Standing fast on Oxford St: How these gay retailers have survived
Oxford Street has taken a lot of hits over the years but a small group of gay retailers continue to wave the rainbow flag each day. Here, five long-standing shop owners of the gay mile tell Danny Corvini how they have stayed afloat and what it might take to get the street back. Photography by Cec Busby.
Back in 1983, Ken Holmes and his boyfriend Alex Newing hatched the idea to represent Australian swimwear labels for men – the only problem was, they couldn’t find any. Ken started designing a range and that’s when Aussie Boys was born.
Department stores David Jones and Grace Bros placed orders and the pair opened the first Aussie Boys store in 1986. That grew to a total of four stores here and another in Melbourne and the pair employed six machinists to make the gear. The present Oxford Street location was opened in 1993 but it became the single location when Alex died four years later and Ken closed the other stores.
Ken says Aussie Boys’ longevity is due to him still enjoying what he does. “I’m a thousand years old and I still love it!” he jokes. “What better job to have than fitting gorgeous young men and supporting the gay community?”
He maintains a great sense of humour but scratch the surface a little bit and you will discover Ken’s frustrations. He is worried about the dismal state of the street, which is a shadow of its 1990s self; and he’s upset about the fact that he barely turns a profit due to high rents. Meanwhile, arts spaces in the building pay a fraction of that amount to the same landlord, City of Sydney, thanks to that the Oxford Street Creative Spaces program.
Ken thinks that the Creative Spaces program should make a space available to someone who can sew “the best jockstraps in Australia” and that the program should offer spaces to queer start-ups. The Aussie Boys range barely exists anymore due to Australia’s unsustainably high manufacturing costs and Ken would love to change that.
He would like a lot more support and effort to maintain the gay identity of the street. “We can’t lose Oxford Street,” he insists.
Aussie Boys is located at 102 Oxford St, Darlinghurst. Ph: 9360 7011. Go to www.aussieboys.com.au
THE BOOKSHOP DARLINGHURST
Travelling in the US in the early eighties, Les McDonald and his former partner Wayne Harrison noticed an advertisement for gay book sales in The Advocate magazine – an idea that was unheard of in Australia. On their return, the pair started selling gay and lesbian titles by mail order then opened a physical store on Crown Street. In 1984 The Bookshop Darlinghurst opened in its current location on Oxford Street.
“I like what I do and I’ve got really good people working with me,” says Les. “We are a destination shop but we’re lucky that we’ve still got the mail order business, because that’s got us through a lot of tough times.”
Les places Oxford Street’s decline on the opening of Westfield shopping centres in the city and Bondi Junction; the clearways that operate in two directions in the morning and night and“the greedy fucking landlords” (noting that he’s been one of the lucky few).
“The state of Oxford Street is pretty appalling,” he says. “We operate in a block where there are around eight empty shops. This used to be a really busy block back in the days before Grindr when people used to go out more. Our night time trade was particularly busy but that doesn’t happen anymore.”
The decline of print and subsequent rise of Amazon and Kindle have also posed major challenges for The Bookshop. Yet the internet has paradoxically also provided many new customers who don’t live anywhere near the store andwho want to buy the publications that it sells. And despite the decline of DVDs, which the Bookshop started selling in the nineties, Les says that many customers continue to buy boxed sets of their favourite series.
Knowing your market, moving with the times and being the first with new stock are the secrets to long-term success, says Les. But it’s also about much more than that: “It’s a business, but it’s a community business,” he says. “We try and support it as much as we can.”
The Bookshop Darlinghurst is lcoated at 207 Oxford St, Darlinghurst. Ph: 9331 1103. Go to www.thebookshop.com.au
Ask Wayne Nicol, owner of Sax Fetish, what he thinks of the state of Oxford Street and be prepared to hear a tale of local government mismanagement dating back to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, which still has repercussions today. He’s in no doubt about where to place the blame.
“Our side of the street is owned by the City of Sydney and previously the City of South Sydney,” he says. “Many of the City of South Sydney’s Oxford Street leases came up for renewal just prior to the Games. Rents close to doubled for everyone. That set a precedent and underpinned the hugely inflated sums being asked by private landlords on the other side of the street. That was the point that a number of the eclectic, interesting single store retailers said, ‘We can’t make money on this’. A large number of day traders either left the area or failed.
