Dye Hard

The punk rock origin story of Tish and Snooky's Manic Panic

For many “dye-hards,” Tish and Snooky’s Manic Panic is a way of life. It’s a temporary hair dye that comes in a range of outrageous colours, first popular with punks and goths, and now seen almost everywhere (runways, the drugstore, perhaps on your little brother). For brand founders, radical entrepreneurs, and original punk rock queens Tish and Snooky Bellomo, it’s been more than just a way of living. The sister duo have been through a number of ups and downs over the past 35 years—turning the shop they started in 1977 while in their twenties into an internationally recognized brand with a cult following. It’s no wonder this bright hair colour is so popular with a do it yourself audience—the brand’s DIY story makes it a compelling choice for colour.

You guys are known for your line of hair colour and cosmetics that has this huge following all over the world. But my understanding is that you started your business without any experience, opening a very small (and very legendary) punk boutique on St. Mark’s Place?
Tish > Well there were no punk boutiques in the Americas and we started the first out of necessity. There was nobody selling anything like it.
Snooky > We were always on stage, or out at clubs, and everybody liked our style and wanted to know where they could get something similar. So we thought we could sell stuff as a sideline to our singing career. We had no idea how to do it, but we just decided we would try. We learned how by doing everything, every step of the way. We had no business background, no business experience. We were just singers and we still are singers! When we were kids we were always putting on shows—charging pennies for entry and serving Kool-aid and stuff, you know, selling them refreshments. We had a little monopoly going on. It’s funny how things turned out so similar.

What kinds of things were sold in the original Manic Panic shop?
Snooky > Basically, everything and anything we liked.
Tish > I was sewing clothes and Snooky was knitting. We were selling cosmetics, hair colour, things we picked up in thrift shops.
Snooky > Debbie Harry had turned us on to this great basement full of unused vintage shoes—all these incredible stiletto shoes still in their boxes. It was like this goldmine. We would go there and bring back tons of beautiful ’50s and ’60s stilettos and sold those. My boyfriend at the time, rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, drilled holes in the wall, and we stuck the stilettos into the holes. That’s how we displayed them. When we started Manic Panic, we each had $250, and any money we made we just put back into the business. Luckily we were young (I was 25 and Tish was 23) and living at home with our mother, so we didn’t have a lot of overhead. When we first opened, we hardly had anything to sell. But we got so much coverage from all the media—every newspaper, magazine, and TV station covered our opening because it was the first punk store in America. So we got all this press and people started coming; then we had to get stuff to sell because we didn’t have enough! We just learned by doing and it’s been great.

The cosmetics that you guys were selling, were you importing them or were they your own formula?
Snooky > It was a variety. We were bringing some in from the UK, we were buying some from various local companies. We were putting it all together. None of it had the exact selection we wanted. We wanted to make what we thought was the best cosmetic line in the city—which I think it was, actually—and there was nobody, especially in the downtown area, that sold anything that was the least bit theatrical. You could go to the theatre district and go to some of those makeup stores to find extreme colours or weird stuff, but I think it was our store that had the biggest variety.
Tish > Oh yeah, we definitely did. And we had cornered the market on cosmetics downtown. All the other store owners in the area were mostly men and didn’t know about cosmetics or beauty products, so they couldn’t compete with us. They knocked us off in every other area, in every other category of items we were selling. You know, we would find great stuff in England, great pantyhose or really cool stuff, and the next time we’d go back there, they’d say, “Sorry, we can’t sell to you anymore, we’re selling to your competitor down the street and they asked us not to sell to you.” But we introduced a lot of these lines to America.
Snooky > Our competitors would say to these companies We’ll pay twice as much as them, or three times as much as them, so sell to us. They used to send their employees in to buy stuff. We realized soon realized that we were just giving them all their ideas. But they couldn’t really compete with us in beauty.
Tish > That’s right, we were and are more beautiful.
Snooky > We knew what we sold. We wore what we sold and we loved what we sold. We were walking advertisements. But we still did really well with clothing despite the market. We just had to keep being one step ahead, and find other sources for fashion.

