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Outrageousness tailor-made

By DAVE SCHEIBER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 1999


Michael Braun dressed rockers such as Jim Hendrix, who scribbled one request for clothes on the back of a hotel phone message slip, above. After Jimi came Sonny and Cher, Aerosmith and Sly Stone, among others.

Michael Braun has never played a guitar lick in his life, sung a Top 40 note on stage or secretly longed to be a rock star. "I have no musical talent whatsoever," he says in his streetwise New York accent. "Even my shower shudders when I sing in it."

While Braun's hands have not cradled an instrument or mike in concert, they have stitched his place in the lining of rock 'n' roll history.

When it comes to unusual success stories in the genre, few can top the rayon-to-riches tale that began more than 30 years ago in downtown St. Petersburg.

Consider the material:

A young yacht captain from Rye, N.Y., visits town in 1967 with designs on winning a big sailing race starting in the Vinoy Basin. Instead, he slips off the dock, misses the competition with an injury and, after several more fateful twists, falls into a new line of work. It was one he never dreamed of -- designing trend-setting clothes for big-name performers.

photo
Michael Braun
[Photos courtesy of Michael Braun]

Jimi Hendrix. Sonny and Cher. Aerosmith. The Temptations. Sly Stone. They were just some of the acts who donned creations from the captain-turned-clothier during the '60s, '70s and '80s.

Hendrix, the most avid customer, hung out at Braun's home on 42nd Street S during a stay in St. Petersburg in 1970, and Braun took the legendary guitarslinger to the old Blue Room on 34th Street to sit in with the house band -- just two months before Hendrix died in England.

Vanilla Fudge members once piled into Braun's place late one night to purchase new stage threads, which they promptly wore on The Ed Sullivan Show.

When his music market slowed down in the late '80s, Braun -- along with longtime business partner Toni Ackerman -- branched out into making pro wrestling garb, with groundbreaking, outlandish costumes that helped push the limits of wild ring attire. Their works have been worn by Macho Man Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan and other burly headliners. In addition, Braun has become a respected name in the growing field of digital art -- with his swirling, impressionistic images done with sophisticated computer software.

A famous body of work

Some of the entertainers for whom Tampa's Michael Braun has made performance clothing:

Musicians: Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, Archie Bell, Bon Jovi, Chicago, Alice Cooper, Rick Derringer, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Eddie Money, Billy Preston, Bob Seger, Sly Stone, Sonny and Cher, the Temptations, B.J. Thomas, Three Dog Night, Robin Trower, Vanilla Fudge, the Young Rascals, Edgar Winter.

Pro wrestlers: Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, the British Bulldog, Lex Luger.

Today, he no longer looks like a member of the original Broadway cast of Hair. At 56, the bushy, hippie-era coif of his youth has faded from brown to gray and receded into its own airspace.

Still, he remains as busy as ever, working with Ackerman in a studio behind their spacious house in Tampa.

Braun has several other impressive homes these days -- in two different halls of fame.

One of his outfits for Hendrix hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Four of his images, meanwhile, were added this year to the Digital Hall of Fame in Sweden.

Braun's creative skills are matched only by his knack for making easygoing conversation. The trait served him well early onin approaching big acts, and today it energizes the endless anecdotes he has about the performers he outfitted.

That said, Braun hesitates to bask in any glory from his life's work. He has generally kept a low profile while going about his business in Tampa Bay, never getting caught up in the celebrity trappings of the job.

As for for his cutting-edge clothing, Braun insists on sharing the credit with collaborator Ackerman, a highly private person who avoids publicity and the press, and points to another source for inspiration.

"It comes from a higher place," he says. "If you try to take credit for the ideas, you're full of baloney and life will eventually kick you in the butt. I was born with a little talent and a lot of luck. But in order for a person to work out their fate, whatever it is, they have to have these gifts that come from somewhere else."

For Braun, the first such gift was a $3 pair of Navy issue bell-bottoms he bought one day at a Tampa Army-Navy store. He had an idea how to make them look better. So he started cutting.

The result would alter his life -- and give a hip new look to some of the world's top rockers.

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Michael Braun is shown 20 years ago in the design studio behind his spacious house in Tampa, where he still works.

From 'the Fall' to the Fudge

The break that led to Braun's start in the business was actually a separation -- of his left shoulder.

