April 24, 2013 | by Mark Lee
Universal Gear celebrates 20 years on Saturday
David Franco, Capital Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner, gay news, Washington Blade

David Franco said the success of his business ‘is measured by the relationships we develop and the sense of community with those we serve.’ (Washington Blade photo by Blake Bergen)

The clothes have changed since the first store opening 20 years ago.

As Universal Gear celebrates its platinum anniversary on Saturday with an all-day customer appreciation event, serving Champagne and cake and giving away $20 gift cards with purchases of $100 or more, one trend is still in vogue. The men’s clothing establishment remains a landmark commercial enterprise and an ever-popular retail destination for men’s casual dress and athletic wear.

The Capital Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce this month honored co-founder and owner David Franco with the organization’s 2013 “Excellence in Business” award. In accepting the honor at the CAGLCC annual dinner last week, Franco noted that the longtime success of the business “is measured by the relationships we develop and the sense of community with those we serve.”

On Saturday, April 24, 1993, during the weekend of the “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” that attracted nearly a million people to the National Mall, the first customers lined the blocks outside a new clothing store catering to gay men. Located above the former Trumpets Restaurant and Lounge at the corner of 17th and Q streets, where Franco was also a business partner, the then-named Off Gear was at the epicenter of the city’s gay business district in the Dupont Circle area.

Once inside, seasonal “club wear” offerings of the era were quickly snatched up – a pair of “Daisy Duke” frayed-hem denim shorts, printed vest or tan nubuck construction boots with stripe-accented white athletic socks among them – in preparation for going out later. In fact, Franco recalls the wildly successful store launch as akin to a nightclub opening.

With D.C. overflowing with locals and visitors for the gay rights event, it was a momentous chapter in local LGBT history and a frenetic time for Franco. Launching the store in less than six months with then business partner and former architect Keith Clark, now an artist in Ft. Lauderdale, the entrepreneurial duo sped toward a grand opening coinciding with the equality march.

Franco additionally served as co-chair of the “Spring to Life” mega-dance party at the Old Post Office Pavilion that night benefiting the march and AIDS research. He was also a partner at the time in the legendary former Tracks nightclub that hosted round-the-clock events throughout the weekend.

After a brief foray adding women’s fashions at a second suburban Rockville location that prompted a name change to Universal Gear, the original store expanded to include an upper level in 1996. Refocusing exclusively on menswear, the addition of successful stores in Chicago, Atlanta and the first of what are now two New York City locations over the next five years followed. A Rehoboth Beach store opened in 2011.

Seismic cultural shifts including gradual dissolution of “gay ghettos” and growth in online shopping options, along with the recession, led to store closings in Atlanta and Chicago after a decade of brisk business. In November 2008, the D.C. store followed its customers to Logan Circle, opening a spacious retail space in a new mixed-use building on 14th Street. A second Manhattan location was launched in Hell’s Kitchen last spring. In-store celebrations are scheduled at all four current locations.

The D.C. store will move north on 14th Street in December to storefront space in a new residential building being built near U Street by the real estate development firm Franco operates with a business partner.

Proud of this weekend’s milestone, Franco leads Universal Gear into a third decade adapting to, and reflecting, the constant changes in the marketplace of fashion – and the communities it serves.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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