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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org