Leather Maker Jackie Robbins Practices Sacred Art
Jackie Robbins of Malibu has been making leather products for four decades.
By Jonathan Friedman Email the author December 28, 2011
Jackie Robbins has had her fair share of setbacks since getting into the leather business more than 40 years ago. But through it all, she has kept things in perspective and never given up. Now, the longtime Malibu local is ready to reach great heights again with her studio in Corral Canyon, which was recently rebuilt following its destruction in the 2007 fire that also claimed her house and most of her private and business possessions.
Although Robbins’ business has never stopped functioning, it did slow down after the Thanksgiving weekend fire that devastated a neighborhood and during nearly four years of rebuilding.
“Now, I’m trying to answer the big question, ‘How does a small businessperson such as myself stay in business in Malibu?'” Robbins said.
She is trying different things, including the use of her website, inviting people to the studio, offering deals through Facebook and in general getting the word out that although she was never gone, she is back to full strength.
Making clothes is in Robbins’ blood. She grew up in Los Angeles with a mother and grandmother in the knitting business. Robbins learned from these masters, and at age 17 as the 1970s began, she went out on her own to take a job at a leather shop in Laguna Beach.
“The person that owned that shop was a very flaky businessman,” Robbins said. “And because I am a pretty competent person, I was running that shop in about a year.”
This served as the trade school for the woman who had no formal training. When she had completed her real-world studies, Robbins was ready to move back to Los Angeles County, choosing to settle in Malibu because of the similarities she saw in its beauty with Laguna Beach.
Robbins soon started her business Leather Waves, a name inspired by the 1974 Bob Dylan album Planet Waves. He was a customer shortly after the release of the album.
“He came up here in a beat-up old van with an armload of leather jackets needing to be repaired,” she said. “And I was just crazy about that album. I played it all the time, and I got the idea for Leather Waves.”
(see blog “In the beginning there was Bob Dylan”)
In 1975, Robbins, a 22-year-old ambitious woman, saw that retail legend Fred Segal was constructing a mall called Malibu Country Mart on the east end of Malibu. Having known him a little because she worked at his store on Melrose Avenue as a high school student, Robbins told him she wanted to open a store in the new mall. A skeptical Segal allowed her to become one of the first tenants.
With “a sewing machine, one pair of pants, a purse and $500,” Robbins began her three-decade presence at Malibu Country Mart.
Just one month in, she met her first challenge. Segal told Robbins another business wanted to move into her space (Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather), and he believed it was a better option. She responded frankly, “That’s too bad, you have already made a lease with me.”
Segal backed down, and Robbins said she thinks she earned his respect in that situation. The two have remained friends and colleagues since.
“Fred Segal was the best landlord I had at the Malibu Country Mart… Besides the fact he was a brilliant retailer who was very successful, he was willing to give information to all his tenants on how to do it right,” Robbins said. “Few people would listen to him, but I did because I was young and didn’t know how to do it. I had a great deal of respect for him, in my mind he became by business mentor.”
For the next 23 years, Robbins became a fixture at the mall with her shop on the first floor. She grew an extensive customer base and enjoyed doing what she calls the “sacred art” of leather making while earning a living doing it. 23 years later the new landlord said her rent would be doubled. It appeared Robbins would have to leave.
At the last moment, she was told a spot had opened on the second floor of another building in the shopping center, Robbins took it, turned it from an abandoned restaurant kitchen into a mysteriously semi-hidden treasure filled Atelier (a french word that describes an upstairs loft where the Designer works) and remained there for another seven years.
In late 2004, she was informed that her rent would triple. This time, there would be no last-minute offerings to save the shop. Staying at the mall would be impossible.
“I didn’t really want to get into sour grapes about it because I do believe in capitalism and I do think in a retail area, you have to have businesses that can pay the rent,” Robbins said. “But I did feel this sort of lack of any loyalty … I was a little hurt that I was brushed off so easily, but I never thought of it as the end of my business.”
So Robbins took her business home. She built a studio on her Corral Canyon property that opened in early 2006. Then came the Corral Fire in November 2007.
Having lived in Malibu for so many years, Robbins was familiar with the threat of fire, and had been in the danger zone for at least half a dozen blazes before this one, but she had never evacuated, always staying with her property thru the ordeal. This time was different, and Robbins filled up the trunk of her car with a computer, important papers, one bag of clothes, her dog and some photo albums. Robbins’ teenage daughter was out of town.
Three hours later, Robbins watched her house and shop being destroyed on a television at her friend’s home.
“I cried for some time,” she said.
The next week, she was able to return to the property. A guesthouse and a shed stood, but the house and shop were totally destroyed. Also lost were an extensive personal leather wardrobe, store inventory, supplies, tools—everything.
“Those things were very valuable to me in terms of memory and in terms of keeping my identity,” she said. “One of the things about the trauma of all the loss was that I felt like I lost my identity, even though I realized through the process that I did not.”
The process included battling with the insurance company to make sure she got as much money as she could to cover at least a majority of the costs and a rebuilding effort that became a full-time job. Through the losses and the struggle to rebuild, Robbins gained a new perspective on life.
“Your memories are not really attached to things,” she said. “I still have all my memories. I just don’t have the stuff. And in the end, I would say it was sort of a liberation to be relieved of all these things because I don’t think in life we realize that everything you own, you carry on your back. So you get to be middle-aged and suddenly you have a big load to drag around with you; we call that baggage. I got rid of all my baggage and I got a check for it.”
No two Leather Waves products are the same. They are all handmade by Robbins, and many are based on requests from clients. She will make just about anything, although Robbins has had to turn down a few unusual requests over the years that should not be described on a family friendly website.
“The most rewarding thing about my business is that people come to me with an idea, and I make it into a reality,” she said. “It’s thrilling and fulfilling. I’ve gotten better and better at it over the years.”
She calls leather making a sacred art because it involves the use of animal skins.
“I believe the use of skins has a sacred aspect to it,” Robbins said. “An animal has died, and I’m using what’s left to make something. To me, there is a sacred aspect to that.”
She continued, “I don’t waste anything. I keep pieces of leather until they’re very small, and I just keep making things, making things. I really feel there is a spiritual value to it.”