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Fashionistas Flock to Army Navy Stores in Search of Military Look

By Serena Solomon | October 24, 2012 7:20am

LOWER EAST SIDE — The fashion war is being won by the military look.

The trend sweeping top fashion houses in recent seasons has been camouflage field jackets, combat boots and Army green backpacks — worn by even the most self-proclaimed feminine women.

But while high-end lines including Balmain and Max Mara offer Army inspired garb for up to $7,000 per piece, many of the city's trendsetters are looking hot for less by shopping in the city's bounty of Army clothing stores — and it's helping surplus stores in their battle for survival.

The look has given a much-needed boost to what's usually a low-turnover business, New York store owners said.

"It's a little more authentic," said Jemma Dendy, 21, who prefers real Army clothing over the more expensive and often embellished replicas at stores like Zara and Top Shop.

"It is not all glitz and glam," said Dendy, trying on a $30 field jacket at Army and Navy Bags, a surplus store on East Houston at Orchard Street, "It says, 'We can do what we want as women.'"

Dendy said she loves mixing an Army piece with girly clothing, such as wearing a fitted dress and tights with the masculine jacket or chunky combat boots.

"It's fresh. I prefer the whole thing mashed up."

Elizabeth Sewell, 26, who hit the Lower East Side's Army Navy store in search for a field jacket to add to the two she already owns, said she loves the style.

"It is just oversized, comfortable and it goes with jeans, anything," she said, perusing one jacket with a price tag of $30. "It is cute with a dress, with heels."

Henry Yao, manager of Army and Navy Bags, said his business has skyrocketed since the trend roared back into the fashion spotlight.

"The fashion and the quality of Army stuff lasts forever and that is why women come back," said Yao, 50.

The military look relies on Army green or camouflaged print field jackets — light, loose-fitting jackets that often extend below the hips and can be dressed up or down for dinner or a bar.

Army surplus item prices range from field jackets that generally cost about $30, T-shirts that cost around $10 or $15 and backpacks that can often be found for less than $30. Combat boots hover around $40.

Richard Geist, the general manager of Uncle Sam's Army Navy Outfitters on West Eighth Street, said the trend for women to mix androgynous pieces with high-end or ultra feminine outfits has helped bump up business.

"They come in with a Gucci bag and they want to buy a pair of used combat boots, or they buy camouflaged used cargo pants, or they buy the French field jacket," said Geist, who has been at the store for seven years.

He stocks the military uniforms of 26 nations in his store including Belgium, Italy, France and the Netherlands, each bringing its own design to the tough-girl style.

Some fashionistas say they have to add their own flair to the authentic Army-issue garb, which comes in men-only sizes and is typically free of the glam found in their high-fashion counterparts.

"Unfortunately we don’t have small sizes," said Yao.  "Some girls are so tiny it is a little big for them.

"The fashion comes from the Army," said Yao, who relies on wholesale distributors to get whatever armies around the world have in overstock.

Heather Gollup, who bought an Army jacket over the summer, said she still adores her surplus jacket, which she feminized with a collection of sparkling gold chains.

"I believe more is more is more," said Gollup, 30, who lives in the East Village. She also embellished the jacket with numerous Army and Navy patches and pins from an Army surplus store.

Saul Dee, the owner of Galaxy Army Navy on West 30th Street near Herald Square, offers a treasure trove for those eyeing the tough girl look — blank bullets on chains ($7),  dog tags ($20) that can be specially engraved, vintage officers' hats from numerous countries ($50 and up) and even a used U.S. Marines dress jacket dotted with bling buttons and red embroidery ($300). 

Galaxy's business, both in-store and online, has experienced a 10-percent jump courtesy of female customers, according to Dee. Since August, demand from women has only increased, he added. 

"We see an increase because they [female customers] like the camouflaged shirt, especially the vintage ones," he said.

Geist said he's not surprised that women are among his most loyal customers.

"A beautiful woman in tough clothing, there is nothing sexier," he said.