Nestled on a West Oakland side street, in a neighborhood dubbed “Dogtown” for its roving bands of homeless pitbulls and Rottweilers, sits a fine example of good ol’ capitalism disguised by its punk-rock ethos.
The story would make a Rockefeller proud: two young men — one creative, the other a born businessman — put their heads together to give the people what they want. Along the way, they make some dough. They came at just the right time, exploiting the burgeoning and uniquely Californian industry known as “street wear” — clothing inspired by skaters. This San Diego- and LA-based industry is the bastard child of surf wear, which Op all but invented in the ’70s. It has made many a Jeff Spicoli with a little initiative very, very rich. Our two entrepreneurs began hawking their screen-printed T-shirt designs from here to Poughkeepsie. Their product is Emily the Strange.
You’ve probably seen her, a stark drawing of a thirteen-year-old girl with a beatnik folksinger’s haircut and some chunky shoes. The color scheme is red, white, and black. She is usually surrounded by her black cats, with an attitude inspired equally by Wednesday Addams and the Misfits. She’s Holly Hobbie for girls who sawed off their Barbies’ heads.
The two men in their mid-thirties who are behind Emily, Matt Reed and Rob Reger, have since expanded their business into other offshoots. Oopsy Daisy is a sickeningly cute yet oh-so-fucked-up little button of a girl. A T-shirt that features the PowerPuffy sweetie pie saying “Oopsy, I said the F-word” is one of their biggest sellers. Oopsy was created by designer Noel Tolentino, who some know from his irreverent zine Bunnyhop. He also developed Yum Pop, which borrows from the anime stylings of J-Pop. The Groop line, a series of T-shirt designs that look like they fell out of a stoner’s van in ’76, is another offshoot that Reed and Reger currently have in stores such as Urban Outfitters.
And what was the genesis of this quaint tale that would make a Republican’s heart go pitter-patter? It was San Diego in 1989. “I met Rob in the courtyard of a little beach cottage I lived in,” says Reed. “He was playing in a Grateful Dead cover band.” Reed proceeded to throw stuff at the hippie, and he and his roommate began playing Misfits and Minor Threat records as loud as they could to drown out the music. “He came up to us wearing this leather jacket with Social Distortion, the DK’s, all these punk-rock buttons on it, and he’s talking all this punk-rock music with us, so I’m thinking maybe he’s not so bad. Then he turns around to get up, and he’s got a hand-painting of one of those Grateful Dead melting faces on his back. He was one of the most confused individuals I’d ever met.” But the literature-history major got a kick out of this Deadhead with a masters’ degree in screen printing, and they went on to develop a friendship. Soon, they were business partners.
The two friends named their whole endeavor Cosmic Debris, and they owe it all to punk rock. “Everything we do is based on the DIY ethic,” says Reed. In the beginning, around ’94, they had the Emily design and one screen printer. Much like a tiny independent record label or a zine, they had no backing and no distribution. Instead of punks with presses, they were punks with screen printers. They churned out T-shirts, and went to trade shows to sell them. It was there that they hooked up with Hot Topic, the clothing store that’s the subject of that Le Tigre song and the new Millennium’s answer to Chess King. Soon Emily was on everything from lunchboxes to watches to baby T’s (Reed says his company was one of the first to do the baby-T thing).
It all may sound easy, but Reed was savvy enough to figure out a niche: girls. No one had made street wear geared at girls. Emily was the perfect solution, since she appeals to a wide range of ages. Kids love creepy stuff: just look at Scooby Doo and the Goosebumps books. Emily is gloomy enough for older Goth and punk chicks to dig, and cute enough for smaller girls to glom onto. She also has a certain mystery about her that the merchants of cool might call “bankable.” At first, they created a personality for her — content but cynical, droopy but not whiny like that goddamned Daria cartoon on MTV. Now they talk about her in the third person as if she’s someone who actually exists. It’s a little weird. And of course, the Emily site is full of products to buy, as well as games, and some of her favorite music, like the Lies and the Fucking Champs. (Midwestern parents love that.)
Fans of ’80s punk need only look closely at a few of the Emily designs to see the obvious connections. The Social Distortion album and song title “Mommy’s Little Monster” appears in one drawing, while another riffs on the cover of the Misfits’ Die Die My Darling, with Emily peering out from behind an eightball. Reed and Reger found a way to apply their hardcore roots to building a business, both through the DIY production values and by applying their favorite bands’ zeitgeist to the product itself.
After all, what is more capitalist than the DIY spirit? All these Biafra types who carry on about big business are in fact using the same Horatio Alger prototype, albeit pulling themselves up by the buckles on their bondage pants. As much as Viacom and Disney and all those other fools own everything, there is still room for small businesses like Cosmic Debris to do their own thing — starting a business, developing a logo, pressing it onto some T-shirts, going to some trade shows, and, if they are lucky, making bank. God bless the USA.