(Note: This story appears in the August 2023 issue of SE Magazine)
Arbor Laclave went around the world but didn’t find a “home” until he purchased the Noir Leather store just outside of Detroit. Now it’s his goal to serve his community by providing them with a safe, welcoming retail space to explore their most intimate sexual desires.
Arbor Laclave, the new owner of the iconic 40-year-old Noir Leather in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, had a sometimes-troubled childhood. His grandfather and role model, a Navy man, sent Laclave to military school to instill some good values. After graduation, Laclave briefly attended community college before deciding college sucked and joined the U.S. Army Reserves. After military training and jobs in human resources and as a radiology technologist and a six-year civilian job at Detroit Receiving Hospital’s ER, Laclave got burned out on the medical world and “reclassed” in the Reserves again, this time to military intelligence, which he’s been doing for the past nine years.
Nearly half of his 16 Army Reserve years have involved active-duty tours throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the South Asian Pacific. Laclave spent two years in Saudi Arabia, working on bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology because he wanted to be a sex therapist.
Unfortunately, while in Saudi Arabia, he sustained injuries that made academia more difficult, and left school. When Laclave returned from that tour, an old friend who knew his interest in the entrepreneurial realm told him that Noir Leather was for sale at a price within his reach. Realizing that despite not completing his sex therapist education, he could still help people with sexuality and counseling by owning this store, he bought Noir Leather. StorErotica Legal Correspondent Larry Kaplan spoke with Arbor Laclave about the joys, challenges, and frustrations of taking the helm at the legendary Noir Leather.
SE: Were you familiar with the fetish scene then, or was this just a business opportunity?
Laclave: I’ve been open-minded and exploring my sexuality and the kink realm since I was 18. A young 32-year-old lady I met while modeling, my third sexual partner in life, took me under her wing, teaching me everything I needed to know, as a young man, about the true essence of sex. I was a pop can, and she shook me up and tossed me back into the world. Since then, the entire concept of sex, the mentality and purpose behind it, and the reason why, beyond the realm of reproduction and just getting to the more extreme level, has been exciting.
The first time I stepped into Noir I was 19. And then, when I was 22, I became acquainted with Holly, who was my former managing partner. She’d been working here pretty much that entire time. She was the one who gave Nixie and Bijou and me valuable guidance on the kink realm. Holly started modeling at Noir at 18, then helping manage the business for the past ten years, stepping in five years ago when Noir founder Keith Howarth became indisposed with health issues.
SE: Tell me about Keith Howarth. Why do you think the store has lasted 40 years?
Laclave: With the punk rock revolution starting in 1983, Keith was the tip of the spear when he started Noir in Royal Oak that year. Noir has always been a safe haven for the alternative, which is why it’s lasted.
SE: What is Noir’s retail philosophy?
Laclave: Our philosophy is that we know you, see you, love you, and respect you for whoever and whatever you are. We try to carry a bit of everything for everyone who’s different. And that typically equates to business because we can sell them what they need. We do focus on goth and punk rock. And the rear of the store is more fetish-focused and kink-oriented. Each staff person is familiar with a significant aspect of the store, whatever that may be. So even if they aren’t into kink or extreme things, they’re fashionistas or stylists in the goth or raver realms. They’re involved with other local communities, like Theater Bazaar, the Dirty Show, and the burlesque scene.
SE: How would you describe your average customer?
Laclave: Our average customers range from the hardcore goth, punk rock, and raver scenes to kinksters to your average curious couple just walking by. Because we’re in Royal Oak’s downtown social district, 40-50%, sometimes as much as 80% of our customer base is random foot traffic. People go out for dinner or drinks and just explore the town. They’ll walk by and ask, “What is this place, Noir Leather? They could never see this far into the store because I’ve opened it up drastically from how it always was. They might have walked past a million times; something just gave them the courage to walk in this time. That throws the average off because suburbanites don’t look like they’d be into what we carry. But all of a sudden, the right questions arise; we’ve opened Pandora’s box of deep-rooted sexual desires, and now they’re a customer.
SE: How do you make first-timers comfortable?
Laclave: Previously, the staff were standoffish or just too quiet; pretty much just here to ring you up. The staff that I have now are much more open and communicative. Many people don’t want to be hovered over and sold anything because they’re just digging into their desire and seeing what they want, especially for some of the more extreme items we carry. So it’s essential just to be friendly, open, and welcoming. Whatever you need, I’m here for you. Take your time; this is a safe space.
I treat every customer who comes in as a potential sex therapy client. So I’ll ask what you are into. I’ll joke about extreme things to break that ice with laughter. And my staff is keen to share some of their explicit sexual desires and what they’re into to make clear that it doesn’t matter what you are into; we won’t judge you; we’re just here to provide whatever you need to solve your problems and desires.
SE: In the two years you’ve owned the store, what changes have you made? You mentioned you’re in the middle of a current renovation. What are you changing now? And after 40 years, before you got here, was the store still keeping up with the industry?