It all began one day in January 1967 at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, when Braun prepared to step aboard a sleek new German-made yacht slated to compete in the annual Southern Ocean Racing Circuit competition. In his haste, he misjudged the distance between the dock and the yacht and fell between the two. "Instead of just falling into the water like a normal human being, I grabbed hold of the lifeline on the way down, because I was wearing this nice leather antelope jacket my dad had given to me as a present," he says. "I didn't want to get it wet."

The resulting injury kept Braun out of the races. During his recovery in town, he realized two things: He could live without yachts, and he liked winter in St. Petersburg much better than New York.

Braun had been making good money racing, so he decided to stay in the city and enjoy life at a slower pace for a while. He also needed some new clothes, and the only place in the area that carried bell-bottom jeans was the Army-Navy store. Braun picked up a few pairs, figured out how to work a sewing machine, then added a few new touches.

After all, this was the front end of the hippie era, two years before Woodstock, and flowery patterns, colorful patches and individual expression in clothing were starting to dominate the landscape. So the first thing Braun did was recut the material to make the "bell" in the bottom extend from heel to toe, instead of flaring out sideways from the ankles.

On some pants, the seams down the sides were replaced with buttons. On others, patches of velvet and vibrant material were stitched below the knees.

Soon, people would stop him on the street to ask where he got the pants and where they could buy them. By now, Braun had hooked up with Ackerman. She also had an interest in clothing design, and they started making more custom bell-bottoms, neon print shirts, velvet vests.

"I went home to visit my mother," Braun recalls, "and she says, "Where you getting these clothes?" When I told her I was making them, she says, "You should do this for a living.' Meaning, at this point, my parents had already given up on doctor or lawyer, and they were hoping they weren't going to have an ax murderer for a son.

"I'm going, "I don't want to do this!' At the same time, there were no clothes like this anywhere."

Braun was starting to make some money at it as well. Back in St. Petersburg in late '67, he sold five Nehru shirts at $18 apiece to a local band playing the Blue Room. "We're talking about a payday of almost $100. I figured, "We're rich. We've arrived,' " he says.

Braun and Ackerman rented a small house in St. Petersburg and opened Michael & Toni Designs. They hired a part-time staff to work the sewing machines and began producing more clothes. One night, Vanilla Fudge was in St. Petersburg for a show at the Armory. Braun had an idea. He would go to the concert and pitch his clothes to the band: "I yell to Toni, "I'm going to get the Vanilla Fudge and bring 'em back to the house.' "

Sure enough, Braun talked his way backstage, met Fudge drummer Carmine Appice, and invited the band to his home after the show to check out his line of clothes. Three of the four band members took Braun up on the offer, and wound up buying every pair of pants in the house that fit them. "Almost immediately, they wear the stuff on Ed Sullivan," Braun recalls. "My mother says to me, "I like the clothes, but those guys are goons. I say, "Mom, these are the kids next door putting on an act of commerce. That's what this is all about.' "

Commerce was about to pick up. In addition to his mom, another interested individual caught the Fudge in Braun's duds. Shortly after the Sullivan spot, the group shared a festival bill in Atlanta with Jimi Hendrix. He loved their clothes and wanted to meet whoever who had made them.

The Purple Haze phase

Braun, of course, had no idea that Hendrix was a potential customer. All he knew was that the star was scheduled to play a show in Tampa and he was dying to pitch him some clothes, by now ranging from $200 to $250 for an elaborate stage shirt, $100 to $200 for satin or crushed velvet pants, and as much as $400 for fancy jackets.

His best shot was to make a plea to the show's producer, Phil Gernhard, whom he knew. Gernhard promised to pass on Braun's message to Hendrix, but there were no guarantees. "He said, "Call me at 4 p.m., and I'll let you know,' " Braun recalls. "So I call at 4, and Phil says, "Michael, you won't believe it. Jimi asked for you before I even said anything!' "

Braun could hardly contain himself. When the show finally rolled around, he found out through Gernhard what hotel Hendrix was staying in. Then, he and Ackerman grabbed as many clothes as they could carry, and anxiously made their way to the room supposedly occupied by Hendrix's drummer, Mitch Mitchell, who could help with introductions. Braun knocked. The door opened with the chain still on it. Peering out was a tall, thin man, barefoot and wearing rose-colored, 13-button English Navy pants and a flowered shirt -- Jimi Hendrix.

"I'm freaked because I didn't think it was his room, but I say, "We're the people with the clothes,' and he lets us in," Braun says. "I'll never forget. He has the TV on showing a college football game but the sound is off, he's listening to a B.B. King album on a record player, and he's eating a fish dinner."

