“I love irreverence,” says Chris Owens, 27, whose “Cee Ohh” shop on North Front Street in New Paltz features thrifted streetwear hand-painted in a funky, graffitied urban style. “I try to put my personal touch on it and hope that it’s stuff that people kind of get a kick out of. I just want people to feel comfortable, wear something that makes them feel cool and funky and awesome, and walk out of here having felt good about what they saw. It’s clothes and merch for people who just don’t take themselves too seriously.”
Cee Ohh, the shop name a derivation of Owen’s initials, currently sells mostly men’s clothing, but there are also gender-neutral and women’s selections available, and Owens says he’d like to see it all become unisex at some point. The store also has the beginnings of a collection of new t-shirts and other garments featuring pop culture-inspired graphics that Owens is commissioning local artists to create. “It’s good to collaborate,” he says. “And it makes me feel good to be able to commission something that the artist will know is going to be selling in stores. It’s a step of legitimization that a lot of artists never get to.”
If any of this seems vaguely familiar, that’s because we profiled local shop-owner Alexa Floresta several weeks ago, whose Crust & Magic brand of thrifted hand-painted clothing is sold in the other half of the shop shared with Owens at 19 North Front Street Owens and Floresta run their businesses separately. But sharing the retail space, divided into two distinct halves, allows the two to cover for one another when one needs time off and it makes the rent more manageable.
Cee Ohh is building its own identity apart from Crust & Magic’s style, but the vibe is similar enough that the two shops appeal to the same customers. Both brands cater to individuals who don’t want to dress like everyone else and who embrace an edgy, gritty/glam street aesthetic. Owens says he’s also proud that the local drag queen collective in the Hudson Valley is a strong supporter of their shops. “I love when they come in. They’re very uplifting and make us feel good, and they also support us financially, buying jewelry and clothes. I also do a lot of fan art [personalized, frame-able ink drawings] for the drag queens, too. I’m actually trying to give them material to sell; I don’t need a cut of this, but as a gay man, I just want to try and support the queer community here.”
Owens earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at SUNY New Paltz and then worked in advertising for two years, buying ad space on radio and television. With the job located in the city, he went back to Long Island to live for a time, but came back to New Paltz every weekend to do gigs and practices. “Eventually I just moved back here full-time,” he says, “and since I’d been here every weekend, I felt like I’d never left.”
He got into retail by happenstance, when a jaw injury put the brakes on his music career for a while. As lead vocalist with the well-received, New Paltz-based funk and soul band, The Other Brothers, Owens garnered reviews that lauded his emotive vocals and strong stage presence. (One reviewer wrote that he had “the contagious kinetic energy of an early David Byrne, the subtle yet fiery coolness of Eddie Vedder and the sex appeal of Jim Morrison.”) After the band broke up, Owens had just begun doing solo work when he was injured.
“The jaw injury made me not able to sing or perform and my balance was off,” he says. “It was weird, because I was on a high at the time. I had just done a drag performance for the first time, three days before I got injured, and suddenly I was just sitting at home in a funk, in and out of the hospital. Eventually I started going on morning walks just to get out and start doing things again, and that’s when I saw the ‘for rent’ sign on the shop.”
Owens met Alexa Floresta when the two were students at SUNY New Paltz, and in the years since graduation they’ve stayed friends. Both are from Long Island — she from Farmingdale and he from Levittown — and he says he was one of the first people to really get behind her brand. “I’ve always seen myself as the original brand ambassador for Crust & Magic! I used to wear it exclusively for gigs and video shoots when I was with my band, and I’d make sure it was tagged if I was wearing it, and things like that.” Last winter when Floresta opened the first iteration of Crust & Magic as a pop-up shop at Water Street Market, Owens spent a lot of time there, “and that’s where we got the idea of the two of us doing something together.”
The two shops opened on North Front Street this past May. A part-time job at Huckleberry on Church St. helps pay the bills these days for Owens, but now that he’s starting to feel better and is recovering from his injury, he’s focused on getting back into performing, moving toward more of an R&B hip-hop vibe, he says. And he plans to turn Cee Ohh into a brand that will encompass his music along with the merchandise. “Moving forward, my plan is to turn this into a headquarters for my art, my music, everything. I’ll have CDs, and keychains and prints and all kinds of things. But the main thing is to provide a place where people can listen to local artists and bands.”
Cee Ohh has an outdoor patio where they’ve done a few informal acoustic shows, but the space isn’t a performance venue. When asked how people will listen to music in the space, Owens says he’s thinking of getting an iPad with playlists of local performers and links to where they can be found, in order to support local artists. “I love this town, but I feel like it’s slowly but surely giving up on the arts and there are no spaces for it,” he says. “It’s taught me that you need to support local. Honestly, at this time I feel like New Paltz is on the downswing of art and creativity. We’ve lost four music venues, and no one is coming to replace them. And I get frustrated with this town, because they like to say they’re an artists’ haven, but it used to be way more open to performers and musicians and artists and putting on events, and now they leave it up to every other town in the Hudson Valley.”
Owens says he’s proud to have opened a space “that eventually will be a place where you can find fashion that is local, art that is local and music that is local. And it might not be perfect, but at least I’m doing something in terms of keeping this town with a chip on its shoulder, which is what I always loved about New Paltz, and what brought me up here and kept me here. I want to bring that back, because I feel like now we just cater to tourists; we don’t care about locals. It’s all about making sure that they have the best cocktails and best Airbnbs. I get where people want to make money, and obviously that’s something I need to think about, as well, it’s just that I wish they were doing it in a way that is not so Brooklyn.”
Cee Ohh at 19 North Front Street is closed Wednesdays, open Thursday through Tuesday from noon to 6 p.m. For updates, check Instagram or Facebook, or stop by.