Alien merchandise -- candles to T-shirts to Glow Pops -- lands

November 28, 1996|By Joe Garofoli | Joe Garofoli,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

The sign in the store window looks ominous: "Alien Workshop shipment has landed."

Call off the Air Force. Within a few days, trendy teens will snap up the new shipment of Alien Workshop T-shirts, jackets and shorts.

The extra-terrestrials landing on fashion merchandise these days are far more dangerous than the laser-bearing kind. They're wallet-snatchers.

And they're heeeeeeere.

All things alien haven't disappeared with the passing of "Independence Day" from theaters to video stores.

That alien head logo -- a composite sketch of what ET-sighters describe -- has been an underground icon for years. Now that there's a handful of alien-based shows on TV, the social stigma of acknowledging what's Out There has been lifted, and alien-theme merchandise has gone mainstream.

There are alien head candles ($10) and Glow Pops ($3), bumper stickers, rings and water pipes. T-shirt makers are riffing off alien themes in all directions. One features the classic Madonna-holding-the-Christ-child image, but this time they're in a spaceship, as a beaming alien looks on adoringly.

The Pyramid Collection catalog offers sets of "contact cards" for people who may "have had experiences that defied logical explanation." The catalog describes the cards as "the specific conduit for initiating explorations of intergalactic energies, stars, crop circles, and more!"

There's even a line of crop circle dresses out.

Longtime alien-theme designers say it's gone overboard, as they see recent trade shows heavily speckled with alien heads and spaceship designs.

One designer who began using alien icons in the early 1990s remembers when he was one of the few.

Now, says the Midwest designer who asked not to be identified, "other people have ripped off our designs. Now there's like 30 people doing this."

Seven years ago, Carlos Slinger's Liquid Sky store in Manhattan almost went bankrupt. People enjoyed looking at his alien-themed wear, "but they would come in, take a picture and leave without buying anything."

The store closed in 1989, then reopened in 1992, when the rave scene was in full bloom.

Slinger says the young dancers not only were drawn to the trendy new logo, but were also more open to the existence of ETs. A 1994 poll of Generation X-age people found that 46 percent of the respondents believed in UFOs. That's almost twice as many young people as those who think Social Security will still be around when they retire.

Soon, the logo inspired by the supposed alien encounters of Slinger's ex-wife grew popular among the rave and skateboard set. In a few months, Slinger will be in Tokyo and Germany.

"It was much more common to accept UFOs in Brazil than it was in the United States," says Slinger, who started the company in his native Brazil, and claims to have had several encounters himself. "Here, when you would tell people about it, they would laugh."

But that was before the popularity of the summer blockbuster "Independence Day" inspired a new round of discussions about whether we might not be alone in the universe. Young people are leading that way in many cases. Public skepticism toward other-planetary life has softened recently.

There are several explanations for the alien boom, from the political to the spiritual to the economic:

The Millennium's Coming Theory: This is one of the more popular notions. Some expect an alien invasion in 2000, and the ET image is a harbinger of the expected tumult. Sort of an outgrowth of all those paranoia shows on TV.

The Messiah Substitute Theory: Some see aliens in pseudo-religious way. Disillusioned by popular religions, some are looking toward the stars for answers. Many ET believers feel that aliens are a higher life force whose duty it is to lift mankind to a higher plane.

"It's like a Jesus substitute," says one ravester who was perusing the racks of Alien Workshop jackets at Housewares in San Francisco.

University of California-Berkeley professor emeritus James Harder has interviewed more than 100 people who say they've had alien encounters over the past 30 years. Harder says most of the aliens people say they encountered were friendly.

The Last Superpower Theory: Says British-born Nadya Smith, who sells alien wares at San Francisco's Anubis Warpus: "America is the most powerful nation in the world now, so they think the only thing that can rival it are aliens. In Britain, this isn't big at all. Everybody there is fixated on America."

Some folks believe that all of the alien-inspired shows and movies are part of an underground campaign to ready the world for a coming alien invasion.

The next step, says Harder, would be to convince the public that there needs to be a military buildup to defend against the attack.

The Pure Capitalism Theory: "It's all marketing," says Anubis Warpus' Wendy Brittingham. Dozens of patrons have asked if they could buy the 4-foot-high cardboard alien display sign in the back of the store.

Most people buying alien items tend to be teens or young twenty-somethings.

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