One by one, Braun began to lay his colorful bell-bottoms on the carpeted floor, as Hendrix remained quiet, occasionally blurting out "oooph!" when players were tackled hard in the TV game. Braun, meanwhile, was getting nervous. "Jimi is looking at the clothes, and nothing is happening," he says. "I'm thinking, "Oh boy, we've got a problem.' "

Braun then laid out some white pants he had embellished with red, flowery, machine-embroidered material he had purchased at Jay's Fabrics in South Pasadena. Suddenly, Hendrix spoke. "He says, "How many colors of that do you have?' " says Braun.

Braun showed him the same pants in white, black and red. Hendrix wanted them all. It was the start of a strong friendship, and a new phase in Braun's career. "Next thing I know, we're there like an hour, and I'm ready to camp out and move in," he says. "This was Jimi Hendrix! We're having a good time. We talk about life and God and the whole routine."

Braun was struck by Hendrix's shy, highly polite demeanor. He recalls how Hendrix was uncomfortable about getting measured, telling Braun simply to make everything with a size 28 waist. Braun and Ackerman went on to make entire wardrobes for Hendrix. Price was never an object and Hendrix gave them full creative leeway.

"I remember going to the garment district in Manhattan and buying old-lady fabric -- silk material with red roses, yellow daffodils on black backgrounds, and I'd make Jimi's shirts from this," Braun says. "This is the best cloth you can buy, anywhere."

Hendrix was seen in the outfits in many famous photos, from Life layouts to album covers. He would sometimes place his orders by phone or through little handwritten notes he would mail. In one, scrawled on the back of several hotel phone-message slips, he wrote:

"Dear Couple, I would like to have at least 4 of everything ... Use (your) own wise judgment and imagination. Please have them ready expresso! I need clothes desperately. ... Make as many shirts as you can, different colors, patterns, designs, even crocheting, and about four pair of pants ... More shirts with odd sleeves (and) large, flowing colors with sticky type buttons ...

The latter was Hendrix's phrase for a new item -- Velcro, which he thought was a cool innovation. One reason he needed so many clothes, and needed them so fast, is that the creations were constantly disappearing -- some never returning from the dry cleaner's, some taken by female fans as souvenirs.

Business boomed as word circulated that Braun and Ackerman were Hendrix's personal fashion designers. They were more than that, though. They had become close to Hendrix, who visited them in St. Petersburg in July 1970, going with Braun to the old Blue Room to jam, and for meals at a Morrison's Cafeteria nearby. "The people serving the food are going, "Is that Jimi Hendrix? That can't be him,' " says Braun. "They liked him -- he always tipped very generously."

Seven weeks later, on Sept. 18, Hendrix died in England from complications following an overdose of sedatives. Braun was stunned and deeply saddened.

"I was home sleeping, and some people came and said, "Jimi's dead,' and I said, "That's impossible,' because he had just visited us in St. Pete," says Braun. "The thing I'll always remember is that this was not a man who was ever negative in any way. But at the end of the visit with us, he said, "I don't know how much longer I'm going to be doing what I'm doing.' He said he wasn't going to let the public chew him up and spit him out, and he didn't know how much longer he'd be needing clothes. I just totally blew off what he was saying. But in retrospect, I think he somehow he knew this thing was over."

Difficult as it was for him to accept Hendrix's death, things were hardly over for Braun. In many ways, business was just beginning to blossom.

I got you (and your size), babe

Through the years, Braun has measured his success by the waist, neck and shoulder sizes of more customers than he can remember. But there have been many moments too hard to forget.

photo Sonny and Cher became clients in 1972, when they came to Tampa to perform at Curtis-Hixon Hall. Sonny wore a Braun jacket on an album cover.
Like the day Sonny and Cher became clients.

Braun had never been a fan and was barely aware of their Monday night variety show. Still, they were in Tampa in 1972 to perform at Curtis-Hixon Hall, and one of Braun's sales partners, Randy Edwards, strongly suggested they track the stars down and make a clothing pitch.

Braun and Edwards, a veteran area musician, looked more like long-haired hippie types than top-of-the-line merchants. They entered the empty hotel restaurant around 4 p.m. and spotted Sonny and Cher, 3-year-old Chastity and a nanny, having an early dinner before the show.

