For the love of leather and the art of making clothes with it Interview with Robin Pennings

As you stroll through Amsterdam you may come across many gay and leather businesses. But you may also come across areas in the city where a number of gay businesses had once stood. Some of these areas were at one time identified by the sheer collection of gay and lesbian artisans and shop-owners there. One such area in particular is the negen straatjes or ‘9 little streets’. This is an area of small shopping streets connecting the main canals of the old city of Amsterdam.

We interviewed Robin Pennings, who together with his business and life partner Rik Middel, owned the store Robin & Rik Leermakers (Leermakers is the Dutch word for ‘leather tailors’). As leather tailors and shop owners, they were one of the people at the heart of the revival of this area from the mid 1980’s. And being the high quality leather tailors that they were, they had good connections with the thriving leather scene in Amsterdam.

Front of leather store Robin & Rik Leermakers
Robin & Rik Leermakers store front

Robin & Rik Leermakers started out in the Runstraat in 1985 and was one of the first quality leather tailors in Amsterdam. Making clothes from leather might be an old trade, but in recent centuries it had become limited to specialty clothes for workmen, bikers or the military. After the Second World War, and in particular after the 1953 American film ‘The Wild One’, remembered to this day mainly by the character of Johnny (portrayed by Marlon Brando) whose persona became a cultural icon of the rebelious1950s, in which the character wears long sideburns, a leather motorcycle jacket with matching leather cap, titled on his head, of course. This is when young rebels, and eventually, gay men, started to covet this look and sought to obtain this look for themselves. But who was going to make them? And how was one to learn how to make such clothes as these?

How Robin & Rik got into the art of tailoring leather clothes

Robin didn’t immediately go into the leather tailoring trade.

Robin: “I went to New York in the seventies and followed evening classes at the Fashion Institute. That is how I refined my skills in the fashion trade. And I worked a lot for theatre, ballet and opera. Those are projects where you learn to work with all kind of materials.

Rik worked for a man called Eddy Leather. Eddy Leather was one of the early leather clothing stores. As Eddy was the trader, Rik was the real craftsmen behind this store.”

Robin and Rik got together as lovers and as business and crafts partners, they started from the Spinhuissteeg, serving primarily theater and rock/pop clients. With this variety of customers and projects, they improved their knowledge of working with different sorts of materials for making clothes and costumes. The world of arts and showbiz, as almost everyone knows is a fickle one, so Robin and Rik decided to start their own shop.

Robin: “We found a shop to rent which had an apartment above in a small building on a street called the Runstraat. The shop was just around the corner of the old Eddy Leather shop where Rik used to work. It was what you would call ‘a fix me up’ kind of place. Or really: it was a wreck. It used to be an old jewel store, where the jeweler lived upstairs and had a workplace below the shop. A perfect set-up for us. We renovated the shop and started our business there.”

Shortly after they opened shop in 1985, they bought it from the former owner.

Robin: “The owner of the building, a successful business owner of postcards and posters, decided to sell several buildings. The one we were renting was one of them. Luckily he respected what we had done with the building and let us buy it for a reasonable price.” So their business was quickly of to a good start.

“A lot of people said that we were courageous to start a shop and especially a leather shop there. The older shop owners in the neighborhood said that too. But it came as a natural next step for us. We wanted to create a real crafts business based around leather clothing.”

What customers they served

Robin and Rik quickly built up a loyal base of clients, both gay and straight. Of course, they still had their old clients from the artistic and showbiz world.

“One day we got a order from the Southern Dutch Opera Company to make leather arm and wrist bands for the entire slave choir in the Nabucco opera from Verdi. It was not the most difficult order, but it is pretty cool to see so many people with your product in such a big stage production.”

And that was not the only claim to fame for Robin and Rik:

Huub Stapel trying a leather jacket
Huub Stapel trying a leather jacket several years after getting a jacket for the hit movie Flodder

“We also made the leather clothes for the popular movie Flodder.” Flodder was a hugely successful comedy about a anti-social family being dropped into a posh neighborhood. “We made the leather jacket for Huub Stapel for his role as Johnie Flodder. And also the leather skirt for Tatjana Simic who played his sex kitten sister Kees Flodder. She was very young then, so here mother came along to the fitting session for this skirt. That was so sweet.”

Surprisingly enough, a number of well-to-do ladies found the path to their shop. Because the word of mouth advertisement worked well and the reputation of Robin & Rik spread fast. It also helped that their leather shop was just around the corner of one of the big canals where some of their lady clients worked or lived. “I think that around 30% of or more of the clients were women.”

Another notable customer was Johannes van Dam, a famous and feared food critic and connoisseur in Amsterdam. He always bought his tailor made leather waist coats at Robin and Rik. And every few years they had to make a new and bigger one, because the waist size of Johannes grew with the amount of restaurants and recipes he critiqued out in his weekly newspaper column.

Robin and Rik had build up a wide range of suppliers of different kinds of leather. That made it possible for them to create tailor-made leather fashion.

“We mostly used leather from oxen and goats, because the leather obtained from other animals is less adequate leather for tailored clothes. Goat leather is small, but super strong. Also different types of the skin layers, produce different kinds of leather. So if you make leather from deeper layers of skin you get more soft and supple leather.

We even used leather from Japanese oxen, because that is extremely soft and beautiful. But also, of course, very expensive. So this leather was used to tailor clothes for the rich female clients.”

