Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, if you were a glammy metalhead or a pretty punk who didn’t purchase your wear at Warrior, the clothing and piercing boutique on Bustleton Avenue, you didn’t rock.
Billy Idol, Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper all wore owner Carl Werbock’s edgiest designs – from fringed suede to studded leather and beyond. Local metal bands from Heaven’s Edge to Cinderella often hit him up for custom-made gear, to wear on-stage and off.
In the last decade, the store expanded to locations in Levittown and South Street, becoming a haven for those seeking safe, sterile piercings. Moms and daughters alike flock to Warrior for body art and clothes that can show it off.
Creating a 25-year legacy was never on Werbock’s mind when he and his wife, Mona, opened Warrior Clothing in Penndel. The two had already watched Carl’s originals – the ripped leopard, tiger and chain-link designs that made him the unofficial godfather of punk T-shirts – sell through the roof internationally during the ’70s.
But they didn’t expect that the line they opened in 1982 would get bands from Japan, Great Britain, and throughout the United States pestering them for their wares.
“It was a tiny factory,” said Mona, who, like her husband, is in her 50s (the two wouldn’t disclose their exact ages). “They’d knock on our doors at all hours.”
The two were not exactly retail novices. They had already bought and sold what Carl called “a hippie salon” called the Blue Meanie, named for the villains in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film.
“It was totally antiestablishment,” Mona said of the Castor Avenue store. “We were young and political. . . . we learned to work hard and pay our dues.”
The shop lasted from 1968 to 1973. After it closed, Carl aligned himself with the glam-punk shop Manic Panic and its famous owners Tish and Snooky in Manhattan. One night in 1976, he happened upon a delivery of T-shirts that weren’t quite right.
“The design was cheap. The sleeves were too short,” Carl said. So he hacked them off and slapped on animal prints – tiger and leopard, yellow and orange.
Punk kids loved them; he sold out 200 dozen shirts in a week. Carl quickly realized he should make his own T’s so they’d be of better quality, but that didn’t stop the knockoffs.
“It’s nearly impossible to copyright fashion ideas because all you have to do is change things a smidge,” Carl said.
Mona chimed in: “He’d design and make patterns, somebody would buy one, take it to China, and they’d make knockoffs much cheaper than we ever could.”
They toughed it out, opening the factory and label in 1982. The first Warrior boutique came four years later. A third of the store became a clothing salon, and the rest they made into a mini-factory with Carl and his cutters and stitchers.
But so many bands and fans came that customers had to wait in the parking lot because they couldn’t fit in the store. “We kept moving the store’s walls further and further until it was all store,” Mona said.
“Saturdays were craziest,” Carl said. “There was a line of kids along the pavement.”
Warrior remained a party throughout the heavy-metal ’80s and ’90s.
“Mona and Carl were super-great to me even before I had a record deal,” said guitarist Steve Parry, who was with Heaven’s Edge from 1987 to 1991. “After we got our deal, they were just as cool, never phony.”
Though Heaven’s Edge didn’t earn ridiculous riches, Parry bought off-the-rack gear at Warrior, as well as having things custom-made by the pair.
“You had to have a look,” said Parry, who still owns a black leather jacket Carl created for him.
In the mid-’90s, Warrior’s Werbocks noticed a change: grunge. Men’s rock wear became ugly.
“Really ugly,” Mona said. “It wasn’t anything we wanted to sell. It was mostly jeans and flannel. And the kinds of cutting-edge clothes that have come since that time, we didn’t feel were for musicians.”
The couple stopped selling men’s clothes 12 years ago. If guys dress up for the stage again, they’ll be back (mention new glam acts like My Chemical Romance and Panic! in the Disco and Mona says, “We’ll see”).
“We like clothes that make a band look like a show. . . . even if the band isn’t too great,” Carl said.
So Warrior made itself into a female rock paradise that offers long, flashy coats and glam gowns, micro-mini skirts and schoolgirl outfits, corsets and bustiers, thigh-high boots and eight-inch heels. A little leather and a tiny bit of fetish.
Carl, who stopped designing in the mid-’90s, found himself increasingly busy with the store’s piercing business. When Warrior opened, they had to buy a piercing gun because bands wanted their ears pierced. Then their customers wanted more radical piercings: belly buttons, nipples, nostrils, even genitalia.
“But we knew it wasn’t right or clean to use those guns,” Mona said.
Piercing wasn’t mainstream back them, and it wasn’t easy to find the equipment. But by 1991, Warrior invested in the sterile-conscious gear and needles it has now. Carl and his crew did piercings on site at punk and metal clubs like Asylum and the Empire, and dedicated their entire South Street store to the art.
“Since South Street is a tourist destination, people stop at Warrior from all over, just to get pierced before they start their vacation,” Mona said.
Carl has become such an expert in the advances made in piercing and sterilization that he has lectured emergency doctors and nurses at hospitals and medical schools about issues rangig from removing jewelry to identifying problems around piercings.
And of course, body art has become more routine. “We’re family body piercers now,” Carl said. “We get the 40-year-old mom and her kids. And maybe her husband.”
Another change the Werbocks have noted is sizing. “Ten years ago, everybody was extra small; all the girls starved themselves skinny,” Mona said.
But today Warrior is buying sexy schoolgirl outfits and corsets up to size XXXX for an audience that’s more comfortable with their bodies than ever.
“Girls now are fabulously voluptuous and healthy and accept themselves exactly how they are and enjoy it,” Mona said. “I had to retrain myself to buy for every style of woman. But no more four smalls and one large. I’m buying every size. Back in the day, we didn’t have anything for those girls and that wasn’t right. So now we do.”
That’s part of the Warrior continuum that finds the Werbocks celebrating 25 years of what Carl calls “sexy stuff you can’t get at a mall.”
Son Sage, 33, who grew up with all things Warrior, now manages the South Street store. And Mona isn’t surprised that she and Carl have continued their rock-and-roll lifestyle.
“We’re still listening to rock and rap. We still hang with the same people,” she said. “It’s the world that changed. Just a little.”