Friday, May 22, 2009

The Leather Life Interview:/Rick Burgess, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2009

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #365, May 22, 2009)


Rick Burgess has made several appearances in this column recently. He was mentioned as first runner-up in my coverage of the Mr. Minneapolis Eagle contest in 2007. More recently, as a guest “Leather Life” columnist, he wrote about his experiences as a pledge, or provisional member, of The Atons of Minneapolis.

Now, after competing for the title a second time, Burgess is Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2009. That means he will be competing in this year’s International Mr. Leather contest, Memorial Day weekend in Chicago (the same weekend this edition of Lavender hits the streets.) In order to get this interview into the magazine before this year’s IML contest, I had to interview Burgess by telephone from Connecticut:

What are you doing in Connecticut? I work for a medical device company, and we have a facility here in New England.

What do you do for the medical device company? I’m a microbiologist. That sounds impressive. How and why did you become a microbiologist? Purely by accident. I went to college and got a degree in poultry science, and worked in the poultry industry for a number of years. Then I decided I absolutely hated chickens, I hated chicken farms, and I wanted out. I had an opportunity to go to work for a medical device company in Texas, and that was my leap into the private medical device sector. Since then I’ve worked for medical device companies as a microbiologist in Indiana and Minnesota.

Where did you get your degree in chicken farming? Texas A&M University. What were you doing in Texas? I was born and raised in the Corpus Christi area. I moved away for college and somehow never quite made it back there, and have definitely learned to appreciate the beach a lot more now that I don’t live there.

Tell me about coming out, first as GLBT and then as leather. I came out to basically everyone except for my family in about 2000. It was one of those situations where being from a small town in Texas was not necessarily easy, and once I moved away from my hometown it got much easier to recreate an identity—to actually be myself and not worry too much about suddenly losing every friend I ever had.

I came out to my family in about 2002, and it was a very odd situation. I told my mother, and she said, “Well, do you think your brother and I are stupid?” From there, if you get the PFLAG handbook of all the different stages of grieving, she went through every stage. Then, after not a horribly long time, she came to accept it. My father’s response was, “Don’t guess you’ll ever get married.”

Coming out as leather was a little later. It was after I’d moved to Minnesota, so it probably would have been about 2006. That was a little bit more precarious, I thought—hearing the horror stories of the past, of people having lost their job as a result of coming out as leather and leading a kinky lifestyle. And then in 2007 I just finally said, “You know what? This is who I am, I don’t really care who knows, and if someone has an issue with it, then they can take that up with me.” So I kinda completely kicked the door down at that point.

How long have you and your partner Mark been together? Almost two years. How do you two define your relationship? Fill in the blank: Mark is your—what? Mark is my—a lot of things. I think, first and foremost, he’s my partner. He’s my best friend. And beyond that, he’s my boy.

You were in the Mr. Minneapolis Eagle contest two years ago before competing again this year. What was different the second time around? Probably the biggest thing was the self-confidence that came with having been out as a leatherman for a few years, and really having gotten to know myself as a leatherman, and getting to know more of the community as well.

Are you ready for IML? Is there anything you still feel you need to do, or could you go tomorrow? I think if I went tomorrow I would be fairly well prepared. I still have a few things to do, such as doing some more research on the judges. It’s a very diverse panel of judges, many of whom have experiences and interests that are different from mine. I’m just trying to figure out a little bit more about them, and trying to do that second-guessing of what kinds of questions they’re going to be asking.

Other than researching the judges, how else have you been preparing? I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading. There are facets of the lifestyle that, for me, are still waiting to be discovered—and, you know, there’s always something new to try.

What do you expect to gain from IML as a contestant? I think the IML experience is more than just going there to win. It’s about getting to know members of the leather family from across the globe and, hopefully, making some lasting friendships out of it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Cockpit Project, Version 2.0

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #364, May 8, 2009)

The Cockpit Project, the Minneapolis retailer of “luxury leather & latex” goods, has new ownership. Opened in June, 2001, ownership was transferred on March 1, 2009, to a company (Minneapolis Hardware Company, LLC) of which Scott Larson is the CEO.

In addition to new ownership, The Cockpit Project has a new address: 2321 Hennepin Ave. S., not too far away from the store’s previous location. (A grand opening party in the new space was held April 30.) Your humble columnist always thought the store’s previous space had a sleek European atmosphere. The new store is different—ceilings are higher, lighting is more dramatic, music is playing (not too loudly), store fixtures are taller and hold more merchandise, and several video screens are visible from anywhere in the store.

And yet, you still know you’re in The Cockpit Project.

I recently spoke with Larson about the changes going on at The Cockpit Project. He told me he wanted the new space to have an approachable, relaxed, fun vibe that encourages shoppers to take their time and feel comfortable: “We’ve put park benches out in front of the windows, so people can actually mingle, hang out and enjoy the summer. There’s lots of traffic on Hennepin Avenue, lots of people going by on bikes and skateboards, getting stopped at the stoplight and they kinda cruise. My staff loves it.” The dressing rooms resemble jail cells, and Larson says people have come in and had their pictures taken in them.

The new space holds a renewed and expanded merchandise mix with more options. The amount of leather and fetishwear has been expanded, and the new store also carries jeans, t-shirts, and other clothing items. New labels, brands and merchandise lines have been added, including Tom of Finland clothing (check out their zip-up-the-back jeans), OxBallsUSA, Colt, Doc Martens, and a line of underwear called Dirty Fukker. Items that aren’t in the store can be special-ordered and received quickly.

Larson is always on the lookout for new items to add to the store’s offerings. “There’s no limit to where the store could go, but I don’t intend to become a fashion store. So you’re not going to see me carrying Tommy Hilfiger or Polo, unless they get into leather, unless they come up with something really unique and fun that fits the image—then we’ll think about it.”

The Cockpit Project is expanding its own line of signature merchandise, including t-shirts, tank tops and vests, and is creating its own line of watches, jewelry, accessories and sunglasses. A new line of Cockpit Project jocks and underwear will be manufactured in New York. According to Larson, “The manufacturing is done by people with disabilities, namely HIV/AIDS. So it may be a little bit more pricey, but you’ll know the money is going where it needs to go, giving an opportunity to people who need it.”

The store plans to start offering custom work in the form of a three-hour “Build Your Own Harness” program: First, choose from many different styles of straps, rings, snaps, buckles and other hardware. Come back an hour later for a fitting and rough assembly, then come back two hours later and the harness will be ready to go. Major alterations on other merchandise will be handled by Shoe-A-New, conveniently located in the same block of Hennepin Avenue.

Larson was born and raised in Minnesota and is no stranger to retailing, having worked at Dayton’s “many, many years ago.” He has been involved with the leather scene in Houston, Atlanta and San Francisco, working as a bartender, bar manager and restaurant manager.

Does Larson have plans for expanding The Cockpit Project to other locations, perhaps to other cities? Although he didn’t want to say too much about this, he did mention a few expansion possibilities, including Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago and Denver.

One thing Larson has expanded right away is The Cockpit Project’s hours. The store now is open 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 P.M. on Sunday. While the store technically is closed on Monday, it offers by-appointment shopping—reserve a time and pay a deposit toward your purchases, and for 90 minutes you will have the complete devotion of The Cockpit Project’s friendly and helpful staff.

PHOTO: Scott Larson, standing in The Cockpit Project’s new store on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.