Decade of Decadence

Hydra Leather and More celebrates 10 years of lingerie, club wear and exotic footwear downtown

The sales floor of Hydra.
Miss Pink and Lady Blue see it all. From the Hydra Leather and More display window, the twin mannequins--clad in fuchsia and whisper-blue lingerie, respectively--watch the world pass by at Sixth Avenue and Congress Street.

The busy intersection is arguably the epicenter of downtown Tucson. Each corner boasts a local landmark: the venerable Crescent Tobacco Shop & Newsstand (better known simply as "Crescent Smoke Shop"), the hulking Chicago Music Store, the frenzied Ronstadt Transit Center, and Hydra.

In November, the fetish-fashion boutique is preparing to celebrate vinyl-clad victory: 10 years of survival downtown.

"When I opened my shop, I knew I was here to stay," says Margo Susco, whose store has purveyed ankle-breaker stilettos, master-slave collars, vinyl pants and leather luxuries since Nov. 4, 1994. "I had a strong business plan," adds Susco, a native Tucsonan and former California fashion publicist. "The timing was right, and Tucson was ready."

Hydra has always been about clothes, but in the beginning, it also featured a selection of kink accessories--riding crops, restraints and other erotic accouterments--all sold in a low-key, decidedly consumer-friendly setting. As corporate boutiques like Fascinations popped up across the city, saturating the market, Susco shifted Hydra's focus to fashion-forward club wear. It also features a dizzying assortment of exotic footwear ranging from ladylike, strappy sandals, to bad-ass motorcycle boots, to patent-leather fetish pumps boasting 8 1/2-inch heels. To meet her customers' needs, Susco stocks shoes from women's size 5 to men's size 14.

Even after a decade, Hydra's customer base remains essentially the same: entertainers, such as drag queens; exotic dancers and musicians; professionals who work downtown; young people; tourists; and the biker crowd, which comes for the leather gear. Susco stocks a variety of it, including butter-soft camisoles, fringed chaps and rough-and-ready motorcycle jackets.

"It's always a treat to look out my window and see who goes into her store," says Mark Levkowitz, whose family owns the Chicago Music Store, across the street. "There's everybody from all walks of life: transvestites, high schoolers, punkers, old people, lawyers. ... Kinky, straight, leather and lace."

The shop focuses on alternative lifestyles, but Susco's approach to business is disciplined. After moving into her retail space, she joined several merchants' advocacy groups. She currently heads the public-safety committee for Tucson Downtown Alliance, working closely with police and school administrators. At one point, she served as TDA's co-chair with Hotel Congress' Richard Oseran.

"For every business that's survived down there, there have been 20 that failed," Oseran says. "(Hydra's success) is attributed to her really hard work, and effort, and strength of character, and the fact that she has a specialty product. ... People clearly make a special effort to go to her."

Susco says that she learned early on that she needed to have a voice. "I'm a small business, and small businesses need to fight for everything you get," she says.

"Downtown is a very creative, charming place," she adds. "It's the mixture of funky and function--that's what a downtown is supposed to be. ... It takes a village to create this wonderful environment."

Indeed, her vision of the city center's potential is so unwavering that one suspects that were The Powers That Be to put her in charge of the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment project, it would not only get off the ground, but might come in under budget, as well.

In her limited off-time, Susco, 40, indulges other passions. She's a World War II history buff, motorcycle enthusiast, big-band swing music aficionado and wildlife rescuer. She is also a longtime donor to the Humane Society, Planned Parenthood and Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation. Years back, she set aside space for the Pima County Health Department to offer free, anonymous AIDS testing services on site.

"She is one of the kindest volunteers we have," says Diana Roché, executive director of Vail's nonprofit Wild Things Animal Rehabilitation Center. "With some people, what you see is what you get. Other people are full of surprises--and with Margo, what you get are nice surprises."

Susco credits her strong work ethic and tradition of community service to lessons taught by her 74-year-old father, Tony, and 72-year-old mother, Rina.

"Our parents instilled us with such a sense of self confidence," she says. "They taught us that it doesn't matter what you wear, but what you say and how you conduct yourself. It's about being a person of character."

Susco comes from a family of clothiers. Her big sister, Kanella, has operated a vintage thrift shop on North Fourth Avenue for two decades. Joey, her little brother, just opened his own retro/vintage/Western wear boutique in Rome. It's called Hydra II.

When Susco told her parents she wanted to leave California and open a clothing boutique in Tucson, they swung into action. Tony cruised local yard sales and going-out-of-business sales to find cut-rate display racks, hangers, pricing guns and funky furniture for her sales floor. Rina still helps out behind the counter during busy times, including the costume-buying frenzy that erupts in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

"When you're Greek and Italian, you never grow up and away from the family," Susco says, with a laugh. "You're enmeshed in each other's lives, in a good way."

In a world of assembly line chain stores, Hydra seems to pride itself on--ye gods--old-fashioned customer service.

"I tried to always do the store with integrity," Susco says. "It was very important that whoever came into the store--whatever their position in life and whoever they were--felt comfortable.

"I hear comments all the time that we are not a hard-sell shop," she adds. "We want people to be happy with what they bought. I believe that's why we have so many repeat customers."

Of course, Hydra's eye-catching window displays--featuring mannequins clad in black electrical tape, chain mail, lace-up corsets or the latest outré lingerie--don't hurt. And occasionally, Susco uses them to communicate more than fashion trends. Windows facing Sixth Avenue currently explore civic-minded concepts: "Care," reads one, followed by "Think"; "Question"; and "Vote."

"I don't think 'rebel' would be the word," she says of her outlook on matters personal and professional. "I guess I just believe in being myself, living out loud."

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