“Then you had the City of Sydney take over responsibility for the precinct after the council mergers. Their idea for revitalising the strip was a massive physical upgrade of the streetscape – a project that went on for three or four years. We were forced to trade in a never-ending construction zone and both the local community and tourists disassociated with Oxford Street.”
The business owner, who spends half of his time managing his Melbourne fetish store Lucrezia & De Sade and the leather manufacturing operations for both stores, says Oxford Street was “vibrant, busy, engaging and had an identity” when he bought Sax Leather in 1999. Sax was one of seven leather and fetish stores dotted in and around Oxford Street at the time; now it’s the only one. “The steady demise of the big parties and ultimate failure of the Sleaze Ball contributed to the downward spiral,” he says. “The State Government’s embarrassingly retrograde liquor licencing measures finally killed any spirit of Oxford Street that may have been left.”
Wayne has considered moving Sax Fetish to Newtown or Enmore where other alternative sub-cultures could provide more custom, “but I just don’t want to be the next nail in the coffin of the street,” he says.
Wayne says that, for now, Sax is pivotal to his business model that requires at least two stores to justify economic local manufacturing of leather gear. However, he can’t get away from a simple fact: “We just don’t do the level of business that we used to do and the effort/reward really doesn’t stack up.”
Sax Fetish is located at 110 Oxford St, Darlinghurst. Ph: 9331 6105. Go to www.saxfetish.com
The North Shore got the first bite of the Daly Male apple when it opened in Cremorne in 1985. But when it set up shop on Oxford Street four years later, its arrival was perfectly timed to capitalise on the dance party mania that was gripping Sydney, and Daly Male became the provider of party gear for the boys.
Initially located near the Albury Hotel, Daly Male moved to its current position in 2006 and doubled in size earlier this year when it took over the space next door.
Owner Terry Daly puts the shop’s success down to “newness of product and continual revision of stock”. He travels once a year to London, Paris and Milan and twice a year to Seoul and Bangkok. He scoffs at the idea of travelling to the US for new stock: “They’re behind us!” he says.
Terry and his store manager Mark Stuart have a great relationship and it’s obvious that both men take pleasure in giving friendly service to customers. Like most of the other GLBTI businesses on Oxford Street, the pair question whether the artist spaces are having any success in reviving it. Terry is outraged at paying premium rents while the pop ups pay peanuts, although it’s to the same landlord.
Mark says that the only way that Oxford Street can get some of its buzz back is to have a better mix of businesses, which would require landlords to not just focus on getting the highest possible rent.
More street furniture, gardens, better lighting and awnings would help too: “It’s a cold and sterile environment for the locals, let alone the international tourists,” he says.
Daly Male will turn 30 in 2015 and closing down has “never” been an option, says Terry.
Daly Male is at 90 Oxford St, Darlinghurst. Ph 9361 0331. Facebook: Daly Male
HOUSE OF PRISCILLA
Anthony Defina made costumes by day and performed as Chelsea Bun by night back in 1999 when he opened The House of Priscilla.
It didn’t stay a costume shop for drag queens long though and widening the target market turned out to be a seriously sassy move.
“We’ve got the boys and girls that come in for party costume hire and all your Samba and Carnivale girls, as well as weight-lifters who need a costume,” he says. “It’s a mixed bag of lollies.”
Drag queens provide just 15 per cent of the business today and Anthony and his machinists have their hands full with a very diverse calendar of work.
“There’s always something coming though,” he says. “A drag party, Burning Man, the Atlantic Cruise, concert time for children’s dance wear, Diva, Halloween…”
Anthony admits to fantasies about moving House of Priscilla to a bigger space away from Oxford Street, where he could hang patterns around the walls and give his machinists more space – but at the end of the day he couldn’t leave it and has just signed another five year lease.
“I stay on Oxford Street because I like the nostalgia of it,” he says. “I could just finish it and go and work overseas, but I want to stay here.”
He sees no point in dressing up the street’s situation, though, and points to “diabolical” rents and the lock outs for its sub-par state. “The lock outs have done damage because if people can’t do shows, then they don’t need costumes,” he says.
Anthony says one of his biggest achievements at House of Priscilla has been bringing his gay and suburban family client bases together, without conflict.
“I’ve never had one person turn their nose up or freak out,” he says.
House of Priscilla is located at Level 1, 47 Oxford St, Darlinghurst. Ph: 9286 3023. Go to www.houseofpriscilla.com.au