Colorado History

Denver's Long-Running Punk Boutique FashioNation Keeps Drawing Rock Stars

The rockers were easy to pick out among the crowd waiting at the arrivals area at Denver International Airport; the fitted leather jackets, pompadours and guitar cases gave them away. As Paul Italiano pulled up alongside the musicians in an SUV, he was nervous. It wasn’t meeting rock stars that made him uneasy; he’d already met plenty. Rather, Italiano was nervous about the music he’d selected to play during the drive back to Denver.

After all, if you’re swinging by the airport to pick up Peter Hook, from legendary post-punk group Joy Division, what tunes do you put on? As a DJ and obsessive fanboy of rock, punk, industrial and new wave, Italiano knew it was a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he wanted to demonstrate his music cred, but he also didn’t want his selection to come across as overly obscure and pretentious. After much deliberation, he finally settled on dark post-punk band the Chameleons, based out of Manchester, England.

As soon as Hook and his entourage piled into the car, Italiano nudged up the volume. It was the moment of truth, and he strained to overhear the conversation occurring among his passengers in the back seat. The musicians immediately took the bait and commented on the Chameleons playing on the sound system. Their verdict: surprise and delight at Italiano’s selection. Yes! Italiano thought. Score.

Later, he was offered a chance to introduce Peter Hook and the Light from the stage of the Gothic Theatre, where the group was performing Joy Division and New Order classics. Italiano politely declined. For him, it was enough to meet another group of music idols, as well as have them visit his store.

Over the past two decades, Italiano and his wife, Pam, have hosted more than ninety nationally and internationally touring rock acts at FashioNation, a Denver clothing and shoe boutique that they’ve co-owned and run together since 1987.

While the Italianos have picked up artists other than Peter Hook at the airport, the majority of the stars they’ve met over the years — including members of the Ramones, REM, the Pixies, Green Day, the Go-Go’s, the Violent Femmes, Sonic Youth and Motörhead, among many, many others — have actually shown up right at their doorstep.

In fact, what began as a series of unexpected visits and innocent overtures has today become a phenomenon; it’s not uncommon for bands who topped the charts in the late ’70s and the ’80s to stop at FashioNation during tour dates in Denver. Within just the past twelve months, Pam and Paul have played host to Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Specials and the Buzzcocks.

Italiano still marvels at all of the famous people he’s met. For he and his wife, as well as friends and staff at the store, it’s a loosely guarded secret that has produced unforgettable stories and conversations with many of the most important musicians of the late twentieth century. In all likelihood, one reason that the rock stars keep coming is that there doesn’t seem to be an agenda at the shop.

“Really, this is just something fun,” Italiano says. “It’s no big deal, and it’s no promotion — it’s just rad!”

It helps that the Italianos are disciples of many of the artists they’ve met through their store. Beginning in 1983, Italiano spun vinyl as a DJ at various Denver nightclubs — including venues that have long since disappeared, like Thirsty’s, which had under-eighteen nights, and Rock Island, the infamous and semi-hidden venue in lower downtown that closed in 2006 after a raucous thirty-year run. He still deejays occasionally at venues like Milk Bar, playing ’80s alternative.

Music has always been a part of Pam and Paul’s relationship. After they opened FashioNation in 1987, with just forty pieces of clothing and $1,000, they continued to work part-time in nightclubs to pay the bills and keep abreast of the latest music trends.
But more than anything else, says Italiano, it was probably FashioNation’s original location, in the 600 block of East 13th Avenue, that set the stage for professional musicians to enter their lives.

“Thirteenth Avenue was really happening back then, so it wouldn’t be surprising if someone of our style would check out the street,” he explains. With multiple bars and Wax Trax Records directly catty-corner to the store, Italiano says, musicians who were playing local venues would “just pop in.”

Initially, they included backup singers and dancers who were killing time before performances or between sound checks at venues around town. Some of the first that Italiano remembers were Michael Jackson’s and Cher’s backup singers. FashioNation was a natural draw for their aesthetic. Pam’s handcrafted outfits were unique and appealing to a young, punk, expressive clientele. Later, her discerning sense of style would guide her to select specific brands that she discovered at trade shows, including entering the footwear business as one of the few major carriers of Dr. Martens boots — a favorite among rockers — in the United States.

But in May 1995, the visitors began to change, starting with REM’s Michael Stipe, who dropped by the store two days in a row while his band was headlining Fiddler’s Green.
On his second visit, Stipe wrote on the wall: “Michael Stipe bought a magazine and a shirt.”

“And that was the start of it,” Italiano recalls warmly. “So anybody who came in after that, we had them sign the wall.”

The notion of inviting artists to the store struck Paul after one of his friends who worked for Teletunes — a local music-video show that ran on Denver’s Channel 12 and was a precursor to MTV — mentioned that he was handling Morrissey and had thought about sending him by FashioNation during some downtime.
“Ughhhh, that would have been so awesome!” Paul told his friend. “You should have sent him!”

After narrowly missing the Moz, the Italianos started keeping an eye out for artists they admired who were playing in town. If they knew people who worked at the venue where the artist was performing, they would ask them to drop hints to the musicians, like, “Hey, you might want to check out 13th Avenue and FashioNation…”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, these “hints” produced some successful results, including visits from Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, Social Distortion and KMFDM. In some cases, those visits also led to managers and musicians spreading the word to others, such as KMFDM telling Marilyn Manson to check out the shop, and Echo and the Bunnymen’s manager telling the Specials to drop by.

