Inspired by his visits to Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Let It Rock shop in London, Ben Rey began wearing his own self-made punk fashions in the 1970s and just never stopped once he relocated to New York City. He has since become a familiar sight on the streets all over the city, a walking, talking fashion institution. Larry Baumhor met Ben Rey at the Garage Antique Flea Market and over the two decades they’ve been friends, got to know him and photograph him.
by Larry Baumhor
Every Saturday and Sunday, Ben Rey walks the streets of New York as a self-glorified, outrageous, eyepopping stop-you-in-your-tracks punk. He cuts no corners and pulls no punches. Wearing various ensembles that include punk rock biker boots with a collection of riveted and studded belts, buckles, and silver chains, tartan plaid or black kilts, a sheer fabric blouse, or an oversized Sex Pistols top with a photo of Sid Vicious, always a vest or a black leather jacket with rivets, chains or safety pins, a punk rock choker collar with spikes and rivets, often a wide black leather skeleton in the front belt with rivets and silver chains hanging. Throw in a couple of silver crosses, jewelry, and spiked leather punk rock wristbands, large framed glasses often in red, a big leather or cloth London flag bag, and we’re almost done. This is heavy armor, man. Ben’s signature style is his spiked hair that is up to a foot high!
You would think Ben has a little strut to him, but, no, he’s shy and demure. People from all over the world stare at him and ask him questions and request a picture with him. He graciously obliges. Ben has become a New York institution. He’s in the East and West Village, the Chelsea Flea Markets, Midtown, Central Park, Grand Central Station, Penn Station. If you were lucky to get a picture with Ben, you proudly went home to show your photo and talk about the experience.
I had heard Ben was a fashion designer. I was surprised when we finally spoke that he was so gentle and seemed so sweet and kind. We spoke in English for a few minutes about patterns and clothing, and a few minutes in Spanish about NYC heat. – Diana M. Jacobson
Ben would hang out at the late Jimmy Webb’s stores in the East Village, Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place where Webb was the manager and buyer and he also opened his own store, I Need More. Famous rockers shopped in these stores, including Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, and Debbie Harry. Jimmy and Ben were friends. Ben was devastated when Jimmy passed away.
I met Ben Rey at the Garage Antique Flea Market at 25th Street & 6th Ave, a 90-year-old garage converted into a flea market on the weekends. During the fifteen years I sold vintage photos at the Garage, I became friendly with Ben and shot many photos of him alone and with other people. At first glance, people were scared of Ben but once they started talking to him, a crowd surrounded him as he developed celebrity status. Unfortunately, the Garage was purchased by a hotel developer and razed. The Chelsea Flea Market was still operating outside at 25th & 6th Ave until the pandemic forced it to close; it will reopen when it’s safe
The first time I laid eyes on Ben walking in the Garage I was mesmerized. Ben is avant-garde, punky, his soul is dancing and he drew me into his aura. – Florence Turnier
The Garage building was gritty—a New York City dilapidated parking garage. The merchandise was often odd and surreal, and some of the people were there to be seen. Ben Rey was one of them. Ben stood out in the crowd. His dress was a Punk fashion statement. There are a lot of directions that men’s Punk fashion could take. Ben’s style was not low-class and not a second-hand look. He did not dress down and his clothes were not torn or grungy. His style was carefully selected layering of clothes, hair, and accessories that were never the same, and always a compelling visual art statement. – Donald Lokuta
Larry: Ben, you know we’re friends and I love you, but with all due respect, I don’t understand why you walk all over New York exotically dressed as a punk drawing attention to yourself?
Ben: Larry, it’s exciting to me. I look forward to the weekends. I love to dress up. I enjoy meeting different people from all over the world and talking to them. I find people interesting. I’m a freelance fashion designer. I was inspired by the ‘60s and ‘70s punk rock groups from London. I went to clubs like the 100 Club on Oxford Street in London and heard groups like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. I started dressing like this in the ’70s. I was influenced by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood whom I met. And I would shop in Malcolm McClaren’s fashion boutique, Let It Rock on King’s Road, in Chelsea, West London.
Malcolm and Vivienne were dating and worked together in the boutique where they began repairing original clothes, making facsimiles and designing their own clothes. Ben Rey was inspired by their designs, influencing him to design his own clothes and he began working as a freelance designer, including when he moved to the New York area.
Malcolm and Vivienne went on to become famous. They designed clothes for the New York Dolls. McLaren managed the Sex Pistols, naming the band because he wanted them to sound like “sexy young assassins.” McLaren also managed Adam and the Ants. Malcolm formed his own band and began a solo career and was involved with film and television projects.
To live in a world of conventional ideals, to be part of the system, to go along with society’s mores, to conform to ordinary life, to follow the rules of others, to live your life without taking risks is antithetical of punk! And Ben Rey is punk! Now I get it!
In the early to the mid-1970s the hippie culture was over and rock ‘n’ roll was becoming bland. The youth culture demanded a change. Simultaneously, the youth culture in New York and London said fuck you to rock ‘n’ roll. Punk music was loud, aggressive and the bands appeared to be cathartically screaming their guts out. The venues were small and the fans often stood watching their bands jumping up and down (pogo dancing) and slamming into each other (moshing).
The punks of the ‘70s adapted a fashion aesthetic of ripped clothing sometimes held together by safety pins. Leather jackets, kilts, metal rivets, or spikes adorned their attire, army boots were happening and mohawk haircuts rose from their heads like an angry volcano.
Ben Rey is a complete enigma. He’s always so pleasant when people want to take photos of him. But who is Ben Rey? Who is he hiding? – Janet We
I have seen so many people, mostly tourists ask Ben if he minded posing for a photo with them. He was always accommodating and took pleasure in meeting and spending a few moments with someone new. – Ira Pilossof
Larry: Ben, where were you born?
Ben: I was born in Colombia, in South America. I went to high school in Spain. After high school, I moved to London for ten years. And then I moved to the New York area.
Larry: What was it like to live in London?
Ben: I was in London in the mid-70s, the height of the punk scene. You would not believe the musicians and bands I saw live at the 100 Club in London: The Clash, Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, Buzzcocks. I saw Sid Vicious and Joe Strummer and Billy Idol. And David Bowie perform at an outdoor venue.
Larry: What was the punk scene in London like compared to New York?
Ben: I have a special feeling in my heart for CBGB. Sometimes the scene outside CBGB would become tense. At the beginning of the shows, there were many fans trying to get in and at the end of the shows some of the fans were high and tempers would sometimes flare. It was no big deal. The police would come and things would get quiet. I also went to a David Bowie and The Cure concert at Madison Square Garden.
Larry: What are some of your best memories at CBGB?
Ben: Total freedom! The fans going crazy. I saw the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. After the show sometimes the musicians would come into the audience. One time I had a beer with David Byrne. I told Debbie Harry that I loved her music and gave her a kiss. I hugged Joey Ramone. I’ll never forget those nights I spent at CBGB.