Saturday, February 24, 2024

Camolots is the Holy Grail of Military Surplus-meets-Repurposed Fashion – Buffalo Rising

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Buffalo is chock full of heralded treasures. Some are widely known, while others are lying in wait.

I paid a visit to a relatively unknown international treasure recently, which is in the process of reinventing itself. Camolots (290 Larkin Street) is no longer open as a retail outlet. The retail faction of the business – Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters – is now found at 1503 Seneca Street.

Today, I’m here to discuss the future opportunities that have been presented at Camolots on Larkin Street, a building that offers up approximately 400,000 square feet of workable creative space in the heart of Larkvinville. Business owners, the Geist family, have done something that is pretty amazing. They have combined their longstanding Toronto (50 years) and Manhattan (27 years) operations in order to consolidate everything into Buffalo. Now, they are in the possession of millions of pounds of military surplus clothing and gear, and it’s mostly under one roof.

(L-R) Rob and Rich Geist

Now, I’ve known Rob Geist for a number of years, hailing back to the yesteryear of the infamous Red Cross MASH Bash party. In those days, 290 Larkin Street was a massive retail warehouse. At that time, Rich Geist and his wife Sue, were mainly dealing with the Manhattan operation. It was only recently that the couple decided to relocate to Buffalo, where the grass was considered to be greener. They, along with Rob, felt that Buffalo’s ongoing renaissance, the ideal cost of living, the massive warehouse, the friendly people, the worldly workforce, and the centralized location, offered everything that they needed to launch a showroom that was specifically geared towards the fashion, music, and entertainment industries.

Photo by Julia Scott Papiernik

While working in NYC, Rich entertained the who’s who of the fashion world, and music industry. It was not uncommon for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Naomi Campbell, or Calvin Klein to walk into the shop, seeking inspiration, or yet another authentic one-of-a-kind military item. Music greats that the Geists have worked with include MJ, Pharrell, Bono, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West, among countless others. Not to mention the vast array of film producers that sought out the military surplus to outfit their period pieces.

Rich told me that when it comes to sourcing clothing and materials, these mega-stars constantly look for inspiration in military apparel. That’s because militaries from around the world typically have an allocated budget to work with. If they spend the entire budget – whether they use the clothing and gear or not – they get a similar budget the following year. If they don’t spend the budget, it goes down. So militaries always over-purchase, which means that they always have loads of surplus clothing and gear.

It was Rich and Rob’s father, Isaac, who initially set out to purchase as much military surplus that he could get his hands on. He felt that he couldn’t pass up on the deals, but he also knew that the materials that went into the clothing and the gear were top of the line. Today, the Geists understand that they are in possession of prized materials that have stood the test of time, and are ready for new lives. Some of that life comes from donating truck loads of military gear that the people of Ukraine need to defend themselves from their aggressors, while other uses include upcycling the clothing, thus combatting fast fashion. The Geists consider the salvaging and reimagining of the clothing as “The original green.”

Today, 290 Larkin Street’s 7-floors are filled to the brim with surplus bags, cargo pants, uniforms, parachutes, new and used boots, belts, hats… you name it, and they have it. There are 100,000 pairs of boots on the fifth floor. They just received 80,000 brand new beautiful green 1960’s hospital towels, bed sheets and surgical drapes from Ottawa. All of this can either be reworn, or reused. The fabric used for these items is top of the line, which is why they appeal so much to designers.

Last week, I accompanied a number of local designers that will be showcased in the inaugural Fig fashion show, to tour the monstrosity of a building. One of FigBuffalo’s missions is to help create a centralized fashion-fabric warehouse in Buffalo. Camolots is one of the places that came up on the team’s radar. During the tour, Rob, Rich, and Sue pointed out row after row, floor after floor, of genuine government surplus (26 countries in fact) that can be reconstituted into new, fashionable looks – that last!

The Geists feel that the Camolots warehouse will one day, in the near future, be home to designers from all over the world, who will be ideally utilizing the vast spaces, the industrial sewing equipment, and the surplus clothing. It’s actually a no brainer in my opinion. Many designers work out of their houses, where they don’t have to pay rents for studios. Unfortunately, that means that they are not collaborating, and sharing resources. The Geists fortunately have all of the resources that the designers need, to turn Buffalo into a mecca for sustainable fashion.

The Geists believe that they can readily transition 290 Larkin Street into a hub of creativity in Buffalo. While their retail outlet at 1503 Seneca Street continues to sell to the public (in person and online), the former Larkin warehouse can become a hub of ingenuity, similar to how it functioned in its heyday. Just as they have inspired creatives in Toronto and NYC, they now intend to do the same in Buffalo.

As a tribute to their father, who started it all, the Geists will be opening an Allied-based museum in the Larkin warehouse, called Ike’s Bunker. The museum will house all of the precious and irreplaceable military gear that has been collected over the years. The museum will serve as an archive room for designers, who will also have access to a dye room, work tables, industrial sewing machines, materials, and historic knowledge of the materials, thanks to the Geists, who retain vast amounts of knowledge of the materials. Like their unique products, it will be a one of a kind, not only in the US but in the world. 

“Buffalo can become a hub for sustainable fashion,” said Rich and Rob. “This was not as much about the military use as it was about reusing surplus that would otherwise be wasted. It’s both fashion and function. No one makes this stuff anymore. Our job has been to go around the world sourcing great military surplus, saving it from waste, destruction, and landfills. Now, we want to get it into the hands of people who can reuse, repurpose, and love it again.”

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