Nate Freedman, the proprietor of The Firefighter's Friend, explains: 'FDNY is our answer to DKNY.' Americans love acronyms, and what he means is that Fire Department of New York uniform can be just as popular as Donna Karan New York (the fashion designer's diffusion line).

Freedman is the owner of the city's first firefighting theme store, selling original and look-alike firefighters' clothing. In New York, where shop doormen wear enough badges and buttons to be mistaken for police officers, uniforms are big business.

Look through the Yellow Pages and there are columns of companies that will run up a uniform to suit your every requirement. So it is no surprise to find a shop that sells firefighter clothing. As Freedman says: 'It is a logical extension of the whole workwear craze.'

Here you can buy original, federally approved, second-hand wellington boots with grab handles for speedy access; badges to sew on jackets or T-shirts; firecoats, real and replicated for those who prefer no burn and singe marks; fire extinguishers, toy fire engines, hydrants, and old leather helmets.

Fluorescent tape is a big seller.

'That and our 'Keep back 200ft' stickers sell as clubwear,' Freedman says. 'Kids buy them to put on their jackets because they glow in the dark.'

One of the shop's youngest customers turned up as Freedman was eating his lunch. Alexander, aged two, was wearing fire engine red, and his mother said he also had a fire-hat and firecoat.

'Little kids find the flashing lights, the noise and the red colour tremendously interesting,' says Freedman. When he opened the shop three years ago, he was aware of New Yorkers' fondness for their fire department, but not of how many children wanted to be firefighters. 'If two-year-olds had Gold cards, I'd be a rich man.'

For the older customer, used firefighter clothes are proving just as popular as army surplus. Freedman has just received a delivery of original firecoats, each one torn, scorched and with a story to tell.

They are made of Nomex, the fireproof fabric used for racing drivers' overalls; when wet, they weigh up to 15lb. He also stocks a 'fashion' version of the coat, which has scaled-down metal clips and detachable linings. They are, of course, waterproof and make practical outerwear. Prices for both start at dollars 125 ( pounds 84).

Most of the coats Freedman sells come from volunteer firemen. They cost dollars 250 new, and have therefore experienced at least two years of firefighting before they reach the shop.

New York's professional firefighters used to be given a clothing allowance to buy their own uniforms; but now, in the interests of greater economy, they are issued with their coats and boots.

Tom, a firefighter from Queens, pulled up outside the shop with his team in their engine, and came in wearing a coat that looked even more worn than the ones on the rail.

'It's four years old and it's seen some tough times,' he said. 'It'll be condemned soon. It's nicely broken in, and I'll be sorry to see it go.' The jacket had been repeatedly repaired; he had sewn a thick leather patch on it himself.

Tom is not looking forward to wearing one of the new coats. He hopes that, on its next inspection, his old one will receive new fluorescent stripes and be serviceable for another six months.

The new coats may look neater and provide a better public image, 'but they do make us look like gas- station attendants', he complains.

Firefighter's Friend, 263 Lafayette Street, New York City, NY 10012 (0101 212 226 3142). Phone orders accepted with credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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