Like most small businesses, FashioNation has been struggling during the pandemic. The South Broadway clothing and shoe store was closed for 62 days, during which time the landlords mercifully cut the owners a break on rent. After it reopened, customers — gleeful to shop again for goth and punk gear — eventually returned. But sales were still slow.
Then a couple of customers came in with their smartphones and shot TikTok videos of the shop. The posts went viral.
Inspired, Sydney Italiano, the 21-year-old daughter of store founders Paul and Pam Italiano, decided to make a quick TikTok documentary about the shop's origin story. It goes like this: Sydney's parents founded FashioNation in 1987, trying to create a safe place for punks, goths and other alternative kids to safely explore their identity through clothes. Over the years, the shop became a rock-star magnet and continued to thrive until the pandemic hit. That TikTok video, posted on July 24, was seen by more than 300,000 people.
One video and Sydney was hooked. Over the following days, she began posting more videos, in which she and her family mug for the camera, show off the store's clothes and chat up the crowd.
In one, the Italiano parents, two veteran rockers, stand in the background as Sidney invites people down to the shop. In others, she offers TikTok followers 10 percent discounts through August and tours people through an impressive collection of Dr. Martens, purses, concert posters and outfits. Most of those videos also blew up.
Now, Sydney says, the shop is nearing 100,000 followers and counting, and has racked up more than a million views.
"We have people from Romania and Spain and London all saying they want to come visit us. It’s definitely reached worldwide — it’s insane," Sydney says. "When people see us in a little small business hanging out, they just lose it. We’re just being ourselves. That's all we're doing, is just being ourselves."
TikTok is the embattled social-media video site from China that Donald Trump recently threatened to ban and that Microsoft is considering buying. If Facebook is a platform for boomers and GenX and Instagram is for millennials, TikTok is quickly becoming the GenZ platform of choice. It's full of pranks, dance-offs and quirky challenges. And for many users, it's a refreshing break from the self-important posturing and bickering that sully other social media sites.
"It’s a little more positive," explains Sydney, who was first goaded to use TikTok by her younger sibling, who racked up more than three million views on a post. "Instagram is like: 'Oh, I’m a model.' TikTok is like, 'This is me sitting in my fridge.' It’s just funny."
A week's worth of TikTok activity is paying off in more than likes and views. Sydney says the shop has been inundated by fifteen-year-olds and their parents; there has been a line out the door since the videos started going viral. Some longtime customers are frustrated that their favorite shop is being popularized on TikTok, but others are just discovering the wonders of FashioNation.
During more than three decades of serving Denver's counterculture, the shop has seen plenty of underground trends come and go and come back again. The youth who are discovering FashioNation through TikTok are still trying to figure out what subculture they belong to.
"They call us an 'alt store,'" says Sydney, who adds that she's unsure what "alt" really means to youth. "They say, 'Wow, I’ve never been to an alt store.' We’re like, 'Okay, we’ll take it.' They’re kind of newer and finding their way into what they want to be. The store is such a safe place, and they feel like they're where they belong. It’s a platform for them to be who they want to be."
And that's what matters to the Italianos.
"Someone came in and said, 'I feel safe here,'" says Sydney. "It was her first time, and that was what she said to us. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. We may be scary-looking punk rockers, but we'll take care of you.'"