"They have to work it into the new design!" says Elissa Kara, owner of Nice Handmade Things - one of the newer boutiques along the avenue. (There is no new design yet - the building is under contract, but the developer's plans are still in early stages.)
"There are a few in our group who hate it," says David Goldfarb, chair of the East Passyunk Crossing Zoning Committee. Not him. "I find it charming in its ridiculousness."
The news that the sign might become available makes Kristin Froehlich, director of the collection at the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent and longtime South Philly resident, lose her cool. Among her staff, she's known for saying "a flat-out no" to new acquisitions, but she's willing to make an exception for the King of Jeans. "If we have to," she says, "we'll find a place for it." That would have to be a big place: The sign is 11/2 stories high. Which leads one to wonder: Why bother when the sign is, objectively speaking, pretty awful?
Discussions around preservation can get complicated, especially when the object in question is loved not for its beauty and proportions but for its outrageousness. Do you preserve only good design, or do you also save what's popular? Signs can have a strong emotional pull. They define our urban landscape and signify a neighborhood's history, culture, and vibe. What would Third and Market be without the blunt, bold Shirt Corner? How about the 100 block of Walnut without the lobster-red Bookbinders lettering? Or Broad and Tasker without the old Philadelphia Gas Works sign, strangely somber save for the whimsical flourish beneath the gas? These different styles from different eras are reminders that Philadelphia history comes in more flavors than red brick. There are surely examples in your own neighborhood. Think of the signs - even the ugly ones - that capture the essence of where you live.
Quirky, vernacular ones like the King of Jeans are among the first and most conspicuous casualties of the kind of gentrification that transforms a place into a mild, tamped-down version of its former self. The 2009 book Store Front compiles James and Karla Murray's photographs of disappearing, independent shops in New York City, where corner bodegas are quickly being replaced by 7-Elevens. Most have hand-lettered or outdated typography and an amateurish feel.
In this year's Characters, typography designer Stephen Banham tells how people campaigned in the 1980s in Melbourne, Australia, for the developers of Southbank - an entertainment district full of shops, restaurants, and a casino complex along the Yarra River - to keep an iconic 1950s neon sign for Allen's Sweets. They lost, and the riverfront's character is a little less bright for it. There are great stories behind bodega signs and the Allen's Sweets sign; stories about 7-Elevens aren't nearly as compelling.
It is said that a mother loves her most difficult child best. The King of Jeans sign has misbehaved since it was first lifted into place in 1994. Angel Anderson, an airbrush artist, designed and, in collaboration with Farbiarz, created the original sign, which became weather-beaten and was replaced by the reproduction that's currently affixed to the storefront. She heard people's outraged reactions from within the safety of her own store across the street. She didn't get it. "At the time, this is what the girls were wearing out to clubs," she says. "This is what Izak sold. The whole idea was to sell the clothes he had in his store."
The configuration of one person standing and one kneeling was not meant to be misogynistic. It allowed Anderson to fill the wide, squat expanse of building, solving a design problem. Another solution might have been a smaller sign, but Farbiarz wanted his presence known. He had worked hard to get there. He grew up on Seventh Street, the son of a men's-clothing merchant from Poland, among an extended family of business owners and their families, who all lived above their shops. As a boy, Farbiarz would go from one shop to the next to see who was cooking the best dinner.
He opened the first King of Jeans in 1973 in a corner shop his father bought at Seventh and Wolf. That business grew bigger, and he moved onto Passyunk - another happening strip - and into progressively bigger storefronts until he ended up in his current spot. "No one ever knew where my shop was," he recalls. This time, they would know.
The sign that's up now - the one people want to save - is not Anderson's original. In that one, finished off by a hailstorm, the couple's skin is expressed in myriad flesh tones and enriched with a healthy serving of chiaroscuro that creates a visual feast of bulging muscles and throbbing veins. The couple's eyes are closed, upping the sexiness. It took Anderson a week to cut the figures out of MDO board with a jigsaw, complete the underpainting, and do all the detailing and shading.
The current sign, commissioned to a sign painter because Anderson was out of town, has been compared to the work of Patrick Nagel, an illustrator popular in the '80s whose favorite subject was cool brunettes. But the flat, minimalist style has little to do with Anderson's original.
Like Farbiarz, Anderson grew up in South Philadelphia, near the stadiums. She has lived on Passyunk since the early '90s and is also responsible for the facades of Lorenzo's Pizza on South Street, the nearby Tiki Tattoo, and lots of Mummers costumes and floats. You could argue she has made essential contributions to a certain South Philadelphia handcrafted aesthetic that's being slowly replaced by the generic look of digital printing and vinyl wraps.
In a changing neighborhood, the sign emerges from a soup of old and new as a kind of cultural touchstone and point of pride. East Passyunk's revival marches forward, but survivors of the avenue's original retail heyday remain. These are the shops whose window displays hardly ever turn over, like St. Jude (communion gowns and religious artifacts); Harriet's Innerwear (bras and foundation garments); and A Man's Image, owned by Abe Mandel, another son of Seventh Street. ("His sign is kind of like mine," says Farbiarz. "He copied me - that's OK.")
Like the attitudes of the people who grew up around it, the sign is larger than life - a triumph of so-called bad taste more obnoxious than anything you'll find in Center City, or even in East Passyunk's new hipster reality. Is that to be celebrated? It depends whom you ask. Anderson is not too sentimental. "I used to tell people, 'Find the King of Jeans sign and turn around,' " she says. "I won't be able to say that anymore."