"Cher looks up and she has some kind of skin (rash) on her face and clearly wasn't expecting company," Braun says. "So I lean over to Sonny and give my spiel -- I've done clothes for the following people, and drop 20 names. As I'm talking, he keeps looking over to her to get a visual sign of, "Do you want to see these idiots or not?' Finally, he must have gotten a sign from her, and he says, "Well, we got a couple of things we gotta do, rehearse, this and that. Call me in two hours in my room.' "

So Braun and Edwards waited two hours, called, and the performers' manager answered. He told them to call back in half an hour. "I call back in a half-hour, and he says, "Call back in another half-hour,' " says Braun. "We call then, and he says come to the room in a half-hour. So by now, I'm mad and blaming Randy for hooking me up with these yo-yos."

photo
Michael Braun’s creativity has gone high-tech. Using sophisticated software, he creates swirling, impressionistic images. Four were added this year to the Digital Hall of Fame in Sweden.

Braun and Edwards finally knocked on the door, arms full of outfits. "The door opens, and I think I'm walking into the manager's room, because he's been answering the phone, but Cher answers the door," he says. "She's just out of the shower, has full stage makeup on and looks unbelievable, no sign of the skin problem at all. She's wearing a tiny yellow jacket and matching pants."

Braun began laying his clothes out on her bed inside the massive suite. "She starts screaming, "Sonny, get in here, you gotta see these clothes!" Braun says. "Sonny comes in, and they start trying things on in front of the mirror. But it's 7:30 by now and they gotta go do their show. So Sonny says, "We want to do business with you. Will you leave the clothes here and come to the gig with us, and then we'll all come back afterwards?' "

So Braun and Edwards got V.I.P. treatment at the show, then returned to the hotel and made a huge sale. "It was like a $2,500 bill," Braun says. "Sonny counted out the money in piles of hundreds, and he almost ran out of cash. But everyone was happy."

In addition to selling loads of ready-made clothes, Braun and Edwards measured the stars for custom outfits to be mailed later. They even got to watch the Sonny & Cher Show on television -- delayed by a President Nixon speech -- right next to Sonny and Cher, who were viewing the episode for the first time.

Braun went on to make a velveteen jacket with flowers embroidered on it for Cher, and a waist-length jacket made from hand-embroidered silk shawl for Sonny.

"Soon after, I see their album cover and Sonny is wearing that jacket. And years later, I see a shot in Rolling Stone of Cher with Gregg Allman, and she's wearing her jacket. Exposure like that never hurts!"

The clothes, they are a-changin'

Braun got around as much as his jackets.

There was the time he found himself in Sly Stone's Tampa hotel room in the late '70s. Stone began by inviting Braun to listen to a horn-section rehearsal in the room, then picked out pants and shirts totaling $1,200. The scene grew tense when a tough-looking Stone assistant said Braun would be paid only $800.

Braun had brought his own assistant, a young man named Lee Cannedy, who responded with some harsh words for Stone and his aide. "I'm sitting there, worrying that things are about to get very out of hand," says Braun. The next move was Stone's, and after several chilly moments, he backed down. "I think he respected that we stood our ground," adds Braun. "We got the full amount."

Then there was the time he tracked down Bob Dylan on tour in 1976 at the Belleview Biltmore. Dylan was interested in a tailored denim coat with ribbon trim. Braun was thrilled but thrown by Dylan's quirky, non-communicative style. No one was to talk to him unless he spoke first.

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After the rock market slowed down in the late ‘80s, Braun and his business partner started making pro wrestling outfits. Here, Macho Man Randy Savage models a tasteful look.

"He hardly says anything but asks if he can take the coat and think it over," Braun says. "Then he goes back to this tent that he's staying in. I see him later, and he's wearing this cloth thing on his head that looks like a baby's diaper, and he's sitting on the ground whittling a piece of wood. Nobody's going near him -- even his own people are giving him lots of space. The next night before the show, he comes out, shakes my hand and gives me the coat back. But he did buy a few scarves, so it wasn't a total loss."

Braun fared much better with Tampa native Hulk Hogan. Braun had made clothes for Hogan when he played bass in a local band and went by his real name, Terry Bollea. Years later, Hogan contacted Braun before a Tonight Show appearance tied to his role in Rocky III. Braun made him new clothes for the spot, and many more after that.

Hogan soon steered another area resident, fellow wrestling star Randy Savage, his way. Braun and his partner proceeded to concoct Savage's many eye-popping outfits -- down to the outrageous, hand-painted sunglasses, boots and cowboy hats.

Making wrestling wear remains a lucrative part of the operation. But at the heart of the business is a rock 'n' roll design -- crafted by a man who worked his way from the bell-bottom all the way to the top.

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