How the leather scene got big, and then small again

The most clients however came from the gay leather scene.

A model out of the collection of Robin & Rik Leermakers

“At that time (that is the ’80s and ’90s) the Amsterdam leather scene was also the center of the European leather scene. In the eighties and nineties it was easy and safe for especially the British gay men. The situation for gay men in the UK was then quite repressive. So they often took the plane or boat to hop over to Amsterdam to party all weekend long.

And they could party here. The party scene was booming and there were a lot of old buildings in the city where these parties could be organized: old warehouses, old factories etc. And these parties helped the leather scene blossom. People would get into the city, get a drink at one of the leather bars in the Warmoesstraat and then walk or cycle to the party in the neighborhood. And for those British visitors the other nights of the weekend were spent in the same bars and/or the saunas.”

Many party goers from the leather scene found their way to Robin & Rik to buy a new piece for their outfit. “We could quickly adjust the clothes to the individuals sizes. We had 12 different sizes of a model in the store instead of the normal 6 different sizes. When a customer fitted one of these sizes we only had to adjust the length of the arms or legs. That is a job which you can do in a few hours time. So tourists could hop in our shop in the morning, pick up the item in the afternoon and party all night.”

In that way Robin and Rik got their own place within the leather scene of Amsterdam. “We were known for our quality and in-house handwork. Other stores, like MrB or Rob, were more geared towards the fetish scene and had their leather clothes made by suppliers. That made them more standardized, but also less flexible.”

Robin & Rik also supported the leather scene by sponsoring these parties. “When I was cleaning up our house and shop after Rik had died, I found a whole stack of posters of parties we had sponsored. I donated these posters to the Homodok. So there is a place where people can look back on these wild times.”

Gradually, the leather scene in Amsterdam began to decline. “The leather parties were organized outside of the city center, even outside of Amsterdam. That was partially due to the stricter regulations by the city council. But also because the buildings of the old parties had begun to be used housing or offices. The party organizers had to look for locations outside of Amsterdam.” That made the old ritual of going for a drink in one of the leather bars and than travel to a party less attractive.

Interior of Robin & Rik Leermakers
Interior of Robin & Rik Leermakers

“And to be honest, some of those bigger, more commercial parties were sloppily organized. It happened once that we had gone to a party and discovered that the cloakroom was a chaos when we left: the young man tending the cloakroom was totally over his head (or too drugged) and the clothes lay on a big pile.”

So the tightknit leather community lost slowly its cohesion. “Plus, of course, the life for gay people in other European countries got better, so they organized their own leather bars and parties and didn’t visit Amsterdam as much anymore. In Amsterdam, the influx of party goers for the leather scene was soon replaced by bachelor parties. The rise of internet also led to less customers in the leather scene, because people found their fetish mates online and could live out their fetish dreams at home.”

And so, after around 2000 more and more leather bars closed down. Robin continued for several years after his partner Rik died in 2010, but finally closed shop in 2016.

How the 9 little streets got back on its feet

With the closing of their shop, the full cycle of the renewal of the 9 little streets stopped. Robin and Rik were at the forefront of what would become a symbol of urban renewal and later gentrification.

“When we started our shop on the Runstraat back in 1985, we were part of a wave of new businesses on those streets. The old shop owners, bakers, butchers, milkmen, jewelers, etc., closed their shops because of old age and a changing neighborhood. The streets were not popular, and even a bit run down and shabby. So the rents were relatively low. These conditions made it perfect for starting a business in one of these streets.

Many of these new business owners were gay or lesbian. And almost all of them were in their mid thirties, so you got a great atmosphere there. But most of all, all these people either created their own products in the shop or truly believed in what they were selling. This passion created a vibe in those streets. The new shops also attracted a lot of gay and lesbian shoppers.

We were also helped by the fact that the offices once housed in the canal houses moved outside of the city center. Those canal houses were bought up by people who started to live in them. So we got new clients living around the corner from our shop.

However in the nineties there were also problems in this neighborhood. The drug addicts were driven out of their usual stomping ground in other parts of the city and started to move into our neighborhood. So we needed to work together as shop owners for our security. That is when the trading association of the 9 little streets started. We helped each other, but also organized neighborhood activities like a street picnic and a fashion show in the street. That was all done by ourselves. With help of many of the business in the streets we got real tableware and cutlery for the street picnic.”

Howe the 9 little streets lost its’ mojo

In 1999 the trade association coined for the first time the term ‘9 straatjes’ or nine little streets. Combined with clever marketing the area became nationally and later internationally known as a shopping destination. It was a culmination of successful cooperation within the local businesses on the street. Especially thanks to the driving forces behind the cooperation like Djoeke Wessing and the marketing manager of the close by located Pullitzer hotel.

“That was sadly also the beginning of the end of the tradesmen and shopkeepers. In the beginning it was great and fun: all these new customers. The rents went up quickly. Bigger businesses even made offers to buy out local business and not everyone could resist these offers.

So you got shops not staffed anymore by their owners who believed in their products. Instead they became shops designed to target the core audience, selling goods chosen by a marketing director and shop staff who just work for the money. You even have to tell them to clean the street in front of their shop!”

So Robin now has closed the shop and looks at his neighborhood as a regular citizen. He still misses Rik terribly, but is also enjoying the life of a retiree. What the future will bring for him? He doesn’t know yet, but he surely wouldn’t want to leave his neighborhood.

Robin & Rik