How have your personal styles evolved over the years?
Snooky > Mine hasn’t really evolved. It’s like I’m stuck in a time warp in the ’70s. I still have all the same clothes—only more of them now—that I did when I was like in high school even! I still have the same things that maybe don’t all fit, but I still have ‘em and love ‘em. My style did evolve from more vintage to a little more punk over the years.
Tish > I think I’m more of a fashion-follower or whatever, maybe a fashion leader. I like to change more than Snooky in general, I think I buy more stuff than she does and I’ve evolved over the years. I was like the kid that had to have pink, I had to have turquoise. I couldn’t bear wearing anything that wasn’t feminine. And when I became older, we had no money, so we took all the hand-me-downs we got, and I liked to sew, so I took the sewing machine and would make all these ’50s outfits into new shiny dresses and revamp everything. I have way too much stuff. My attic is cracking my ceiling. Clearly, I have way too much, but I still keep buying and still keep wearing this stuff. I still have, of course, a punk attitude in most of my clothes.
Snooky > Tish is more tailored.
Tish > That’s right, you know, somebody told us that the way he remembered the difference between Tish and Snooky is that Tish is tailored. T for Tish and T for tailored.
Snooky > So my husband said, “Well I guess that’s S for Snooky and S for sloppy!” Which is about right.

What was the St. Mark’s Place scene like?
Snooky > Well at first it was dead.
Tish > It was a pretty burned out neighbourhood, tons of empty storefronts.
Snooky > There were some vintage stores around the block.
Tish > Yeah, that was the look back then.
Snooky > And then when we opened, we were the wacky punk rock store end no one knew what to make of us.
Tish > As a matter of fact, we tried to sell some of our stuff before we opened to some of the places on St. Marks, and they thought they were disgusting. But then a year later they were opening up their own punk boutiques too.
Snooky > Yeah, they saw all the TV cameras coming into our store, and thought, Hmmm, I guess there is something to that. That looks like a good thing.

Tell me about your careers as singers.
Snooky > We’ve done it all. We were this wacky show at the Bowery Lane theatre called the Palm Casino Revue. That’s kind of where we got our start. Yeah, you know, we were doing stuff before that, but nothing you could call Palm Casino Revue professional, but that was like a different level for us. On a real stage and in an old vaudeville theatre show.
Tish > It was really cool, with all different wacky acts and lots of drag queens. They’d sing a little song, and do a little tap dance or something. So Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (of Blondie) saw us at the show, and asked us to come to one of their rehearsals, and then we were in their band. We were in Blondie for a little while and we’ve been in lots of other bands since then. Right now, we sing with this adorable band called Blue Coupe, which is the founding member of the Alice Cooper group, Dennis Dunnaway, the original bass player. And Albert and Joe Bouchard from Blue Öyster Cult.
Snooky > So we sing with them, and we also still sing with the Sic F*ucks, our old punk rock band that started back in ’77. The same year we started Manic Panic we also joined the S*c Fucks.

What was CBGB like?
Snooky > In the beginning, it was really pretty empty. When we were in the Palm Casino Revue we used to go across the street to CBGB with Eric Emerson, who was in the Magic Tramps; he was like a Warhol character. The place was basically dead, as a biker bar—the Hells Angels used to hang out there. Eventually there was a really small crowd of people in this very tiny bar. But it was this really cool underground club that nobody knew about, just a select few. It was like a secret society. I think everybody found out about it when Lisa Robinson came down to see the Ramones and wrote about it, and then everybody started coming and it became really popular. You could go on a Wednesday night and run into Lester Bangs, or Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith, and if you were in the scene you knew a million different people. And every night you went there, you knew everybody in the place. And it was all the big bands going to see other bands. It was the Dead Boys, Ramones, the Dictators, the Talking Heads, the Cramps. I mean it was just so much fun. You know, I think I used to go almost every night.
Tish > And the owner Hilly was like our father figure—we grew up without a dad.

How do you feel about Manic Panic’s popularity over the years, and the acceptance of “not normal” hair colours? Having your hair dyed a bright colour is something friends of mine used to get beat up for.
Snooky > It was something you got beat up for, it definitely was.
Tish > I did!
Snooky > Oh, we got made such fun of and tortured. And it’s great now they’re using models in all these magazines and on the runway, and you know we just feel like it’s about time the world caught up. It’s so great that young people dress just like we dress. And I love that, you know, I love seeing kids in bright red mohawks. It’s just the coolest thing.

