I actually wasn’t searching for this but it intrigued me because of how fashion has evolved, blurring the lines between what was once regarded as fetish attire and what is now mainstream.
Fifty Years On, a Pioneering Leather Shop (Not for the Uptight) Stands Strong
A sign on the front door warns: “Must be 21 to Enter.” It doesn’t portend a traditional shopping experience.
Yes, the Leather Man carries an array of intimate adult devices and ephemera, and is not for the uptight. But it is far from being just a gay “sex shop,” which many passers-by assume.
In April, the Christopher Street store will celebrate its 50th anniversary, a remarkable achievement for an independent mom-and-pop (or in this case, pop-and-pop) in the gentrified West Village.
But the half-century milestone, and the store itself, encompass much more. The Leather Man, which predates the 1969 Stonewall riots, traces the evolution of modern gay culture, from substrata of society to mainstream.
Among the leather items the store makes and sells are button-down uniform shirts, chaps, jock straps, teddy bears, whips, belts and traditional motorcycle gear like “The Wild One” jackets and boots. The dressing rooms even have black leather curtains.
The shop is renowned for its tailored-to-fit pants, nonpareil in their construction and authenticity, and staff craftsmen will customize virtually anything. Love a harness but want the studs silver instead of black? No problem.
The Leather Man is now in its most bustling season. It is the go-to outfitter for participants in the annual bacchanalian dance event known as the Black Party: Imagine Pan and Caligula producing a rave for gay men. It will take place this weekend in a Brooklyn warehouse, and a lot of harnesses will be involved.
“It’s like our Christmas,” said the manager Max Gregory, who has been with the store since 1995.
The level of customer service at the Leather Man is akin to a department store in a 1930s Hollywood film, albeit kinkier. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly no matter how personal or extreme a patron’s inquiries.
“That’s what’s enabled us to stick around for 50 years,” Mr. Gregory said. “During the last decade, with the rise of online stores, the market has been flooded with cheap fetish stuff. The quality of the leather and the customer service people come here and get exactly what they want.”
That clientele is singular. “There are different types of customers,” said AJ Afano, a designer and salesman at the shop. “From Metallica listeners, to your basic sirs and boys who are part of the leather scene, to people who just want a nice leash for their Chihuahua.” Apart from the fetish community and leather dilettantes, the store also caters to a sizable swath of fashion insiders.
“They make jackets and pants built to last,” said the fashion consultant Nick Wooster. “There is nothing disposable or trend driven about them. It’s leather and can last forever, and it came out of uniform culture, which factored prominently in the gay archetype. But it’s a fashion inspiration today for all men’s wear designers and buyers.”
Mr. Wooster added: “The Leather Man played a pivotal role in my life, the club years 1985 to 1995. I had more than one pair of jeans made there.”
The demand for leather goods for photo shoots is so high that the shop has instituted a rental policy. “It’s an incredible resource,” said the stylist Grant Woolhead, who bought a blindfold, whips and leather restraints for James Franco to wear in a GQ Style shoot inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe. “The styling world would be lost without it.”
For all that, the store retains an overt sexual edge. Once a month it closes early for workshops. “Some demonstrations are educational on the field of S-and-M and bondage,” Mr. Gregory said. “They’re usually well attended.”
Off-the-rack leather didn’t exist when Chuck Mueller founded the Leather Man. Mr. Mueller, 78, is from upstate New York. His father, a butcher, returned to his native Germany when Chuck was 15, leaving his mother, a secretary, to raise him. In 1953, he moved to Manhattan, and in the early 1960s, he worked in the steel industry doing market research. Outside of the office he was in the underground leather scene, then centered around dress-code bars like the Silver Dollar.
“I wasn’t ashamed,” Mr. Mueller said, “but it wasn’t something discussed at a board meeting of a major corporation. I certainly wouldn’t show up there wearing leather chaps.”
Mr. Mueller’s compatriots would travel to Chicago and San Francisco for their made-to-order wares. For his nocturnal outings, Mr. Mueller made his own.
“It came naturally to me,” he said, “like how music came to Mozart. First I made a motorcycle jacket and then jeans. I’d tear existing garments apart and make a pattern and translate it to leather. I did it with Levi’s 501s to make pants. If I couldn’t buy it, I’d make it.”
Word of his skills spread swiftly, and he was nicknamed “the Leather Man.” People would sidle over to him at bars to ask about a custom garment they wanted made. “It killed my sex life,” he said. At times he would be up until 4 a.m. fitting clients at his Upper West Side apartment.
In 1965, he left corporate life behind and took over the lease of a camera shop (the tenant was angry that the rent was being raised to $140) on Christopher Street. It was not a gay mecca then, but a no man’s land.
“It was a dark street,” Mr. Mueller said. “The gay scene was on Greenwich Avenue. But more and more hearty souls wandered down there, the whole scene changed, and it became the runway.” In ’65, though, there was little of interest nearby except McNulty’s coffee shop next door and a candy store. Mr. Mueller was at the right place at the right time. The Leather Man jump-started the street’s metamorphosis.
He moved to the fourth floor of the building, and the store operated as a made-to-order showroom. “People came in saying, ‘I’d like some leather pants, but I don’t own a motorcycle.’ ” he recalled. “My response was, ‘Well, do you need to own one?’ ”
In 1978, the store moved a block closer to the Hudson, and it had a Western-themed basement area. Levi’s 501s had become a fetish item.
“At that time, Levi’s wasn’t very gay-friendly,” Mr. Mueller said. “I made a trip to the San Francisco main office, pleading with them to sell jeans to me. The guy came in to look at my store and said, ‘It looks like a dungeon,’ and he turned my account down.” The refusal was a revelation.
“I thought: ‘Dungeon? You ain’t seen nothing yet,’ ” Mr. Mueller said, though he didn’t want “a store people were snickering at. I wanted to appeal to regular people, not just leather folks.” From that point, leather jeans and conventional things were sold upstairs, and the downstairs was converted into a more decadent area. The cellar has retained the spirit. Its centerpiece is an iron dog cage that isn’t for canines.
As the decade settled in, the store, open until midnight, was a place for clientele to gear up and socialize for the bars then proliferating on the Lower West Side, like the Anvil and Mineshaft. The store’s relationship with the bars was symbiotic. But leather was no longer just for the hard-core.
“The leather scene changed,” Mr. Mueller said. “People were perfectly willing to be seen wearing leather jeans and a white shirt and tie. The scene evolved from a military Gestapo look to a wider acceptance of leather wear as an interesting item of clothing. You could wear leather for no reason.”
But the leather bar scene was soon to crumble. “The AIDS crisis changed that,” Mr. Mueller said. “The old leather guard passed on. We lost a lot of people.” In the 1990s came gentrification, with Chelsea becoming the gay district. “People prefer to meet online as opposed to dressing up and slogging out to a bar,” he said.
In 1993, Mr. Mueller retired to Florida. He rarely wears leather. (“It’s so doggone hot,” he said.) He is still the owner of the Leather Man but has given the reins to his lieutenants. This summer, it will start wholesaling its men’s wear and accessories, which are now available only there and at the online shop. And the store has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation.
“Puppy masks are big for the younger crowd,” Mr. Gregory said, referring to the stylized dog-head masks he sells to the “pup” subculture, where men pretend to be dogs (walking on all fours, and such).
Mr. Afano, who designs and makes the masks by hand, strives to adhere to the store’s original ethos. “We have that old-school leather look as opposed to the go-go-dancing, sporty side of things,” he said.
Their customers appreciate the restraint.