The look of war: It's all the rage

September 12, 1990|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Trends and fads frequently amuse me, but it isn't often they frighten me.

Welcome to Saudi Chic.

It seems civilian wanna-bes are glomming onto the desert camouflage gear soldiers in the Persian Gulf are wearing.

Desert camouflage is light brown, beige and khaki military wear, as opposed to the better-known leaf-patterned green fatigues worn when troops are jungle-bound. The battle dress uniform BDU, if you want to sound like an insider consists of a four-pocket overshirt and six-pocket baggy pants.

As fads go, this is not terribly surprising. Current events always play a role in setting trends.

Generally, they crash and burn quickly. Remember Soviet watches, Russian black bread, Marxist lapel pins and Lenin T-shirts? Hot sellers only months ago.

Last time I saw those clunky Soviet watches, which originally cost about $100, they were piled on a sale table for $19.99.

On the other hand, military clothing has always sold well, especially to college students, who like the sloppy comfort as well as the price. A complete BDU only costs $40 or $50, and the clothes are virtually indestructible.

"Military stuff always sells well, especially if it's black," says Jeff Goldsmith of Joe's Army/Navy Surplus in Royal Oak. "Camouflage is a pretty stable seller, too."

Surplus stores in New York and Los Angeles report selling out of khaki camouflage. Goldsmith still sells more of the green fatigues, but he expects that to change.

"If it's happening in L.A. and New York, it'll get here," he says. "It just hasn't trickled down yet."

At Harry's Army Surplus in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mary Ann Anderson says customers are already asking for desert camouflage. "We've had lots of calls for the khaki stuff in the last couple of weeks," she says.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon goes beyond trendiness.

"I've completely sold out of gas masks," Goldsmith says. "People are sending a lot of them to friends and relatives in Israel. Some buy them for themselves, just in case."

Some suppliers think scalpers are selling the masks in Israel for as much as $200 each. Goldsmith says wholesale prices are as much as five times higher than they were three weeks ago.

Until then, gas masks were easily accessible and cheap, usually selling for around $10 each. Goldsmith says he sold a lot of them at Halloween and as children's toys. Otherwise, there wasn't much of a market. Until now.

"I don't even know if they would work with mustard gas," he says. "They work with tear and riot gas, but I don't know about nerve gas."

Don't bet on it. Brigade Quartermasters in Kennesaw, Ga., is a major "action gear" supplier for soldiers as well as military-infatuated civilians. A spokesman there says the masks they supply are adequate but hardly represent state-of-the-art protection.

It's easy to shrug off the gas mask retail rush as overreaction by panic-stricken civilians.

But suppose a madman was threatening to gas out of existence the entire neighborhood where you or your relatives live? Suppose you had information that he probably was equipped to do so? Suppose you could buy some form of protection maybe not the best, but better than nothing for $10? Is it an investment you would make?

The Saudi government recently ordered $200,000 worth of survival gear from Brigade, mostly such items as sleeping bags and canteens. The U.S. government also has placed large orders. Brigade reports sales to other retailers are up 70 percent in the last 21 days.

I suppose this is what people mean when they say war is good for the economy.

Personally, I'll take a peaceful recession any time.

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