The two old guys sat at a sidewalk table drinking coffee from paper cups. Wisps of gray hair feathered out from under their hats, and when the light changed at the 9th East and 9th South intersection, traffic noise intruded on the conversation. They smiled as they recalled their salad days on 9th and 9th, a time when the buildings had charm, hippies wore leather, drugs were plentiful and there was a party every night.
Ken Rodgers and Darel Barton met in the art department at the University of Utah more than 40 years ago. After graduation, the two jobless artists needed money, so in an upstairs studio (currently occupied by Centered City Yoga), Barton painted signs for grocery stores, Rodgers hand-stitched leather purses.
They soon recognized opportunity in the counterculture’s yen for leather goods. In 1969, they drove to Denver to attend Cream’s final concert and to buy an industrial sewing machine.
The sewing machine enabled them to make clothing. “It’s amazing that we actually figured out how to do it.” Rodgers said with a laugh that set his Andy Rooney eyebrows in motion. Vests came first and, before long, they were producing, you name it, even jumpsuits, all embellished with fringe. “Fringe was important,” Barton said.
They hung out a “Skin Company” shingle. Business was brisk, and despite the fact that the “real” hippies had gone to Haight-Ashbury, there were plenty of wannabe hippies in Salt Lake City who had day-job money to spend on leather duds, they said. So they bought more machines and hired seamstresses.
It was a seasonal market, however. Sales of leather clothing dropped off as temperatures rose, so they turned to footwear to sustain the business through the summer months. Phillips Gallery owner Denis Phillips sold them the Good Sole Sandal Shop for $100, and they taught themselves how to make them. “Sandals kept us going,” Rodgers said.
When Phillips moved his gallery out of the corner building, the Skin Company moved in. “It was a neat building,” Rodgers said, with hardwood floors, ceiling fans, awnings and French doors. Rent was $100 a month. On Saturday night, they opened the doors for free concerts. “The band wasn’t making any money and neither did we,” Rodgers said with a smile.
In fact, Barton and Rodgers were more artisans than businessmen. When it came to pricing the sandals, Rodgers said, “we damned near gave them away.” Not surprising considering a zeitgeist in which Dr. Timothy Leary’s Harvard psilocybin project was of more interest to the average guy than anything at the Harvard Business School. It’s likely that in the commercial enclave at 9th & 9th—and in the city’s head shops—the profit motive was eclipsed by a devil-may-care hippie ethic reflective of Leary’s famous admonition to turn on, tune in and drop out.
“We didn’t get rich,” Barton said.
Purple microdot acid and other drugs prescribed by Dr. Leary were readily available in Salt Lake City, and at 9th & 9th, there was a party every night. Rodgers said that the end of the business day at the Skin Company coincided with the beginning of the party across the street in his studio. The scene evoked Andy Warhol’s Factory, sized to Salt Lake City’s bohemian contours, and in the nightly comings and goings—potheads, preppies, hippies, jocks, voyeurs, fun seekers of either gender—none was turned away. All newcomers were welcomed, but they were subjected to an unconventional, introductory frolic whereby they lost their pants. “Once they were pantsed, they fit right in,” the two old guys said, nodding in agreement like Muppet oldsters, Statler and Waldorf.
By the time Barton opened his own shop in Trolley Square in 1972, their talents were in demand across the country. The clientele included most of the Utah Stars basketball team, other professional athletes, and a number of Hollywood studios. Rodgers estimates he did 200 jobs, including for productions like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and Touched by an Angel. He made clothes for Robert Ulrich in the 1992 TV show Crossroads.
There was a downside to the celebrity trade, however. Both remember stars who stiffed them. Barton wrote off $1,500 that “Bad News” Barnes, an ABA basketball player, owed him. Deep Space Nine’s shape-shifting Odo (aka Rene Auberjonois) has yet to pay his 1971 Skin Company bill, Rodgers said. “We quickly learned about C.O.D.”
As the counterculture reshaped itself—forsaking bongs, beads, waterbeds and fringed vests—business at the Skin Company began to decline. What kept it afloat were orders from bikers and gays. “It was a huge business,” Rodgers said. One guy alone bought 100 items. The more Rodgers’ handiwork went on display at the Sun and other gay bars in town, the more customers walked in the door. Many of them wanted leather jock straps and skin-tight chaps, all in black. “Everything had to fit perfectly,” he said “and they were heavily into chaps with a bare ass.”
Although business was pretty good, it wasn’t good enough to absorb rent increases imposed by a new landlord. “The rent quadrupled,” Rodgers said, causing him to vacate the storefront the Skin Company had occupied for 10 years. Two moves later, Rodgers settled on 500 South across from the library, but by then, the business was moribund. “The thing that killed it was leather clothing from Mexico and China,” Rodgers said. “I couldn’t compete.” Before he closed the door for good last year, he made a motorcycle jacket for Anthony Hopkins to wear in The World’s Fastest Indian.
The two old guys finished their coffee and evaluated the sculpture sprouting around the 9th and 9th intersection. “Rookie art,” Rodgers said dismissively. “I liked it better in the old days.”
Private Eye is on hiatus this week.