How do you guys come up with the shades and the names for your hair colours?
Snooky > Coming up with oddball names was a fun thing that we did in the very beginning, and then lines like Urban Decay and Hard Candy started coming up with weird names for their products.
Tish > But we were the first!
Snooky > When we were younger we always loved cosmetics and we always thought that we’d have a cosmetic line and make really funny names. I mean I won’t even mention some of the names!
Tish > We might still use ‘em!
Snooky > Save them for other types of shops.
Tish > An X-rated line is coming soon.
Snooky > But we just loved colour and tried to do colours that other people aren’t doing.
Tish > It’s still all about what we like, colours we like, names we like. We like to do what we like!

Do you guys have a best-selling colour?
Tish > It varies throughout the years, I think for a really, really long time, Vampire Red was our biggest colour. Now I’m wondering if it’s still Vampire Red or if it’s Hot Hot Pink?

How did you guys move from importing cosmetics to developing your own formula? When did you move from being a small shop to an international brand?
Tish > We’re kind of, Snooky and I, I won’t say lazy because we work more than anybody on the planet, but we’re so easygoing in a way: ride with the tide and go with the flow. We had our little shop, and to tell you the truth, if we still had that little shop, maybe we wouldn’t have grown so much in the wholesale business. So circumstances have always brought us up to new levels, I feel. It seems to happen organically.
Snooky > What happened was our lease on St. Mark’s Place was up, after like 12 years, and the landlord was quadrupling the rent, and gave us two weeks to get out. So we thought it was the end of our lives, the end of the world. We didn’t know what to do. We had started wholesaling by then, so we just put all the merchandise into storage and just focused on the wholesale for a year, from my boyfriend’s studio apartment. It was like three flights up so we went and received the dye that we were importing and we would roll it up three flights of stair. The two of us would pack all the orders and be on the phone taking in customer calls. And then we’d roll the boxes back down the stairs, put ‘em in my car and race up to UPS every night. But we were focused on wholesale, and if we hadn’t lost our lease and been forced out of the retail business, we probably couldn’t have focused so much on the wholesale. So it was getting bigger and bigger, and the supplier in the UK couldn’t keep up with the demand, they were like three months behind on the shipping.
Tish > Plus they were cheating on us. You know, we had an exclusive deal with them and they were selling behind our backs to our customers. It was another worst time of our lives, ’cause our mother was dying at the same time.
Snooky > So it wasn’t like we could even spend our time fighting, ’cause our mother was dying, and we were at the hospital with her for months, so we ended up saying, “screw this, let’s just make it ourselves!”
Tish > We tracked down the guy who invented it originally, and had him make it to our specifications. And we came up with more colours that we really liked, and it was just an exciting transition, but everything kind of happened because somebody was mean to us, I guess!
Snooky > First the landlord raised our rent and then the supplier was cheating on us, and our mother was dying, but we just kept growing! And you know, that’s the way it’s always been.
Tish > And we always know when things are awful and people are being really mean to us, which some people have been lately, we know it’s just the start of another level for us. A higher level.

