First published on 9 Apr 2012. Updated on 13 Mar 2013.
Rose Tattoo, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Skyhooks, Sherbet … if you found yourself at any of these bands’ shows during the ’70s in Melbourne, chances are you instinctively avoided eye contact with a curiously dressed sector of the audience.
Sharps, or Sharpies, were a working-class youth movement that spread across Melbourne’s suburbs and – to a lesser extent – other cities. With nicknames like Bowie, Snatch and Dingo, Sharps had the mongrel quality of Bon Scott; parental and societal neglect honed into territorial ultra-violence. Part Clockwork Orange, part Puberty Blues-with-knuckledusters, they caused havoc across venues, on the trains, and in public arenas like Flinders Street Station steps and the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Booze was the drug of choice. Their uniform of cropped hair with wispy trim, tattoos, Staggers jeans with the top button unpopped and Connies cardigans – for both men and women – was a point of pride.
Fashion designer Joe Saba was the face of Staggers Jeans, and his flagship 287 Flinders Lane store was regularly mobbed to the point of needing security, with celebrities passing through town also dropping in. In the mid-’70s, Staggers shops were rebranded as SABA and the high-waisted, long-legged design was phased out.
While working in retail five years ago, Con Morihovitis stumbled across what looked to be Staggers jeans, and a flood of memories were triggered by the brand he used to sell for Saba. He presumed someone was bootlegging them and traced them back to Brendan Ridge, the son of the original manufacturer, who owns the licence.
With Ridge's blessing, Morihovitis was inspired to open up Staggers Richmond, a shop on Bridge Road, to sell Staggers designs both new and old and set up something of a mini museum to his old mates.
“It’s hard when the younger demographic doesn't realise the significance of the brand,” says Morihovitis, acknowledging that high-waisted denim isn’t to everyone’s taste. “But at the same time, kids are into wearing the sort of thing their parents used to wear. Some of the originals were so high they had to have buckles at the back to cinch them in. A couple of years ago, jeans for girls were really low-waisted with short zips. What we’re trying to do now is build the waists up again. We need to have a couple of other brands in the shop, but we’ll keep Staggers alive and kicking. All the old purists are demanding we produce them in size 20s!”
Morihovitis started working life at the ultra-hip House of Merivale and Mr John boutique in the ’70s (former ’Bourne Identity Chrissie Amphlett had also worked there). “I was selling to skins and sharps, but being a retailer I couldn’t have the little rats tails or anything like that,” he says. “I was concentrating more on girls and disco than wanting to punch on, but a lot of them were my friends and we’d go out somewhere like the Croxton Park Hotel in Thornbury, or Young & Jackson in the city, Arcadia in South Yarra, or the Council Club in Preston. It was like a fashion parade. Lobby Lloyd was one of their main loves and he used to hate it because there'd be punch-ups at their gigs all the time. The Sharps would ring each other up: ‘Righto, we're going to meet at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, we're going to give it to these guys.’”
Time Out is shown an imitation Treads shoe, based on a car tyre and hugely popular back in the day, along with stack heel boots. They’re an eyesore. “I’ve got a 'Bring back Treads’ page on Facebook,” Morihovitis protests. “I'm trying to produce them offshore through a manufacturer, because old Sharps will pay $200 for an original pair, while copies could go for upwards of $60.”
Certainly, Sharpie culture has been going through a renaissance in the past couple of years, with the publication of some memoirs and an exhibition. People post pictures of themselves in full regalia to the Staggers Facebook page, while there are regular reunions on the first Saturday of each month at the Barley Corn Hotel in Collingwood, where City Sharps – a band made up of musicians of the era – ensure that the camaraderie lives on.
“If you don't do this sort of stuff, it gets forgotten about,” Morihovitis maintains. “And there’s nothing that comes close to it these days.”
Staggers Richmond, 261 Bridge Rd, Richmond.
1969 Designer Joe Saba creates the label Staggers
1974 Skyhooks bassist Greg Macainsh makes the short film, Sharpies
1975 Footage immortalises Sharps dancing to Daddy Cool at the Myer Music Bowl’s Big Rock Concert. It's not quite 'skanking'... it's a terrifying dance all of its own
1977 Sharps run riot in Frankston after an AC/DC gig
1978 As the subculture is swallowed up by punk and new wave, La Femme become a successful crossover band
2006 Sam Biondo of '70s band Black Diamond curates the Skins ’n’ Sharps exhibition at Fitzroy's Dante Gallery.
2010 Sam's exhibition is shown at Hawthorn’s Kustom Lane Gallery. Julie Mac publishes her teenage diaries: RAGE A Sharpie's Journal – Melbourne 1974-1980, followed by Nick Tolweski’s Once Were Sharps
2012 City Sharps begin a monthly residency at the Barley Corn Hotel in Collingwood. Sam Biondo and La Femme’s Chane Chane are among their number.