Sometime in 1972, while attending school in Saint Clair Shores, Keith Howarth was given an option: a week's worth of detentions or getting spanked with a paddle. Having spent a lot of time stuck in detention, Howarth settled for "the wood."
"So, he had me lean against the desk and put my ass out and as he wound up, I could hear the whoosh," he says. "But instead of hitting my ass, he hit my thighs. He purposely went for my thighs. I was bruised for weeks. I said I'll never take the paddle again."
When asked if his early experience with spanking had informed his path to becoming metro Detroit's king of kink, he admits that he never connected the two.
For nearly 40 years, Howarth has been the captain of the kinkiest ship in town: Noir Leather, located in Royal Oak. Since opening his doors in 1983, Howarth has blazed a path for the fetish community by offering a selection of bondage gear, and accessories, and has gone so far as to empower his employees to curate erotic fashion shows and art displays, as well as be living embodiments of the brand's mantra: Freedom to be.
To celebrate Noir Leather's fearless founder, his creative and retail team are throwing a "subversive Noir fetish show" to commemorate 38 years of flying a freak flag in a city now overrun by hair salons and parking garages.
"I am the last man standing," he says.
The event will serve as a kaleidoscope of Noir's history and ethos with performance art, a floor show, classic erotic films, music, and a display of some of Howarth's earliest leather pieces, including the handsewn turquoise leather bondage hood he brought to Royal Oak's city council before opening Noir's doors in its first location on Third Street.
"A city official called me and wanted to make sure I wasn't going to be a sex toy store," he says. "I said, I'm not going to be a sex toy store but I'll bring over a selection of what I sell. So, I met him in his office at city hall. I brought him up some wristbands, collars, and bootstraps and he says, 'I don't see anything wrong.' And then I pull out a turquoise bondage hood and he goes, 'I don't see anything wrong with that either.' I think it was only OK because it wasn't black. It was a color."
Before discovering leatherwork, Howarth worked in historic conservation, more specifically, the conservation of museum quality furniture. He trained under the master furniture conservator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, who, Howarth says, taught him everything he knows. This position led him to be able to set up a conservation lab at the Carnegie Art Institute in Pittsburgh, where he worked primarily with decorative arts, wood, sconces, and silver. "I cleaned a lot of chandeliers," he says.
When Howarth returned to Detroit, he teamed up with his mentor and traveled the country pursuing various conservation projects and, at one point, traveled to England when both were commissioned by Henry Ford II to work at his estate, which consisted of a horse farm as well as an apartment in the city. Eventually, Howarth found himself back in metro Detroit after severing ties with his apprenticeship and decided to go rogue for a full year, living in his workshop in eight-hour cycles, as that's the amount of time it would take for wood glue to dry and he would have to remove wood clamps. Surviving on just under $12,000 a year, he decided to teach himself a new craft after having heeded the warning given in an address by the then Governor with regard to the automotive downturn.
"He said, we had to learn new professions and how to do things another way. So I said, well, what am I good at? I'm good as a craftsman. I'm really good in the hands. And so I picked out leather crafting 'cause I was a punk rocker," Howarth says. "It's better to do a job that you like than the job you don't."
The times are changing not just across Royal Oak's retail landscape but in terms of cultural acceptance. Howarth admits he's experienced an upturn in people interested in the occult and BDSM — both of which were considered fringe interests until recently. He credits the Twilight fanfic turned toxic love/abuse saga that is the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise for the accelerated and wide-spanning demand for whips, floggers, harnesses, restraints, ball-gags, and other erotic pain practices.
"When a 78-year-old senior citizen came in and bought a whole set of bondage restraints for $150, that was an indication that it wasn't cool anymore," he says.
Not only has Noir Leather's brick-and-mortar store and its reputation as a cultural institution weathered the many social and economic changes (all without having an online store, mind you), Howarth himself is a survivor. In 2013, he underwent his first of two craniotomies to remove tumors formed in his brain. His second procedure in 2017 saw the removal of a mass the "size of a deck of cards." Howarth is still recovering, working on his mobility.
"You don't want pain to be your banner," he explains. "I take one day at a time because it's different every day. I appreciate life very much now."
Noir Leather Presents: An Evening Celebrating our Founder Keith Howarth starts at 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 15 at Northern Lights Lounge; 660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; 313-873-1739; northernlightslounge.com. Tickets are $10-$13.
Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.