Meanwhile, as the Italianos gained the inside trust of the music industry, some of the fashion and accessory brands that they sold in the store, like Dr. Martens, agreed to occasionally give away free merchandise to select artists.

Even today, Italiano marvels at some of the bands he’s met. While every visit is different, the groups usually spend anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours hanging out in the shop. And just as Italiano fretted about what music to play for Peter Hook when picking him up at the airport, he’s always careful to have a curated playlist ready for a band’s visit.

Most important, however, is a rule that he holds himself and his staff to: “Never ask them about music, because that’s the last thing they want to talk about.”

While Italiano sometimes poses icebreaker questions, like asking a band about how its tour is going or where it’s headed next, he says that most of the artists he meets are relieved just to have a casual conversation about everyday things.

For instance, Skinny Puppy, despite its dark music and horror-themed videos and performances, talked about hockey during most of its first visit to the shop, in 1997. (The musicians have since been back multiple times.)

“We talk to them like they’re just dudes,” Italiano says, adding that sometimes the musicians bring their kids along with them.

Other times, Pam and Paul’s daughters have been in the shop during bands’ visits. One of Italiano’s favorite memories was when his youngest daughter made cotton candy for Danzig. In a series of comical photographs taken that day, the rockers are decked out in all black and leather clothing, only they’re also holding green cotton candy cones like they’re at a carnival.

“They’re on your turf, so they’re really polite,” Italiano says, then hesitates for a moment and laughs. “Well, for the most part…”

For Italiano, it’s always interesting to compare the musicians’ stage personas to their actual personalities. To a large extent, Italiano believes that the outrageous and over-the-top antics associated with music like hair metal are not false personas. This is especially true for bands with particularly outspoken frontmen or frontwomen; Italiano says that he sometimes notices peculiar dynamics, or a distinct pecking order, when groups hang out at the store.

For instance, when the Psychedelic Furs visited FashioNation in 2013, they parked in front of the shop in a massive tour bus, blocking an entire lane of 13th Avenue. But despite the illegal parking job, the group’s frontman, Richard Butler, never showed his face, instead electing to remain alone on the bus.

Another time, when Social Distortion visited the store, guitarist and chief songwriter Mike Ness was doing most of the talking for the group, but the situation became awkward and humorous when Ness kept asking to try on shoes that were much too large for his small feet.

“We kept saying, ‘No, those don’t fit, but he wouldn’t believe us,” Italiano recalls, shaking his head and laughing.

In many ways, though, the larger-than-life personalities are exactly what you’d hope for when meeting a rock star. Such was the case when Paul and Pam met Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in 2015, when Rotten was touring with Public Image Ltd.

While their interaction didn’t occur at FashioNation, but rather the Gothic Theatre, Italiano says that “it still happened because of the shop.” That night, venue operator AEG Live, which partners with FashioNation to promote certain bands, had given the Italianos an extra pair of meet-and-greet tickets. So after the show, the Italianos and two other couples were escorted down to a green room to meet the band, and according to Italiano, when Rotten entered the room, one of the other guests “started talking about her niece or something, and you could tell it was driving [Rotten] up the fucking wall.”

Finally, Rotten threw up his hands, yelled, and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
“That was exactly what you’d want to happen!” Paul says. “It was so awesome.”

FashioNation moved from its 13th Avenue location to South Broadway in 2014, which unfortunately meant that all of the signatures around the original store’s foyer were lost. (The Italianos were, however, able to extract one section of a wall with signatures and take it to their new store, where the practice has begun anew.)

But the most obvious sign of the rock-star parade that’s been through FashioNation over twenty years is a wall filled with framed photographs of each of the artists who’s visited — including a date at the bottom, and usually with Pam or Paul posing with the band.

“When artists see that, they usually just want to sit here [in front of the wall],” Italiano says. “They’ll say things like ‘Oh! I deejayed with that guy!’ or ‘Oh! I played with that guy!”

Reaching out to artists has also become easier with websites listing bands’ agents, and even social networks like Facebook. Italiano says that he sometimes sends cold pitches over Facebook to groups with scheduled shows in Denver, always with links to photographs of the wall so that artists can see all of the other bands that have preceded them. Recently, the tactic worked with Tears for Fears.

After all, there’s some cachet when the artists see who they’re joining on the wall, almost like they feel obligated to continue a legacy. “The bigger this got, the easier it got,” Italiano admits.

And because he and his wife have never really stressed artist cameos as a promotional tool — though they do frequently have ticket giveaways from AEG, Live Nation and Soda Jerk Presents — Italiano says that only a handful of customers and personal friends inquire about when artists are scheduled to show up at the store. Italiano’s not too worried about it catching on, but, he says, “if that did happen, as a business  owner, I’d probably have to admit it would be a good thing.”

The Italianos are just thankful to have met the creators of so much music that has been central to their lives. And there are still so many more artists out there: While Paul would love to meet Morrissey and Depeche Mode, he thinks they might be too big. “The Cult is the one I’m chasing right now,” he says.

Then again, on Saturday, November 12, Lol Tolhurst from the Cure visited the shop. And Italiano had never expected to meet Joy Division’s Hook. He’d sent a note to Hook on Facebook in 2011 and didn’t hear back until two years later, when he randomly got a message from the artist’s manager asking, “Hey, is that offer still up? And want to pick us up from the airport?"

“My thing is that I’m never afraid to get told no, because it’s nothing personal,” Italiano says. “It’s all part of the game. It’s fun. I call it fishing, and you never know who’s going to bite.”
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker