Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Camouflage

VANISHING

The following is a guest post, written by Chris, a writer living in Chelsea:

Before the Friends of the High Line flooded Chelsea with millions of tourists; before real-estate developers, chain stores, mommies and Middle America invaded; before Chelsea was America’s leading gay ghetto, there was Camouflage.

But soon it will be no more. In December 2013, after 38 years in business, Camouflage’s rent more than tripled, from $7,000 a month to $24,000 a month. The owner, Norm Usiak, offered the landlord $12,000, but was turned down. Camouflage’s internationally renowned Downtown annex was rented to a Subway sandwich franchise, the third to open on the strip in the last few years. Norm has to vacate the corner store by January 30. A chain ice-cream store, a chain tea store, and a chain pie store have all been vying for the spot. 



Opened in 1976 on the northwest corner of 8th Avenue and 17th street by Norm Usiak and Gene Chase, Camouflage was Chelsea’s first upscale 8th Avenue boutique. “At the time, that strip of 8th Avenue was mostly just bodegas, some shoe shops and hair salons,” says Norm. “We basically wound up there because we could afford it.”

Quickly becoming the go-to men’s boutique for the Village and Chelsea’s professional artist class, Camouflage didn’t follow trends--it set them. It was among the first to introduce labels such as Paul Smith, Jeffrey Banks, Perry Ellis, and Alexander Julian to the New York market.


Camouflage, 1976

“What we did was interpret the fashion for our customers,” says Norm. “They were New Yorkers who didn’t need to draw attention to themselves by wearing clothes with giant logos. In that sense, Camouflage wasn’t just a clothing store – people came in to find out what was going on in New York because we translated it into clothing.”

The Camouflage fashion formula became so successful that Norm and Gene rented the space one store south of the corner boutique, calling it Camouflage Downtown and specializing in clothes that men would wear “below 23rd street.” The shop drew the attention of city-wide, national, and international celebrities like Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Steve Rubell, Robert Redford, Steve Martin, and Gregory Hines.

“At the time," says Norm, "Chelsea and the Village were the most modern neighborhoods in North America, full of photographers and art directors and actors and writers, and the energy was just mind boggling.”


Camouflage in GQ

As the epicenter of gay life moved to Chelsea, Gene and Norm anchored what would eventually become known as “the strip.”  

In the late 80s through the 90s, 8th Avenue transformed into a promenade of almost totally locally owned and operated restaurants, bars, and boutiques, including: The Joyce, The Starting Line, Eighteenth and Eighth, Rawhide, Rogers and Barbero / Food Bar, P. Chanin, Viceroy, Giraudon, LightForms, Service Station, Candy Bar, Paradise Café, Rocking Horse, Re:Vision/Nasty Pig, Big Cup, Rocking Horse, Rainbows and Triangles, Roger and Dave, Barracuda, Bendix Diner, Bright Food Shop, and The Break.

“Even when Chelsea became a gay mecca, Camouflage was never ‘gay’,” says Norm, who happens to be straight. “It wasn’t ‘straight’ either. Gene and I used to say we were a clothing store for men.”


8th Avenue’s economic renaissance, circa early ‘80s

In 1996, Gene died from AIDS. “We had a perfect partnership and were best friends,” says Norm. “His death was also a huge loss on the creative level. It was an example of the devastating loss of talent to New York that AIDS brought.”

During the AIDS crisis, Norm took care of a dozen or so employees who contracted the disease, including providing health insurance and paying their rent.

“Norm took amazing care of his employees and his customers,” says the playwright Paul Rudnick, who has been shopping at Camouflage since the 80s. “He was the best friend the gay community had, and he did it when it wasn’t so easy.”



By the 1990s, thanks in part to Gene and Norm, 8th Avenue had become valuable commercial territory. “But we were fine because our rent only went up 5% a year,” says Norm.

Running Camouflage without Gene, Norm survived the economic crisis and turmoil of September 11, continuing to thrive into the 2000s without a website, PR, advertising, e-mail, social media, or even a cell phone. Soon, “the strip” fell prey to developers, and outrageous rent hikes transformed 8th Avenue from the thriving local economy it had been for decades into a desert of banks, chain drug stores, nail salons, and fast food restaurants. The High Line flooded the neighborhood with tourists looking for a mall experience. Middle America invaded and the neighborhood fabric fell apart. 80% of the block was bulldozed and replaced with an office park. Practically all of 8th Avenue’s commercial and cultural pillars fell. Still, Camouflage held on.

“Although the incredible commercial foot traffic we had on 8th Avenue for decades helped, we were also a destination store for people around the city and around the world,” says Norm. “That’s how we survived after September 11. And it’s how we survived after the High Line filled this neighborhood with tourists who only want fast food and either cheap trendy clothes or expensive trendy clothes covered in logos.”


Gene and Norm in DNR, 1988

But few small businesses can survive tripled rent.

Although Camouflage’s physical store will vanish, what Norm and Gene provided its customers cannot. Ask any longtime customer – such as myself – and they will tell you the same thing: They have every garment they ever bought from Camouflage.

“I still wear clothes I bought from Camouflage 20 years ago,” says Rudnick. “People are so loyal to Camouflage because there would always be things you loved and that you needed – it was never about impossible luxury but about genuine taste.”


8th avenue hot spots Bendix Diner and 18th and 8th

In classic Norm Usiak temperament, he isn’t bitter about the closing, even though he inadvertently helped create a commercial environment as valuable as Chelsea’s 8th Avenue strip today. But he isn’t happy either. 
“This is the end of stores like Camouflage,” says Norm. “And because it’s so expensive to live here, a young man like Gene, who was from Nebraska, can’t move to New York anymore and create something like Camouflage.”

Norm says that the loss has more to do than just with rent hikes. “The neighborhood was full of people with ideas,” he says. “Now it’s transient people who talk about how much they spend on their apartment.”

“Norm is a legend,” says Rudnick. “In the store you had a wonderful sense of being welcome, which is unusual for such a sophisticated store. Camouflage was never intimidating. You go around the world and you see Banana Republics and The Gaps, etc., but there was only one Camouflage.”

And the love is mutual. “The biggest thing I’m going to miss is the people,” says Norm, who plans to go into consulting and teaching, and is considering an online Camouflage rendition. “This is a part of life, and I am thankful that I had such an incredible 38-year run.”



To get in touch with Norm, contact camouflageclothingnyc@gmail.com

20 comments:

A.L. said...

"...continuing to thrive into the 2000s without a website, PR, advertising, e-mail, social media, or even a cell phone."

Isn't this part (not all) of the problem? Business get comfortable with the old ways of doing their thing, on a misguided "don't change what's working" mentality, and then they get hammered when the market landscape change around them.

Not having a website or active presence in social media is dearth for most fashion-related business. Be it a small operation like Camouflage or a very big brand line owned by an elusive private equity fund.

Of course tripling the rent made a bad situation untenable, but I'm amused how many business, small and sometimes very big ones, fail to adapt to the new Internet landscape.

John M said...

I used to love that store when I lived nearby in the mid-80s. I don't still have the clothes I bought there, because I did tend to buy things that were a tad trendy...the houndstooth checked, incredibly baggy, unconstructed designer suit was pure 80s hip...but it was a great store back then, the only men's shop in the neighborhood.

Like I always say now about the EV, where I ended up living ever since those days, it used to be a nice neighborhood.

Mark said...

I still have an Alan Flusser shirt with a very interesting cut that I purchased there way back in 1981. It doesn't fit, but it resides in the back of my closet with some other interesting items I've worn over the past 45 years.

I work in Chelsea and I've walked past Camouflage dozens of times and thought they can't be long for this world. Chelsea is but a ghost of what it was 30 years ago.

I'm sorry to see them go.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to see this shop go. I am a woman, so I never shopped there, but I always admired the clothing in the windows. I wish the proprietor well in his future endeavors. He had a great run. It is sad that he is being forced out by high rent.

Anonymous said...

Agreed on most, but bristling at Chris's opening para: "Before the Friends of the High Line flooded Chelsea with millions of tourists; before real-estate developers, chain stores, mommies and Middle America invaded"---
Please don't class "mommies," minus "daddies," among "developers, chain stores, etc." Mommies need sperm to become mommies, you know. Let's apportion blame and opprobrium fairly and not be sexist, okay? And I am not a mommie.

Anonymous said...

So sad about this. Norm has impeccable style and is a true fashion visionary. I still wear clothes he advised me to buy 20 years ago. They, like him, are classics.

Tim Gay said...

I live at 300 W. 17th St., and served on the board many years over the past 3 decades. Our building was one of the first tenant take-overs in the city, back in 1974 Norm and Gene and Camoflage basically paid our mortgage over the decades. We could have raised the rent many times over the years, but I always argued that it is better to have a stable dependable retail tenant that would survive hard-times and recessions. Camouflage did just that, surving the recessions of 1982, 1989, 1992, and 2001. I am sad to see them go, and more sad that our co-op refused to negotiate.

Yank said...

Norm is rude, and he always has been. That's why Camouflage is closing. End of.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a previous poster who points out it was unnecessary for the writer to slam "mommies." I am not a mommy either, but it is irksome when men, especially gay men, get all down on women like they should be a part of a gay neighborhood. I would love for the writer to address his reasoning for this comment.

I also think the owner of this shop should have been more active in promoting it. You can't ignore social media and advertising in this day and age. He wasn't reaching new customers and as the mainstays that kept this place going for decades left the area he lost more and more business.

I love the past but you have to move forward and keep up with the times if you want to run any business successfully.

And back to my first point, there is no need to look down on women.

Anonymous said...

Note to Yank: Nonsense! Norm was never rude to anyone! I've been going to his store since I was a teenager, and even in those days, when it was obvious I couldn't afford to buy anything in the shop, he and the staff were happy to talk to me, let me try on clothes, etc. He will be missed.

Branco said...

This is such a confusing post. It's basically praising a first-wave gentrifier. What makes this store different than the countless yuppie boutique shops throughout Manhattan?

This site has really gotten out of hand with it's weird selective distain.

Branco said...

That last post was intended to start a discussion, by the way. I'm genuinely interested in how we define gentrification. Has the gentrification of the previous generation become the nostalgia of our own?

Jeremiah Moss said...

Branco, good questions. It's a guest post because the topic wasn't one I felt I could be passionate about. However, Camouflage has a long history of being part of the neighborhood fabric (since the 1970s), and while I do see it as an early gentrifier, a lot of what I'm taking aim at in this blog is not gentrification, but hyper-gentrification, which really got cooking in the 2000s.

That's my short answer to the question--hopefully, other folks will chime in.

Branco said...

That's interesting. I wonder if the shop became part of the fabric of the neighborhood because it helped CHANGE the neighborhood.

I'm not old enough to remember what the neighborhood was like before the place opened. I did spend a ton of time in the village in the early and mid nineties, though, and there was definitely a palpable feeling that the neighborhood was being lost to interlopers.

John K said...

A neighborhood or district having 1 or 2 higher end businesses like Camouflage, owned not by a national corporation or a global one, but by a small business owner (or owners) represents a different kind of economic situation, a different kind gentrification from what New York City--Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular--are experiencing right now.

When you have even very high-end businesses in the Meatpacking District being edged out by the power of national and global chains, which have far greater resources and do not circulate the money as directly within a given community, and constant super-high-end development with prices that far exceed the purchasing power of people making even 100% or 200% of a community's median incomes, you have the situation we're in today.

We can bemoan these changes all we want, but we should also try, as best we can, to think about the larger political and social economies that are in effect. Why do some people now have several orders more wealth than everyone else, while salaries and wages have stagnated since the 1980s? Why do so few politicians we elect to represent even address this problem, when they have the power, at the municipal, state and federal levels, to address and redress the situation, through tax, zoning and other policies? Why have certain ideas, like publicly funded and subsidized housing, been dropped from the public discourse and agenda? Why do we put up with the grotesque inequities and growing inequality? How do we translate the best ideas, the courage and vision, of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movements, into something tangible?

I just put these issues forward because they directly connect with what this blog focuses on, to all our gratitude. It's not just an issue of businesses dying off or being driven out, but specific policies, as Jeremiah has pointed out again and again, that have enabled this. I saw it begin right after 9/11, and then saw it accelerate once Bloomberg took office. It didn't just happen by accident, an act of God, or fate. What Jeremiah chronicles here results from deliberate political action and policies that aim to enrich the 1%. And without any question, they are benefitting to the exclusion of nearly everybody else.

Anonymous said...

Check out the Yelp page for this store: 2.5/5 stars with countless reviewers mentioning a rude and haughty owner. So, the owner won't get with the times (create a website, use social media) and treats his customers poorly, but it's the infiltration of "Middle America" or a greedy landlord who is to blame for the businesses' demise?

http://www.yelp.com/biz/camouflage-clothing-new-york

Anonymous said...

My partner and I moved into Chelsea in 1994... across the street from Camouflage. Our first Christmas together (we still had separate holiday traditions), I went to the store (12/26) to purchase a gift for him. Of course it was on sale post-Christmas. I wanted to get a green sweater (knowing that he almost exclusively wore blue) and asked Norm if I could exchange it for a different color (or anything else) the NEXT DAY if he absolutely refused to wear green. Norm very nicely, but very adamantly said "NO... no exchanges or returns. It's on sale." I didn't buy the sweater... and neither my partner nor I have ever set foot in either Camouflage store since. Still, I'm very upset that the rents have increased to a point that local and/or individually owned businesses like Camouflage, Paradise Cafe, Rainbows and Triangles and so many others cannot continue to operate. But Paradise Cafe would close early (or whenever they felt like it - when you knew that Starbucks across the streeet would be open until their late... but always posted hours. And Banana Republic, a block away, would always stand behind their customers' purchases unlike Norm at Camouflage, who ostensibly had the means and ability to provide much more personalized service. So while we all bemoan the encroachment of chain stores (and I do as much as anyone else), let's understand that these local business owners sometimes play a part (albeit small when considering 300%+ rent increases) in their own demise.

timmmyk said...

http://youtu.be/YuOo1eaNOn0

Anonymous said...

yet another part of my life is gone...I don't go to Chelsea as much as I once did,,,didn't realize Camouflage had closed...many fond memories of chatting with Tony and other men who worked there...may not have been specifically gay but it was gay enough...still have my clothes bought there for 1987 New Years Eve. "Bill Robinson" design. Whatever I paid then it was a lot of money for me.
Goodbye Camouflage.

Tom B said...

Herewith a moderate riposte to those commenters who seem to believe, contrary to the stated evidence, that Camouflage failed because its owner refused to "keep up with the times." Camouflage closed because of the triple increase in rent. End of story. I fail to see how a "website, PR, advertising, e-mail, social media, or even a cell phone" would have changed that. Norm Usiak, a longtime friend, confided to me and others that the shop had been a financially vibrant concern before the landlords lowered the boom. As the post's writer clearly states, Camouflage thrived without those tech blandishments for many, many years. This suggests that the tools of the internet age, as remarkable as they are, may not be the end-all and be-all that some of the commenters seem to think. Your writer did a beautiful job suggesting some of the other qualities that made Camouflage a success for 37 years - qualities that don't "change with the times."