Before Kurt, Before Sky Ferreira: Seattle’s Linda Derschang On The Birth Of Grunge

January 7, 2014 • Culture, Fashion

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Linda Derschang is a Northwest legend; known in equal measure for her punk-meets-glam style, and her monopoly on Seattle’s bar and restaurant scene. In 1987, the Colorado native moved to Seattle with then-husband, Michael Anderson, whose band, Blood Circus, was signed to the still burgeoning record label, Sub-Pop. She opened a clothing shop called Basic, selling Dr. Marten’s and other underground fashion staples (like the Manic Panic hair dye Kurt Cobain used to pick up there when he was dying his blond locks magenta), and became immersed in a scene whose bands, and members of its general assembly would soon be labeled, “Grunge.”

The phenomenal success of Nirvana inspired the necessity to characterize their heavy, dirgy sound, and that of similar bands such as Mudhoney, Tad, and Green River. The term “Grunge” would also be used to essentially comodify the look of the functional flannels, jeans, and loose floral dresses paired with rain-ready combat boots worn in Seattle’s dreary Northwest climate. Marc Jacob’s now infamous “grunge-inspired” collection for Perry Ellis was released in fall 1992, also costing the designer his position at the company, while the cast of 90210 all became poster children for the look (well, except for maybe Ian Zeiring’s character, Steve, who was always kind of a bro).

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Nirvana’a success also lead to the second wave of Derschang’s career, when Sub-Pop co-founders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt invested in her as bar owner. Just as New York’s CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City served the late 1970s punk scene, the three envisioned a divey, familiar, homebase within the Seattle scene. Since opening Linda’s Tavern in 1994, Derschang has gone on to open ten establishments—six that she still owns, all of which are still open, and have remained buzzing cultural haunts. As one of the city’s most notable cultural engineers, we spoke with Derschang about the birth and rise of Grunge—its music, and its uniform.

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RYANN DONNELLY: How were people dressing in Seattle when you moved there?

LINDA DERSCHANG: It was 1987. Everyone was wearing Dr. Marten’s and Converse sneakers. At that time a lot of girls were wearing knee-length cut-off jeans, often with tights and boots. And, babydoll dresses. I sold a million baby doll dresses [at my store]. There were a lot of striped tights. Girls and guys were both wearing plaid shirts and jackets in either wool or flannel, often with thrift store t-shirts. All of the clothing people were wearing just seemed very understated – except I suppose everyone looked a bit scruffy in a really good way. Guys weren’t going out and buying a “look” because it was fashionable; it seemed like most of the clothing was the same stuff they grew up wearing. It wasn’t super punk rock, and it wasn’t the glam rock look that was happening in Los Angeles, either. The style was different for women. They were doing more by mixing thrift store finds with vintage and new clothing.

DONNELLY: Was there any relationship yet between these looks, and what you’d see in mainstream fashion magazines?

DERSCHANG: No, but I don’t know if similar looks might have been found within similar music scenes, in New York for example, or San Francisco, or Chicago . I don’t really know. Its very likely that they were. But, because Seattle was having this moment with music it became the “Seattle look.”

DONNELLY: Was there a turning point when you started seeing these looks coming into the mainstream?

DERSCHANG:  I remember the grunge collection for Perry Ellis and Marc Jacobs getting in trouble– well, he lost his job over it, right? I remember thinking that was really weird – both that he created a look around the Seattle look and that he was fired! But, I loooved the Vogue story Jonathan [Poneman] wrote, “Grunge and Glory,” that had a bunch of those Perry Ellis pieces in it.

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DONNELLY: When do you remember people starting to call it “Grunge?”

DERSCHANG: I don’t really remember hearing that until 1992 or 1993. When I was going out in 1989 to see Mudhoney or Tad, I certainly didn’t say I was going to see a “Grunge” band. We’d just describe it as “heavy,” “dirgy.”

DONNELLY: Nirvana are credited with popularizing Grunge nationally, but could you feel them having an influence in Seattle where it essentially existed already?

DERSCHANG: Its hard to remember that transition before they were super famous. They were always around, but there were so many great bands, and I wasn’t following Nirvana so closely.  I really liked them, but they got huge so fast. I don’t think anyone expected [their album] Nevermind to explode like it did. I saw them play many times, and I remember when Courtney [Love] moved to town. I remember Kurt used to buy his hair dye in the store– the different reds and pinks that he was using. Kids would come in and ask what color he used. It was all Manic Panic– and this is terrible– but, we would just look at the different reds we had in stock and make something up. There were so many bands at the time, we weren’t really keeping track. But, their success ended up helping out a lot of people in a more indirect way– making Sub Pop flourish, and all the attention on Seattle. It was really cool that all that happened, but the fashion side wasn’t something I really expected.

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DONNELLY: Did you notice more stores popping up that were selling similar clothes and accessories to yours?

DERSCHANG: Sure. There were also some vintage stores that were really good. But, any city is going to have a few stores that sell that sort of punk-y stuff: hair dye, hoop earrings, rubber bracelets, little pointy boots with buckles– all that sort of stuff that’s now sold at Hot Topic [stores].

DONNELLY: And what was that like– seeing stores like Hot Topic opening at malls?

DERSCHANG: By the time Hot Topics started opening I had been out of retail for awhile, so I was unaware till my daughter, who was born in 1989, was a teenager. I just found it really amusing that there would be a chain of mall stores selling a lot of the same stuff that I sold in the mid-1980s. When I took my daughter to Hot Topic, I was amazed that they were carrying some of the same lines: Trash and Vaudeville, Lip Service, Manic Panic – and that they were still around. I didn’t think it was a bad thing, really.

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Read more:
30 Seconds to Blowing My Brains Out

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