Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004

Villager photo by Jennifer Bodrow

William “Willie” Aube Myers with one of his designs on W. 14th. St.

Before Jeffrey and Stella, there was The Leather Guy

By Louise A. Smith

For 21 years, William “Willie” Aube Myers has been setting up his display table outside his apartment on W. 14th St., attempting to “stimulate the imaginations” of passersby and tempt them to take a chance on revealing some flesh in one of his handmade pony-skin bikinis or deerskin halters. In a neighborhood now newly populated with fashion names like Stella McCartney and Catherine Malandrino and Jeffrey, one constant continues to be Myers.

Myers, a hefty 6-footer with mournful eyes, often wears black leather pants and matching hat regardless of the weather. As the days warm, he brings out to the sidewalk the garments he’s been assembling all winter.

Though born and raised in Detroit, Myers thought everyone in New York should be dressed like cowboys and cowgirls. “I think urban Western wear is so romantic,” he explained in his Motown drawl. “And it has so much character and individuality. It says, ‘This is me.’ ”

As a teenaged roughneck, who used to protect a young Diana Ross from the playground bullies, Myers grew up watching two aunts sew wedding gowns for a living, but never thought that outfitting women was a profession for men. In New York, though, where he arrived in 1970, he found people doing whatever they wanted. “People didn’t look at it as being an unmanly thing to be able to make clothes,” he said.

Before taking up the sewing needle himself, Myers co-owned a ladies’ dress shop in Chelsea. As the business failed and he mulled over finding a new trade, he chanced upon a book covered in mud in the gutter outside the store. The book described in detail the various types of animal furs and their uses. Myers became curious about design work and learned there was a night class right around the corner.

“I was feeling a little guilty about cutting these animals,” he admitted. “But then I read in the Bible, in Genesis, the second chapter, that God made Adam and Eve clothes of badger skins when they were expelled out of the Garden of Eden, so that took away some of my guilt.”

After training at Mayers School of Fashion Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and switching from fur to leather, Myers found his first customers in the Midtown nightclubs of the late 1970s. He’d walk into Star Bar or Soul Heaven wearing one of his ensembles, which included a leather handbag with a tape measure in it. He’d strike up conversations at the bar and give out his card.

“People would come and say, ‘Oh, it’s almost Easter Sunday and I need a new outfit,’ ” recalled Myers. “So I’d take their measurements and accept a deposit from them right there in the club. Then I’d run to my little shop and start cutting up.”

Though making leather, as Myers put it, demands concentration and endurance, he has usually worked alone in his Chelsea studio. “I know the production of making the garment, from making the sample, and putting it all together from A to Z,” he said. “Some designers, they just draw pictures, they don’t know anything about the construction of the garment. They have to get other people to do the work for them. But basically I’m a hands-on type of designer.”

In the smoky, strobe-lit confines of late-night Manhattan, Myers became known as “The Leather Guy.” His reputation spread through word of mouth as he created hundreds of one-of-a-kind designs for his customers. In 1983, he moved to his current ground-level apartment where, just two buildings down, he met Cowboy Joe Iannotti, who had been selling jewelry, small antiques, and other flea-market finds in front of his apartment for years. Myers became the second sidewalk entrepreneur, and the two shared inspiration and tips on buyers’ psychology for almost 20 years. Iannotti’s ashes are now spread in a planter a few steps from Myers’s stoop.

On fair-weather days, and the occasional night, the shoppers who pause to inspect Myers’ offerings lend friendly relief to the sometimes too harried, too anonymous pace of the street’s foot traffic. People stop continually to chat, or to ask about someone Myers no doubt saw coming or going. While waiting for customers, he sometimes works on his accessories, tooling belts with a chisel and rubber hammer, or cutting new handbag patterns with shears. It is indeed hard labor. A passing rock musician once bought the leather hat right off Myers’s shaved head because he had sweat so much of his effort and personality into it.

“I used to watch this television program, ‘Eight Million Stories in the Naked City,’ ” Myers said, “and I was always fascinated by the idea of coming to New York. I liked the energy here. I came here to meet all these people. Just like you see all these people walking in the streets. You didn’t have that in other cities. I think that’s what really fascinated me. Seeing so many people all the time.”

Though he designs for both sexes, Myers will tell you that most of his clothes are for women who like to go out and be noticed, women who desire lots of attention.

In the 1990s the block underwent significant change. The city planted ginkgo and pear trees, and soon followed that improvement with nostalgic turn-of-the century lampposts. Renovation created million-dollar condos on two corners. Baby strollers congest the sidewalks during the day; Meat Market revelers do so at night. Across the street from Myers, the junk store closed and an upscale clothing store for men, Daniel Cleary, opened, which in turn has been succeeded by a boutique for women, Lucy Barnes. Even St. Bernard’s Church has now become Our Lady of Guadalupe. Through it all, there is still Myers, toiling in search of his own big break.

“I would just like that feeling of knowing that I could just have enough money to go anywhere I want to go and do whatever I want to do,” he said. “This has been the pain of my life, overcoming that hurdle.” He would like to have more traditional quarters for his shop, which is called Buncy Village Door Pier 53, or to see his label, Buncy, sold with other luxury items in stores like Bergdorf Goodman.

He is still able, however, to chuckle about his near misses, such as the time he gave away a pair of leather shorts and bra to rap artist Foxy Brown in front of Nell’s nightclub, which used to be catercorner to his apartment.

“I told her that she could give me some business if she liked it. I never heard anything from her, but then I saw her wearing the outfit in some of her videos, and I saw part of the outfit when she was in a Calvin Klein ad for jeans. So she was promoting the goods but the designer was unknown.”

At night, when Myers is not on duty as a security guard at Madison Sq. Garden, his window shade is often raised and he works in the middle of a clutter of leather scraps and sewing notions, clothing patterns and punches and dies. A cattle skull and replicas of Mayan sculptures adorn the walls. Half-naked dressmakers’ dummies await further alterations. Myers guides his dreams through a heavy-duty Singer sewing machine, or bows his head over the worktable beneath the barred window. One wonders where Myers can find space to sleep.

“A lot of people know me because they know my clothes,” he said. “People look in my window all the time and watch me while I’m working and I don’t even know it. They come around later and give me a positive response.”

This fall, in response to a current fashion scene that Myers describes as “anything goes,” his line includes a leather-and-denim skirt trimmed with camouflage-print organza, and a freestyle, embossed lizard-skin skirt with a suede map of the Western states slashing across its sassy flank, in addition to a wide range of accessories and jackets.

As the days shorten and we descend into winter, Myers can be seen on the sidewalk less frequently. He will be inside the window, building his collection and creating a business plan for investors. The year 2005, he says, will be the year his designs finally go worldwide.

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