Do you guys have advice for young lady entrepreneurs?
Tish > Sure, we’ve got plenty of advice!
Snooky > You know, sometimes we speak to the Girl Scouts, or different organizations.
Tish > And we always tell everybody, if you do something that you love, and it’s your passion, you’re guaranteed to succeed. I mean, everything we do we loved. So, when we were singing, I can’t even tell you how many times I forgot to get paid because I just loved doing it. And it’s the same thing with this business. Well, it’s not like we forget to get paid because we have a bookkeeper.
Snooky > Thank god! You have to love what you do and do what you love. And you also have to never take no for an answer. That’s our other advice. Because we’ve been told so many times, oh no, that’s it, you can’t do that. And we’re like, but wait a minute. What about this way? What about that way? And we always seem to get it done. You know, there are times when you can’t, but in general, where there’s a will there’s a way. You just keep fighting for what you want. Young women are getting better at that. But the one thing that I do see, that I think we have that some younger people don’t have is that people need to have a real passion for something and not think that somebody else is going do it for them. I don’t know what they’re teaching in school nowadays, but some younger people have an attitude that the world owes them something, and I don’t think the world owes anybody anything. I think you have to make your own world. You have to carve it out yourself. And you really have to take the initiative and not sit back.
Tish > Yeah, and you just have to be ready to live and breathe it, 24-hours-a-day.
Snooky > It doesn’t leave you. You know, it’s not like a regular job where you can go home and forget about it. It haunts you in your waking and sleeping hours. And there’s a lot of heartache that goes along with it as well as incredible joy. It’s not really meant for everyone. A lot of people prefer to go home and forget about everything after your eight hours—if that’s you, don’t start your own business. We have a friend, Cleo Rose, who was a movie star in the ’50s. And she started out with nothing. She was like us. She started out dirt poor. She was an actress, and didn’t really like that too much. She got into real estate and dealing art, and all sorts of other endeavours. And now she has a castle in Italy, a townhouse in London, and a chapel in Tunbridge Wells in England, and all sorts of other places. You know, but when she was a little girl, she wanted a castle. And she got her castle! So anything’s possible. She’s our role model. She will just not take no for an answer. And our mother, too. Our mother wouldn’t take no for an answer either. When our father left, she had two little girls. And at that time, it was really difficult. It wasn’t like today where people get help, and it was a shameful thing to have children and no husband around. She went back to school when she was in her fifties. She started a whole new career; she was a greeting card artist, a commercial artist. And that paid so little that she went back to school and became an occupational therapist, one of the first occupational therapists in the country. And then she was asked by the head of visual arts at her school to start a program there and be the chairperson of the visual arts art therapy program. She worked until she passed away when she was in her late seventies.

Can you describe your sister in three words or less?
Snooky > Smart, practical and kind. Kind, she’s very kind.
Tish > I would say smart, determined, and also kind.

art // Katrina Cervoni

Muscovite Splendor

10 things about Olga Bulbenkova and the court dress of the House of Romanov

I had never heard of Olga Bulbenkova until a friend from high school added her to their inspirations on Facebook. I took one look at her stunning, opulent designs and knew that I had to know more about this woman and the style of the Russian court. Here are 10 things about this fascinating style and time period.

1 // Birth of a Fashion House
Olga Nikolaevna Bulbenkova (1835-1918), founded a fashion house called Madame Olga’s in St. Petersburg in the mid-1800s that went on to become one of the most popular for designing gowns for the Russian court, and specifically the Imperial Family. Not bad for the daughter of a priest.

2 // Not the Only Game in Town
Other important designers for the Russian court during this period include Izembard Chanceau, A.T. Ivanova, and the English designer Charles Worth. Each designer had their own unique look and specialty.

3 // Straw into Gold
Madame Olga’s house was known for its gold thread embroidery, which was done at the Novotikhvinsky convent. Convents were traditionally where this intricate embroidery was done.

4 // Palace Restrictions
All dresses made at Madame Olga’s followed the strict edicts for court dress that were set by Tsar Nicholas I in 1834. The cut, colour, and decoration of a gown signified its owner’s position in the court hierarchy. You could probably say that Nicholas I was a bit of a control freak.

5 // Uniform of the Court
This edict specified that women in the Russian court wear “Russian Dress Uniforms” (Paradnaya Plat’e). This was originally a white embroidered silk gown with a velvet overdress and long open sleeves in the Muscovite style. They had very full, bell-like skirts that fastened at the waist with a gold cord. These gowns were incredibly heavy and unwieldy, but were based on the traditional Russian style, as Nicholas wanted court dress to emphasize national Russian tradition as well as make it easier to tell the status of the women in his court. The style was eventually streamlined and modernized a bit, but still retained a look that was distinctly Russian. You know that amazing gown from the end of the animated Anastasia movie? It’s a very good representation of how the court style looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

6 // The Topper
Elaborate jeweled headdresses called Kokoshniks were also required. Married women wore theirs with veils. Needless to say, I wish I had 10 of them. Luckily for me, you can buy them on Etsy (!!!!).

