
Nonetheless, she is still cheerfully running the small store that caters mostly to Santa Monica’s teens and tweens, selling them tickets to raves and cute, affordable separates that they can put together themselves. “I love the kids coming up,” says Kaufman, still sounding like the proud mom. “My store is still the kind of store that really promotes creativity. My kids are very much like the kids who were coming into NaNa. They’re very much themselves; they know who they are.”