Sisters Tish and Snooky Bellomo reveled in the New York City punk rock scene in the '70s. The notorious Bronx-born duo sang with numerous groups, including an early version of Blondie. But it was their retail gambit that made them famous. Responding to audience members who, Tish says, "liked our style and asked us where we got our clothing," they opened a boutique in the Manhattan's East Village in 1977 with $250 from a sympathetic aunt and $250 in savings.
Tish & Snooky's Manic Panic NYC quickly became central to the scene. "Everybody came in to hang out," says Tish, whose cropped bangs and long ponytail vibrate with a combination of fuschia, hot pink, and violet hair dye. "They went to CBGBs and they went to Manic Panic." Tish fondly recalls Tony Garnier (best known as Bob Dylan's bass player) bringing by a pot of gumbo at Christmas. "It wasn't just about business; it was about music, it was a whole lifestyle."
Thirty years later, punk merchandising is big business, and Tish and Snooky have turned their lifestyle into the backbone and brand-identity of a 13-employee wholesale business with $5 million in annual revenues—chiefly through the sale of hair dye in screaming colors with names like Deadly Nightshade and Atomic Turquoise.
Scrambling to Keep Up
Consulting and market research firm Kline & Co. estimates hair dye is a $1.3 billion business in the U.S. For almost two decades, Manic Panic distributed a popular English brand of hair dye in the garish colors favored by punk rockers such as Cyndi Lauper, and Debbie Harry of Blondie. In 1996, when their English supplier became unreliable, Tish and Snooky set out on a mission to create their own customized colors, the first of which, Vampire Red, is still the company's best-selling hue.
After years of being priced out of one retail space after another, Manic Panic moved into a warehouse space on White Street in Manhattan that was big enough to enable them to significantly increase their inventory. They also branched out into new products such as vampy makeup, nail polish, and glittery false eyelashes. Through word of mouth and great press, sales boomed practically overnight, and the sisters found themselves scrambling to hire enough employees to handle the new orders.
Without any background in business, the founders improvised their way to success. "Every day is a challenge, every day we're learning something new, it just never ends, 'cause our job changes constantly—everything is something we've never done before," says Tish. "But it's not rocket science," chimes in Snooky from under her mane of Vampire Red and Electric Lava hair. "You just figure it out."
Getting the Bugs Out
That learning process has included developing cruelty-free products that reflect Tish and Snooky's love of animals. Gradually, they've moved as close to an all-vegan standard as possible. That has required them to substitute ingredients in some products that, unbeknownst to them, contained animal by-products. Others, such as a carmine dye made of red bugs, are harder to eliminate.
"We've learned everything by doing it," says Snooky. "We had never thought that much about animal by-products like beeswax," a common ingredient in hair dye. They figure their line is now 85% to 90% vegan, and the new catalog will indicate which products adhere 100% to vegan standards (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/1/06, "What's That in My Food").
Business noticeably slowed after September 11, 2001. "People stopped going out or dying their hair and wanting to party," admits Snooky. The recovery took a couple of years. In 2003 Manic Panic expanded overseas when they made a licensing deal with a Japanese entrepreneur to open a chain of salons in Japan targeted at a distinctly upmarket crowd.
The flagship store opened in Yokahama, and franchises followed in Tokyo (where the store sits on Tokyo's equivalent of Rodeo Drive) and Osaka, bringing in a cut of each franchise deal as well as a new market for their branded products.
Kudos From the Mayor
Their Japanese associate wanted to merge the two companies and go public, but the sisters declined. Although the two are not opposed to new investors, they don't relish the idea of having partners. "We fight enough over decisions," says Tish. Plus, they prefer to stick to the DIY, "quick and dirty" way of doing things that has brought them this far, and is, indeed, an integral part of the punk aesthetic. "You never know what the future will hold, but it's not our goal to become public," says Tish.
They do have a small wish list. Snooky always wanted to have their business' anniversary, July 7, declared Manic Panic Day in NYC, and hoped the city would light up the Empire State Building with a Manic Panic color—Future Shock, maybe. Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent them a letter to celebrate their 30th anniversary, praising their contribution to New York City's economy and acknowledging them as pioneers of a punk rock scene with which the city is closely identified.
They were tickled, but Tish notes that New York could "stop making it impossible for people to do business here." Snooky complains that rent has quadrupled or more every time they've had to renew a lease, leaving them, ironically, without a retail presence in the East Village neighborhood that they helped put on the map. No. 1 on their wish list for small businesses in New York City: commercial rent protection. Representatives for New York City's Small Business Services Dept. declined to comment.
A New Generation
Manic Panic now operates out of a 14,000-sq.-ft. loft in Long Island City, Queens, and for the first time in years has opened a thriving retail outlet; this one's in Venice Beach, Calif., where Gingerbread Court, Charlie Chaplin's former estate, has been turned into a funky retail district that Tish and Snooky say is reminiscent of the East Village's heyday. They plan to open their first U.S. salon there in late 2007.
Much of New York's punk scene is now more merchandising myth than reality. CBGB closed its doors forever this year, and there has been talk of a Las Vegas version of the seminal punk rock club. How do Tish and Snooky maintain their street cred? For one thing, their audience has spread beyond punk to include Goth kids, Halloween revelers, and the cyber club scene that's especially popular in Britain right now.
CyberDog, a popular British underground fashion retailer with outlets in international party capitals such as Ibiza and Sao Paolo, say they waited for Manic Panic to set up a deal with a British distributor rather than stock less-expensive, local products. "They're the best in their field," said CyberDog General Manager Tim Bell. He also says that 40% of his market is Goth kids, but the products are finding new popularity with "NU ravers," a revival of '80s rave fashion. Manic Panic says these techno kids love their day-glo colors because "they glow under black lights."
"There's always people that don't want to be mainstream, in whatever way, and so I think we'll always have a market," Snooky says. Tish and Snooky envision a branded line of housewares and clothing designed according to the Manic Panic aesthetic. "We want to be the alternative beauty and lifestyle brand," adds Snooky. "We want to be the Martha Stewart of alternative style."
"Except we want to stay out of jail," Tish quips. Hey, that's not very punk rock.