Keith Howarth is a bit of a dinosaur. He admits it. And as a monumental anniversary approaches for Noir Leather, the Royal Oak fetish and fantasy mecca he founded 25 years ago, extinction is not far from his mind. "There aren't a lot of us left now," Howarth says, referring to his local boutique brethren. "Noir, Incognito, Showtime Clothing in Detroit. ... The chain store is taking over — this belief that there's a formula for success. I feel somewhat sad that the independently owned store may be a thing of the past."
Today, though, there's little room for sadness. Howarth is preparing to celebrate his store's two and a half decades of survival with a gothic extravaganza this Saturday and he's come dressed in his own success. He has a photo shoot in a couple of hours for this Metro Times piece and he's made sure to look the part of a rock 'n' roll accessories icon — all black, generous leather accents, plenty of studs. With all that goth couture, it's easy to forget that Howarth is a businessman, and an innovative and tenacious one at that. His biopic would have more in common with It's a Wonderful Life than The Crow. After all, this is a man who actually changed the face of his town. Without Howarth's energy and vision, it's not a stretch to say that Royal Oak might not have ever made the leap it did from sleepy to sexy.
In the late '70s when Howarth first returned to Michigan from Pittsburgh, burned-out from droll attempts at making use of his art history degree in a position at the prestigious Carnegie Institute, he never dreamed he'd end up outfitting every kind of outsider class from bikers to bondage fiends. His Road to Damascus moment came at a Billy Idol concert, where Howarth's mind was blown less by the music than Idol's garish fashion sense. "Instead of having one belt, he had three. Instead of having one wristband, he'd have four on this hand, three on the other, and a dog collar too. It was totally over-the-top."
Howarth was enraptured by punk rock, a revolt to a popular culture that had gotten overly slick and corporate. Besides being carried away by punk's antagonistic power, he also recognized it as a blooming, and therefore marketable, trend. Michigan was experiencing a recession at the time that, like our current one, was tied to an auto and oil crisis. Howarth remembers the governor addressing the state's citizens, concerned over the increasingly obsolete methods of the car industry, and urging them to learn new trades. "I thought, I can do this," Howarth says. "I'm a craftsman!"
He began making his own custom belts and other leather gear, which he sold to friends and scenesters. Eventually he found his way into local shops, including Royal Oak staple Incognito, to which he sold wholesale. After taking $5,000 in orders at a New York trade show, a meager amount by some standards but a veritable gold rush to him at the time, Howarth grew tired of sharing his profits with middle men and opened his own store at Third and Main.
It was a struggle from the very start. For one, Royal Oak had no nightlife to speak of at the time. Its downtown sidewalks, which had recently benefited from a beautification project, were deserted at 6 p.m. "The place was a ghost town," Howarth says.
"Completely empty of cars and pedestrians. It was like The Day the Earth Stood Still." Desperate for customers, Howarth began brainstorming with fellow small-store owner Patti Smith. The two approached local businesses, from car parts stores to shoe shops, with their plan: "Late Night Wednesdays." Like the name implies, the plan was for all of the stores to keep later hours once a week and pitch in money for a large ad in the Metro Times, in the hopes of generating an event. Some of Howarth's fellow business owners were put off, though, by the mohawked, pierced and painted youth that wandered into their stores that first late evening — Howarth had only marketed to punks. A few shops pulled out, but the ones who stayed saw improved sales. Late Night Wednesdays became a summertime tradition for years, and Royal Oak became a safe place for anybody literally wanting to wear their individualism on their sleeve.
It might not have gone further than that if not for the arrival of the completed I-696 freeway — suddenly Main Street became a busy thoroughfare — and the opening of Les Auteurs, a five-star flagship restaurant of well-known chef Keith Famie, which encouraged more new restaurateurs to stake their claims in downtown Royal Oak's streets. Mr. B's, Monterey and Mongolian Barbeque arrived soon after. Add to that the early '90s alternative boom and soon there was a vibrant night life, not to mention a town with some actual personality. Thirteen new stores followed, including record shops, hair salons and clothing boutiques.
Most of that has changed now, with indie after indie driven out by unholy rent spikes and the gush of condo developments and corporate chain store bullies. Yet somehow, Noir Leather has persisted in the midst of all of it, its skull and crossbones logo unaltered, its window mannequins' nipples forever covered in crosses of electric tape. And in some ways, Noir Leather is the more pure for the changes that have happened to Royal Oak. It's more of a sore thumb, more of a mohawk at a board meeting. As Howarth watches his city, as well as the country, come full circle to corporate conformity and back into a recession, he's been given a bit of his beloved punk status back. Now, more than ever, Howarth is selling something essential, an antidote to chain culture.
"I'm giving people a choice," Howarth says, "I'm selling the chance to be an individual. I get off on the fact that people can leave the store and feel proud that they look unique."
Noir Leather's 25th anniversary party is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Crofoot (1 S. Saginaw, Pontiac; 248-858-9333) w/Crud and Haflife, plus the Readies, Satori Circus and many other bands and bombshells.