Laclave: The most significant change is opening it up so people can see the whole store. It is no longer the hoarder’s claustrophobic quarters wet dream that it was. So much stuff was packed into the 1,700 square feet and 1,400 square foot basement.
I built a basement office recently. I couldn’t get this far back into the basement until then because I was just going through stuff piled up. I had to sort through all this stuff rather than dumping it because there’s history and lessons to learn about this business.
I’m rebuilding the workshop where Keith built leather goods and fixing a lot of the foundational issues with the building. I’ve removed almost all thirteen walls upstairs and rebuilt the one I needed. I’m redoing the carpet and launching the rebuilt website again; Keith bought noirleather.com when the internet started. And we’re getting back to events. We used to regularly do so many fashion shows, concerts, and events.
SE: What’s your competition today? Is it primarily other brick-and-mortar stores or online?
Laclave: Many online and nearby brick-and-mortar stores are getting into kink, and they do provide competition. There’s a place that popped up that caters to the hardcore, gay male leather scene that’s taken some business. But there’s more than enough room for competition. And going to tradeshows, it’s terrific to see direct competitors who are best friends talking about business together, compared to other industries, where competitors would stab each other in the bathroom if the opportunity arose.
The online stores can usually beat our prices, but what’s kept us alive is that we carry items you can’t find elsewhere, especially the kink and fetish items in the back of the store. About 25-30% of those items are custom handmade or locally made paddles or leather goods unavailable online or elsewhere. Because they’re custom, they’re more extreme things; people want to see and touch them before buying.
SE: What do you look for when hiring employees?
Laclave: They must be open-minded and okay talking about their sexual nature and what they like with customers. And also comfortable with their body because we often run around the store half-naked. I occasionally refer to Noir as the Island of Misfit Toys and myself as the war-torn, brain-damaged king of this little debaucherous island. I bring on the loyal, perfectly broken, societally unacceptable ones who accept what we are, Noir.
SE: Tell me some more about your personal relationship with fetish.
Laclave: That 32-year-old broke me the fuck off. It’s not so much that she broke open the realm of fetish or kink, but she’s the one who really taught me how to communicate sexually with a partner. Women tend to be nurturers and givers. If you pay it to me, I’ll pay it back tenfold, especially in the realm of sex. And when I learned that concept, the proper techniques gave me my initial attachment to sex, its power, and how much I love sex. I guess my relationship with fetish and kink is the psychology behind it, the reason we do it. It’s the reason customers come into the store and ask for whatever they want. Every person has a problem that I can solve. And that’s what I enjoy. I guess maybe I’m just a voyeur who likes to fix others.
SE: You mentioned the three of you are each subject matter experts in different areas, along with your other store responsibilities, and you split up the buying. Which product categories do you buy, and do you have preferred vendors?
Laclave: I tend to stick towards the more hardcore fetish stuff. Nalpac is our number one distributor; I like going through their more extreme items. Our loyalty to Nalpac is unwavering due to the respect and care we receive from them despite how little we buy compared to their much larger customers. Phoebe and Mary’s knowledge and expertise in products and all aspects of retail have helped guide me in my first years along this treacherous path called entrepreneurship. And I like Kookie, Touch of Fur, and Spartacus.
SE: What are your best-selling products and sectors? Are there any particular brands that sell well for you?
Laclave: Impact toys and restraints are one of our go-to’s. Shots, Tantus, C.O.T.R, and Blush (are the brands).
SE: What’s your biggest pet peeve when buying product?
Laclave: One of the biggest things is shipping. Because no distributor can get it to me faster than I can pick it up from Nalpac, I can order an item, drive nine minutes, pick it up, and have it in a customer’s hand.
Another complaint is the different ways you order from each website. With one company, it’s an Excel sheet; for another, you have to do this, this, and that. And they never email invoices; I have to search for them online. For a small store like ours, being so niche, we can’t get everything from one company. We order from 32 different companies, and each has different ways to order and deal with them to get products here.
SE: If you were in a room and you could speak with industry distributors and manufacturers, what would you advise them to do to help themselves and get more customers through your door?
Laclave: I’d say partnering and sharing their resources for advertising and marketing with their retailers. Many do, to some degree, but because their resources are so great, their reach could be much more powerful. With a store like ours, I have an army of people on the ground here and followers. But I lack the reach or connections these more prominent companies have to get to the local news or the prime advertising and marketing realm. We, retailers, are the ones on the ground; having their marketing support would be game-changing because the more you sell, the more money we make as well.
Larry Kaplan has been the Legal Correspondent for ED Publications for 22 years. Mr. Kaplan is a broker in the sale and purchase of adult retail stores and adult nightclubs and the Executive Director of the ACE of Michigan adult nightclub state trade association. Contact Larry Kaplan at 313-815-3311 or email email@example.com.