Like so many other fringe religious groups, Tony Alamo started his sect in the turbulent ’60s. Who could know that twenty years later his jackets would be some of the most coveted in the world, even worn by Michael Jackson on the cover of ‘Bad’, before landing in prison, convicted of sexual abuse charges in 2008.
Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman to a Jewish family in Joplin, Mo., he changing his name to Tony Alamo, after marrying his wife Susan in Las Vegas. According to the Los Angeles Times, he would later try to resurrect her after she died 1982 and steal her body from her crypt in 1991. More on that later.
His early congregation was made up mostly of hippies and runaways, much like Charles Manson’s ‘religious’ group, who may very well have popularized the term ‘Jesus freak’, calling themselves so as they evangelized around California.
He started designing the now famous Tony Alamo jackets in the ’70s, he claimed as a way to raise funds for the ministry but according to many church members, he used them as free labor and pilfered much of the cash for himself. He started using children as laborers when he realized their “hands were the perfect size” to attach hundreds of tiny rhinestones to his embellished jackets. According to some, children in the congregation were required to work until 10pm after they were released from school.
His elaborately painted and rhinestone encrusted jackets are the most iconic designs, worn by everyone from Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton to Don King and Elvis Presley, but the ministry also made leather jackets with embellishments like fringe, silver buckles, and zippers.
The jackets were sold for up to four figures and Alamo made millions from them. They are still a cult favorite, sold by vintage at still high prices and picked up by celebrity stylists who have put them on A$AP ROCKY, Francis Bean Cobain, and Nicki Minaj. The studded jacket Michael Jackson wore on the cover of ‘Bad’ was sold at auction in the ’90s to pay his tax debts.
The designs capture the monied spirit of the ’80s with extra large words like ‘Hollywood’, ‘Beverly Hills’, and ‘Barbie’ over intricate, colorful scenes of cars and money. The extreme design in many ways reflected Alamo’s extreme perspective, his ministry preached a truly fire-and-brimstone Pentecostalism that believed in miracles, UFOs, and polygamy while railing against the Catholic Church, gays, and a “one-world government”.
After his wife Susan died from cancer in 1982, her body was kept in a room at the ministry as he and his followers kept vigil for months, praying for a resurrection. According to The Oregonian, ‘Wake Up, Little Susie’ was played over and over and children were beaten for every day she didn’t wake up.
In 1991 he was convicted of tax evasion, owning $7.9 million in back taxes, and when federal marshals seized his compound in Arkansas, they found her crypt smashed open and the coffin gone.
After his wife’s death, church goers claim Alamo became more extreme and ‘unhinged’. By the early 90s he was conducting secret “marriages” to girls as young as 15 claiming, “Consent is puberty” to the Associated Press. By the late 90’s they were as young as 8.
Eventually, he was convicted of the sexual abuse and trafficking of minors and sentenced to 175 years in prison. He died Tuesday night at age 82 in a federal prison hospital.
xo, New It. Team
Feature Image: Hawaii Jacket, WornandFaded Vintage, Etsy
Las Vegas Jacket, C. Madeleine’s Vintage
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