Long before there was the new Bettie Page store, there was Enz’s. Mariann Marlowe opened the pinup, rockabilly, and burlesque-inspired fashion boutique 34 years ago. “My store was a necessity that came from the scene,” said the designer. “I was hanging with Sid and Nancy, getting inspiration from Malcolm McLaren. Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler — everyone in the scene was hanging out and coming by. That’s when it was on 49 Grove, and that didn’t last. We either died or we changed.” The store, which also had locations on St. Marks Place, the Upper East Side, and in the Hamptons, is now at 125 Second Avenue. We spoke to Ms. Marlowe, 55, about its evolution.
It’s hard to survive the punk-rock and rock-n-roll lifestyle as a person much less a business, how are you doing it?
I am always reinventing myself. My store was the first punk store in New York when we opened in 1978. I had just come from living in London and was very influenced there by the scene. I had all this creative inspiration and suddenly my clothes were in movies and on album covers. Debbie Harry, Joey Ramone, and Lou Reed were coming by and Andy Warhol was bringing me a copy of Interview Magazine to check out when it was just 18 pages!
Lots has changed since then!
So much has changed since then. I got older and now we’re a pin-up rockabilly shop with a little fetish. Our customers are Norah Jones, Macy Gray and Helen Mirren.
Who inspires you still?
Vivienne Westwood and Patricia Fields. They’re a little older than me and they are always true to the culture. Betsey Johnson too at times. Music is a very big part of my store. Sometimes I’ll feel inspired and turn up the music when someone is looking at, say, a dress that I love and it makes me feel something suddenly about a certain riff in the song. Like “Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys,” I’ll turn up and for whatever reason we all feel it. We all get that rush from the music and it helps the sale.
People who have survived the ’70s and ’80s in the East Village seem to feel especially protective of the neighborhood.
Well, the ’70 and the ’80s was the building of the whole East Village. It was the music and artist Mecca for the world. You’d just see Joey Ramone just walking down the street. I was there with Sid and Nancy. I was a huge part of the rock’n’roll scene and was very inspired by it. It was all vision and necessity. There was no business school for me.
Your business must benefit from the commercialization of the pin-up Bettie Page look and the mainstream popularity of “Mad Men” and burlesque.
My business is not commercial and it never will be. I run this as a mom-and-pop place. People have wanted to back me and expand this, but I live here in the East Village. I’m a native New Yorker and I don’t want to do that to myself, my business. You’re never going to see me producing in China, no matter if Katy Perry and “Mad Men” fans come in or not. Other stores are producing what we have always sold and going to China for it, but all our clothing is made here in America.
Doesn’t all that help business, though?
The commercializing of what I’ve done my whole life bothers me. I guess I’m not in it for the money. You can’t compete with China. Forever 21 is also a problem but they are so downmarket. I don’t really want someone who wants to wear one of my dresses just one time for their Mad Men party. That hurts. That’s me talking as a creative and not as businessperson, though. I am both and need to be better at both.
Do the knock-off shops take away a lot of your business?
There are like five people a day coming in and sneaking photographs to copy my store and find out my suppliers. No one wants to do their homework and find their own creativity anymore. They are trying to take all that all day long. Before they ask the size, they want to know, who made it. You don’t go to a creative store and specialty shop and ask where I got everything. That’s the reason it’s a special cool store.
Would you say business is going well nonetheless?
My business is up and down. It’s still a little neighborhood store. I am not going to be able to retire from it. But I get to walk there and put on my own music and do my own thing. Business depends on how creative I am. Because I’m so sensitive, I can be easily drained. When a girl comes in and tries on 20 different dresses on, I put my heart and soul into finding that perfect dress for her. But then she might leave after all that and say she can’t afford the dresses.
You say your dresses are reasonably priced. What kind of profit do you turn if your purchasing costs aren’t China-prices low?
The profit margin is not high for me. If I wanted to really make big money, I would be traveling to China and Vietnam for cut and sewn dresses for $5. I pay a good $100 for my dresses and sell them for $160. I have to take out tax and payroll still. When you look at stores like Calypso who also pay $100 for a dress, because they are higher end they can mark it up five times. When I make something, like a hat, that is when I have my biggest profit if I work well with my time.
What are you working on of your own right now?
I’m making fascinators for the store now. I made five this morning. The whole headpiece thing is so British and has become more popular here after Prince William’s wedding.
Where do you see the business going or growing over the next ten years?
We may branch out to Williamsburg. I’ve been looking for another store for a while, but it’s very expensive there — like $5,000 a month! I have almost signed several leases, but then I get quoted a price and the very next day it is then $500 more. There are also a few projects I’m thinking about — a bar maybe. I’m friends with the owners of Three of Cups and we’re thinking of collaborating, maybe like the Cobra Club in Bushwick. A yoga studio, coffee shop and a bar.
What is your rent like on Second Avenue?
It’s comparable to what they are charging in Williamsburg. At 49 Grove I was paying $200 a month for 200 square feet.
Besides Norah Jones and Helen Mirren, who do you like seeing in your store?
People who live the lifestyle, burlesque performers. We support that community and give 10 percent discounts to graduates of the New York Burlesque School. I just don’t want the Kardashian types coming in and throwing stuff around in the dressing room and getting their make-up on those beautiful dresses. I take it all personally.