7 // For Royal Bods Only
The Edict on Court Dress also specified that only the Empress or the Grand Duchesses (The Emperor’s daughters) could wear cloth of gold, or cloth of silver. However, if the Empress was wearing cloth of silver, the Grand Duchesses couldn’t wear it at the same time. Unfortunately for the Grand Duchesses, the Empress liked wearing silver a lot, and the Grand Duchesses mostly got to wear it at their weddings.

8 // Colours of the Court
Attendants to the Imperial family could only wear gowns in two colours—garnet red and emerald green. It was always Christmas at the Russian court, apparently.

9 // Watch that Train
The length of one’s train was also important—the longer the train, the higher one’s status. I would be OK if we brought this one back.

10 // End of an Era
Madame Olga’s went out of business in 1917 when the Revolution came, since the dissolution of the court meant there was no longer any business for them. The house’s last large court commission was in 1913 for the 300th Anniversary of the House of Romanov (see above image).

And I had to add one more, because we couldn’t finish this without talking about what happened to these designers following the fall of the House of Romanov

11 // Death of an Industry
The Revolution also saw the extinction of the ecclesiastical embroidery you see on the gowns that houses like Madame Olga’s made. Most of the women who did this work fled to France, and were quickly snapped up by couturiers like Patou, Lanvin, and Chanel (Russia’s loss was Paris’s gain). This industry is only just now seeing a bit of a resurgence, as there are convents trying to practice this traditional art once more.

Culinary Couture

10 ways food has been used to make clothing

I love eating. Food provides me with many fulfilling joys and enlightens my soul. I also love fashion. It takes me, along with other fashion fanatics, to a whole new, vibrant world. You can only imagine my elation when I found out that Lady Gaga was not the first or only wacky fashion icon to use food as a clothing material. There is a whole world out there of designers and artists who are bringing the kitchen into the atelier. Here are ten of my favourites.

1 // Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic
Before Lady Gaga came along, Canadian artist Jana Sterbak’s original meat dress created national controversy as it portrayed a contrast between bodily decomposition and narcissism. Her piece consisted of $300 worth of raw steak sewn together. This legendary dress has attracted a massive amount of publicity throughout the years and paved a path for modern artists.

2 // Rock The Meat
It wasn’t unusual for a gritty punk rock band from the late 70’s to have a very bizarre album cover. The Undertones’ featured a woman wearing pieces of meat as a dress, held together with saran wrap around her body, and completed with a sausage necklace for their compilation album, All Wrapped Up. Can’t get any more rock ‘n’ roll than that.

3 // Surreal Fantasy
The most famous surrealist of all time, Salvador Dali, created an extraordinary pavilion called Dream of Venus at the 1939 New York World’s Fair which featured remarkable underwater fantasy sculptures and semi-nude women parading around in themed outfits. One of the most prominent pieces involved a blindfolded model with a giant lobster belt and necklace.

4 // WTF, a Wine Dress?
Trying to explain the process of how to make a dress out of wine when I have a word limit can be very hard. So here is a link to satisfy your scientific curiosities. This dress uses biological fermentation to mold itself into a garment; no sewing, stitching, stapling, or glue guns involved.

5 // Lettuce Take a Moment
Project Runway is a favourite pastime that never fails to disappoint. Season 4 finalist, Chris March, created this outrageous yet elegant dress made out of $50 worth of lettuce. Wish-Bone used this dress to promote its salad dressings. Easy on the pocket and easier on the eyes, here is another tribute to the low-calorie leafy greens.

6 // Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Jeremy Scott’s fall 2006 collection definitely turned heads and sparked drooling mouths with this spaghetti dress and meatball accessories.

7 // It’s Gonna Be a Sweet Wedding
Personally, I’ve always wanted a guy who could cook me delicious meals. Imagine my jealously when this baker from Ukraine surprises his lucky bride-to-be by making her a wedding dress out of cream puffs. Made out of eggs, sugar, flour, and caramel, this gown contained a whooping 1,500 cream puffs. I think I hear my stomach grumbling.

