Westville is getting a throwback to the 1990s and early 2000s—and it may become pretty fetch, pretty fast.
At least, that’s the case at Strange Ways, where owner and founder Alex Dakoulas has started a partnership with Paramount Pictures to produce official patches and pins for cult classics Mean Girls, Clueless, Almost Famous, and Anchorman. Since early February, he’s been quietly rolling out the project in his Whalley Avenue shop and on Strange Ways’ website, where he does the bulk of his business. By this summer or fall, his goal is to have merchandise from all four titles represented in the shop.
The partnership started last summer, when Paramount reached out to Dakoulas with a proposal. Representatives from the company said they wanted to “liven up” some of their older titles with new, hip merchandise, like the patches and enamel pins for which Strange Ways is known. Would Dakoulas be willing to act as the manufacturer and distributer, as some of the company’s most beloved films turned 10, 15, 25 years old?
Dakoulas was quick to give them a tempered yes. Strange Ways isn't a manufacturing facility or wholesale distributor, he cautioned—its business model is based on buying wholesale, and selling the products in New Haven and nationally. But he was intrigued by the offer because he’d loved the company’s movies when they first came out, and thought they had lasting power. Particularly Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004).
“They both have pop cultural influence nowadays,” he said. “Even ten years later, 20 years later. People still quote them.”
“I’m a gay man, I want a pin that says cake boy,” he added of Clueless later in the discussion. It’s a reference to one of the movie’s still-quoted scenes, as popular girl Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash) and her boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison) inform queen bee Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) that her boyfriend hasn’t slept with her because he’s gay.
But he had another reason too. Dakoulas knew—as did Paramount, it seemed—that there was a great deal of cult movie paraphernalia on the underground patch and pin scene already. None of it was officially sanctioned, which meant that artists were ripping film companies off, and then they were ripping each other off too. Without permits, all of that work was technically illegal.
Dakoulas is no stranger to being on the other, stinging end of that transaction. In summer 2016, he discovered that the national retailer Wet Seal had copied one of the store’s limited-edition patches by the artist Vaughn Fender. A whole host of companies followed, from bad Etsy knockoffs to online stores and websites including Amazon.
He watched as an indie arts army, led by artist Tuesday Bassen, sought to hold Zara accountable for taking their designs without legal permission. And he vowed that he and the store would stay accountable to independent artists.
Since, it has expanded its production of exclusive Strange Ways merchandise. And for the most part, Dakoulas said he prefers those small-batch, limited-run commissions by individual artists. But the Paramount offer opened a different, and exciting, world.
“The point of the shop is to carry smaller artists and independent designers, but I love pop culture, and a lot of the artists that we carry are inspired by it,” he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “And that stuff is great. But I wanted to do some pop culture and film merchandise. And I wanted to do it right.”
He reached out to artist David Ayllon, a photographer and illustrator based in New Jersey, whose graphic work Dakoulas first spotted on a friend doing drag in San Francisco. Dakoulas said he wanted someone he could pitch an idea to, and get a design back. He had a feeling that Ayllon was that guy.
“He totally has input if he wants to suggest something,” he said. “It’s kind of a back and forth, I guess.”
After licensing four titles for production, Dakoulas watched the movies again, finding where old jokes still hit a soft spot, or jibed with the shop’s punchy, aesthetic and retro mission. He found several—a line delivered in deadpan to deputy chief mean girl Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) about smelling like a baby prostitute.
A joke that mean girl Gretchen Weiners’ hair was so big because it was full of good gossip and secrets. A retro-looking phone and pager from a time popular girls had to communicate without texting. A hint at pot-related herbal refreshments.
Then the vetting process began. Starting last year, Dakoulas would approach Paramount about a design he wanted to do, tell them the concept, and wait for them to approve it. Then he and Ayllon would mock up a sample, send it back to Paramount, and wait for them to approve it again. Then they’d show the company a final round, wait for them to approve it, and then add a “Paramount/All Rights Reserved” notice on the back. Everything, down to packaging, couldn’t hit the shop until it had the company’s stamp.
Each design has taken months, with Dakoulas acting as executive creative and the middle man with the factory that produces Strange Ways’ patches and pins. But in that arduous process, he’s learned about tiny legal sticking points—phrases that have since become songs, for instance, and are off-limits—and been surprised by how much flexibility Paramount has given him.
“To Paramount Pictures, props to them,” he said. “I really didn’t think they were going to let us do like a pot-themed one, or a queer-themed one. It could, in the wrong hands, seem offensive. But to us, it’s like claiming ownership over it. They approved it and it was great.”
Now, a cluster of the pins beckon in the shop’s front window, sparkling with gold and glitter when they catch the light. There is a bee wearing a crown, her wings emblazoned with Regina George’s informal moniker. A tiny blue bottle of baby prostitute perfume. A voluminous head of waves with the letters S E C R E T S caught within it. A finger, nail polished, lifts itself to an absent mouth.
With the first handful of pins in the shop, Dakoulas said he is looking ahead to the next wave of Paramount products: more Clueless and Mean Girls pins (an “I fully intend to brake for animals” keychain is in the works), but also new designs from Almost Famous and then Anchorman. His research consists of seeing what’s already on the market without a permit— like a suite of “She Doesn’t Even Go Here” pins and T-Shirts, referencing a line in Mean Girls—and figuring out where he still has his niche.
“There’s a lack of accountability, especially with the internet now,” he added. “It’s really … it’s hard to tell what’s original and what’s not. And I don’t think it’s necessarily even customers’ job to know if it’s real or not. That’s where I want people to shop at Strange Ways. To be like—we are doing the research. I’m doing the research. We won’t carry something that’s a ripoff. You, as a customer, don’t have to do this research. You’ll just trust us. And that’s where I want Strange Ways to be.”