For a while, there was talk of bringing the legendary punk club CBGB to Las Vegas. Late owner Hilly Kristal even traveled here to scout locations and gave the project his blessing. But nothing ever came of it, and that was before the economic downturn.
As for the vacant space in New York’s Bowery, trendy designer John Varvatos moved in with a concept store. “It wasn’t an intention of mine to ever go into that space. It just happened to be one of those impulsive things, after I had seen it sitting empty for over a year. I thought, ‘I don’t want this to turn into a bank or a drugstore or something on the Bowery. There has to be a way to mix music, fashion and commerce all together and keep it interesting.’” As for the result, well, it is already selling better than the Ramones ever did. “We have been able to do that in a very short time,” Varvatos says.
The store, John Varvatos Bowery NYC, mixed fashion and music (live shows every month) so successfully, in fact, that Varvatos expanded to Vegas this fall, opening a location inside the Hard Rock Hotel. And so, in one of those wonderful Vegas ironies, CBGB never made it here, but the store that replaced the legendary punk club is open for business just off the Strip.
Varvatos is not a punk guy. His tastes run more toward hard rock, and the two shows he has offered in his Vegas store so far, Cheap Trick and Alice Cooper, could not be further from the scene that produced Television, Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Still, Varvatos says the decision to bring music into the chain is attributable to the significance of the New York real estate. “I am not setting out to replace CBGB, not at all,” he says. “CBGB was a cultural center; it was more than just about clothes.”
Varvatos contrasts his Hard Rock Bowery store with his more traditional high-end store at the Forum Shops, which opened a few years ago (he has 10 stores altogether). To him, the difference is about more than the name: “The other store at the Forum Shops is more elegant and upscale-looking. This store is much more music-centric. There is a big video screen, there is a stage in the store, we sell vintage audio equipment and vinyl records.”
Not that anyone would confuse “less upscale” for a place to go looking for bargains. Along with the New York store, the Hard Rock store is just the second place in the world where you can buy a limited-edition pair of Converse tennis shoes—black with leather and rhinestones—for $250.
Varvatos personally picks the vinyl records for sale at the Vegas store. An import copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid sells for $65; a Bob Dylan original a comparative steal at $25. Roxy Music, Deep Purple, Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd—the preference for ’70s music is clear, so maybe that is hip again with the fashionistas.
Still, Varvatos is realistic that Vegas is not New York. So, while he has featured up-and-coming bands and headliners every month at the onetime home of CBGB, doing so in Vegas is more complicated. “It is an organization thing. In New York, it is easier to deal with,” Varvatos says. “We would like to follow what we are doing in New York here—a constant music vibe. We have a permanent stage, and we want artists who live in Vegas or who are performing there to feel free to drop by and jam.”
Alice Cooper’s show was certainly that. “He was a friend, and he was in town, so I asked him if he could play,” Varvatos explains. Fans crammed through the window openings that surround the store to see Cooper play a handful of greatest hits. He took requests and appeared to be having a blast on songs he has played countless times. Perhaps it was because it was just Cooper, rocking out in a leather jacket with a band—no theatrics, no guillotines, no skeletons. Only the music.
And, while Cooper’s look may not be fashionable to the cognoscenti, Varvatos is betting on his store’s magic mix of music, fashion and commerce, already working well at the former home of CBGB in New York. Odd how things turn out.