Traffic and passersby on Belmont Avenue reflect off of the glistening metal panels that make up the building’s facade, undulating gently like Lake Michigan mellowed out on alprazolam. Rising four stories high from the sidewalk, the business beneath the wave has survived since 1975, weathering fads, recessions and location changes. In Lakeview, a neighborhood of fickle tastemakers and expendable income, Belmont Army is sacred ground: Macy’s meets Mecca.
“When I first arrived, this neighborhood was not very popular,” Yoo says in a thick Korean accent. He is tall and solidly built, with a regal bearing and gravitas aided by his thick, jet-black hair, slightly graying around the ears, and his understated slacks and speckled polo shirt. He is Belmont Army’s founder. Yoo came to Chicago from Seoul to go to school, and founded the original store—then a military surplus store only, as opposed to the surplus, shoe, fashion, skateboard and thrift store that Belmont Army is today—in July 1975, just as the baby boomers came. “The young people came in, and the surplus was a big hit,” he recalls. He remembers being featured in the Tribune and the Sun-Times as his business thrived. But a market of young people were sure to age, and take with them their money, status and desire. “When the baby boomers moved on, I aimed for their children,” Yoo says with a smile. Lightning struck again, as Yoo brought in venerable boot brand Dr. Martens, catching another wave and tapping into the young and hep yet again. “I change. That is why I survive,” he smiles.
The first-floor boutique is a mixture of skate, street, music and popular culture, all veneered with a thick lacquer of sex appeal and distilled into fashion, where it becomes easily wearable and the most obvious outward manifestation of the devotion to aesthetics and form. Here, Belmont Army is presented as Black Flag, and Mickey Mouse rubs shoulders with Pete Doherty, Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. A bottle of Maker’s Mark carries far more lusty suggestibility than could have possibly been imagined, and it is not only accepted, but encouraged, to let the world know that you love drugs and that “Angel Dust Saved My Marriage.” It does not look terribly different from any other clothing store where the fashionable young would come to cavort, which is not to say that it does not look terribly different. Seas of racks are broken up here and there by the odd table, shelves of fedoras juxtaposed nicely by racks of mesh-backed nouveau-truckers. Graphic, photo and pattern-based pieces co-exist, adding splashes of color to the gunmetal gray of the walls. Birdhouses fleck a back wall covered in swooping and curving patterns that evoke whale-oil lamps, corsets pressed against ivy and the wallpaper of your grandmother’s narrow upstairs hallway.
Knowing that Nike SB is one of the store’s top sellers, and that skaters are some of Belmont Army’s best customers, I ask him about the basement skate shop. The industry is far from its parabolic past, with the nineties bust the last major fall, and now serves as yet another integral subculture that cries to be catered to by people with a similar passion. Credibility came when skateboard company Element sent Todd Francis to paint the mural that lines the entranceway to the shop, a vaguely haunting piece comprised predominantly of strange shades of honeysuckle, canary and goldenrod, with touches of red. The company also designed the skate shop’s logo, a haggard urban pigeon, and serves as the shop deck. While small, the section is well-stocked, with the ubiquitous board wall a dazzling array of color and irreverence and a long, low display case of the less visually appealing but infinitely more crucial infrastructure of the skateboard: trucks, wheels, bearings, bushings and bolts. Shoes specially tailored for the art form are available as well, while videotapes of professionals, the skater’s equivalent to porn, run in the background.
Aluminum foil with the crystalized texture found along the rim of a tub of vanilla ice cream, the cheery teal of a vintage Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket, the Cimmerian crimson of a Giant Pacific Octopus at depth, Pepto-Bismol pink and forest green and spiced rum brown and navy blue and Jovian orange and onyx black and white, off-white and cream: the shoes come in almost as many colors as they do styles, all manner of Pantone shades finding life as sneakers, trainers, heels, work boots, rain boots, rock boots, pillared fashion boots, slides, slip-ons, moccasins, shell toes, open toes, high-tops, low-cuts, rendered in leather, nubuck, suede, canvas, rubber, in boxes, on display, on tables and racks and shelves lighted from below so that the severely linear heel and every delicate, titillating strap is put on display, accentuated, positioned just right so that the shoe’s je ne sais quoi could so easily be yours, its sex appeal yours… Presiding over all this dizzying assortment is manager Kaitlin Buckley.