Garb for Mutant Teen-Age Fashion Rebels : A Handful of Stores Throughout the County Offer Youths an Alternative to Mainstream Attire at Malls


With its spray-painted wall from hell complete with shooting flames, a cemetery and skeletons, London Exchange is every parent's house of horrors.

Welcome to the fashion underground. Here, teen-age mutant fashion rebels hunt down the antithesis of acceptable attire. For them, places like London Exchange offer an oasis from the sameness of bland mall shops.

"Most of our customers are just young kids who are sick of getting Polo shirts from the Broadway," says Michael Lohrman, salesman for the Wreck Room in Laguna Beach. "They want something different."

In Orange County, there's a small network of these alternative clothing stores. London Exchange, the granddaddy of them all, opened 10 years ago in Costa Mesa, while Rack N Ruin, the new kid on the block, opened in an El Toro shopping center in December.

With their fondness for skulls and crossbones and liberal use of black spray paint, the shops look decorated for Halloween all year round.

Rack N Ruin has a massive skull painted on the wall of its dressing rooms, and the Wreck Room has a skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Posters and stickers of punk and heavy metal bands paper the walls of the shops.

Despite their somewhat menacing appearance, the stores offer a harmless fare of unconventional clothes and accessories.

"I come here for the Doc Martens," says Casey Hale, 24, a regular customer at Rack N Ruin in blue jeans, a black leather belt and a baseball cap.

Doctor Martens' heavy shoes and boots are a staple of all the shops. The shoes are known by their thick rubber soles guaranteed to withstand "oil, fat, alkali and acid."

"You can buy them at the mall, but I'd rather come to the source than go someplace that's commercial," Hale says. "The shoes are more associated with the punk underground."

Two boys, each no older than 16, stop at Rack N Ruin to buy a couple of biker rings adorned with skulls and snakes. One fishes around in a plastic baggy for enough change to afford the $6 imitation silver bauble.

"Which one are you gonna get?" he asks his friend. The two might as well be picking out baseball cards.

Other big sellers are hair dye that can turn one's locks any color, T-shirts of favorite bands and skull jewelry.

"You'll find some similarities between our stuff and what's inside South Coast Plaza," says Craig McGahey, owner of London Exchange. His shop carries baby-doll dresses with batik prints that look as if they came out of the Limited.

Still, his store is decidedly on the outer edge of fashion.

"Kids who come here feel they've found something different," he says. "If you go to a mall, you can find some of the same things, but theirs will have a tamer print. We're a lot more on the cutting edge. There's no way this store would fit into a mall."

It's doubtful any mall store carries some of London Exchange's more outrageous fare: shorts made of purple fur and a furry blue bra top, a pink vinyl lace-up bustier, chartreuse velvet stretch pants and a stars-and-stripes halter top.

"Wear it for the troops," says McGahey with a grin.

Skulls and crossbones dominate rebel clothing the way polka dots and Pucci prints have permeated high fashion. Black is the primary color. Crushed velveteen, fur and imitation leather are favorite fabrics.

McGahey stocks shirts with cuffs and collars of imitation zebra skin.

Rack N Ruin carries a furry red and white, striped hat made popular by Dr. Seuss' "Cat in the Hat," a black vinyl bustier, black velveteen hot pants and leather wrist bands.

The stores all stock ample amounts of leather goods--including belts studded with spikes, studs and even meat hooks--black bomber jackets, miniskirts and bustiers.

Shawn Peterson of Westminster is to rebel wear what Bob Mackie is to beaded evening gowns. The designer's Bone Bagg label can be found all over the local stores and in shops across the United States and in Japan, Germany and England.

Among his more popular designs: pants and shirts festooned with zippers, a shirt that offers an X-ray pattern of one's rib cage, and red plaid flannel "bondage pants" with straps attached to the legs so the wearer can tie his legs together.

"The straps are just for looks," Peterson says. "It's a takeoff on the '70s English-style pant. There's a resurgence of punk-rock stuff."

Because of their punk roots, some shops periodically incur the wrath of passersby and parents who find their merchandise and decor threatening.

"We've had our share of windows busted out," McGahey says.

His new location, formerly an auto detailing shop, has no windows, but someone recently tried to ram his or her car through the back door, McGahey says.

"Occasionally someone will ask us, 'Do people really buy this stuff?' They think we don't sell it," McGahey says. "Orange County isn't as conservative as they think. We're not just these rich suburbs L.A. thinks we are."

Rack N Ruin attracts second looks and occasional verbal barbs from the strait-laced moviegoers who shuffle by in line on their way to see a Disney picture.

"We get a lot of surprised looks, especially in El Toro," says Cindy Blake, who helps run the store with owner Steve Wagoner. "A lot of parents think it's Satan stuff. I don't think there's anything too evil here."

Wagoner adds: "Some of the fathers won't come in here. But their wives come in and buy shoes with 6-inch spiked heels."

Wagoner picked the location because the center is near four high schools. The average age of his customers is 16.

Still, not everyone over 30 views the shop with distrust.

"The parents seem more liberal than I thought they'd be," Wagoner says. "During Christmas they'd come in and spend a couple hundred dollars on shoes."

The young customers are united by the music and an unwillingness to fit in to the mainstream. Shop owners say they've seen a revival of punk that's been good for their business.

"This place revolves around the club and band scene," McGahey says. "People are hip to going out." He holds up a shirt with a crazy abstract print.

"They don't buy this so they can hang out at home."

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