8 // Coco Jerky
What does one think of when they hear the word Chanel? Is it the iconic French designer? Or is it a quilted bag made of beef jerky? Nancy Wu has accomplished the impossible. Hand-sewn sheets of dried meat never looked more chic. Made from 100% pure beef jerky, this Chanel-inspired bag is the perfect accessory to nibble on while out for a night on the town. Anyone know where I can get one?

9 // Elegant Veggies
With the vision of promoting vegetarianism in mind, PETA enlisted the help of Cloris Leachman, amongst many others, who sported a long gown made completely of leafy lettuce and red cabbage.

10 // Wearable Foods Extraordinaire
Sung Yeon Ju is a Korean artist who recently created a series called Wearable Foods made out of, well, wearable foods—mostly fruits and vegetables, but also bubble gum and even chicken feathers. The idea behind the collection is to highlight the interchange between actual and perceived reality. The result is absolutely stunning.

Fit For a Queen

Ten things about the gowns of Queen Elizabeth I

1 // The Tudor Mode of Dress
This portrait (above) represents the Tudor style of dress, as this portrait is from before Elizabeth was Queen. There’s a huge difference in the style of dress—the neckline is much lower and the silhouette much simpler, with much less jewelry and embellishment.

2 // A Queen Comes into her Own
The coronation portrait (above left) is a perfect example of the Elizabethan style—the Farthingale skirt, shoulder rolls, the high neckline, the ostentatious, over-the-top embellishment. The entire point of this garb was to make this young girl look imposing and invincible, because there were many people who did not want Elizabeth to be queen.

3 // Dressing to Impress
Royalty in the 16th century was expected to dress to impress upon everyone their wealth and power, and Elizabeth took this to heart. Henry VII, Elizabeth’s grandfather, had not been well liked because of his preference for simple dress, for it gave people the impression that he was miserly. Queen Elizabeth was perfectly aware of this and knew exactly how to use the power of perception to her advantage.

4 // Childhood Memories
Some people believe, however, that Elizabeth’s preference for incredibly rich garb stems from her impoverished upbringing (her mother, if you remember, was Anne Boleyn, and after her mother fell out of favour and was executed, the young princess did not receive as much money for her household, and often wore old or ill fitting clothing). The reality is that Elizabeth was incredibly thrifty. She kept impeccable records of her clothing expenses, and often had gowns taken apart and reassembled into new outfits.

5 // Budget Babe
Compared to her successor, James I, Elizabeth spent £9535 on clothing in four years, while James spent £36,377 in only one.

6 // A Gift Fit for a Queen
One of the ways Elizabeth saved money was by receiving gifts—England was one of the most powerful nations in the Western world during Elizabeth’s reign. Its Navy was recognized as the best, and money was pouring in from the colonies in newly discovered Americas. She often received gifts of clothing on New Year’s Day from those who wished to receive favour.

7 // Tomboy
At the height of her power, Elizabeth favoured high necklines, and even almost masculine dress. It was common for young, unmarried women to favour a lower neckline, and Elizabeth did not usually do this. She also favoured darker colours, and the style of bodice she made popular elongates the torso and creates an androgynous look. I don’t think was a coincidence—Elizabeth was a woman in a man’s world, and it was probably in her best interest to diminish her femininity and project her power, hence the androgynous silhouette and gem studded gowns.

8 // Body Modification
Corsets were more prevalent in 16th century England than in some other countries, for example, Italy. Venice even had a ban on the garment in 1547, though by the 1590s (considered Elizabeth’s “Golden Years,” I wonder if that’s a coincidence?) they were much more prevalent there.

9 // Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Elizabeth’s dress wasn’t just influenced by how she wanted to be perceived—it was also very cold in England at this time, as Northern Europe was going through a mini Ice Age. So all the heavy fabric and layers and padding was also a necessity that influenced everyone’s clothing decisions.

10 // Cover Me in Jewels
Jewelry was considered a must for the nobility of the Elizabethan Age, though Elizabeth took it to a whole new level by having her gowns themselves covered in jewels and pearls. Jewelry was a physical manifestation of one’s wealth and power, so if your wife had no jewelry, you would not be considered a person of prominence.