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Sex Still Sells

4 November 2008 3 Comments

Photos and Story by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

Robert Wesner, 39, sat hunched over his sewing machine, his waist-long hair pulled back in a half ponytail, while a topless woman laced up a leather corset behind him. Wesner, owner of Leather Mystics, began stitching together his sixth leather choker of the night. Laughing, he said that he never would have believed this is where his life would end up: “It’s not like you grow up thinking, ‘Geez, I think I’ll be a bondage leather specialist.”

Wesner’s 20-by-20 foot booth had a front-row view of the erotic dancing on the Burlesque Stage and was one of more than 100 vendors featured at Perry Mann’s Exotic Erotic Expo and Ball.

From October 23rd to the 24th, the flamboyant sights and sounds of the event filled the air of San Francisco’s Treasure Island. Exhibits ranged from erotic art, music and burlesque performances to body painting, adult toys, novelties and exotic fashion. For Wesner, the celebration of fetish and fantasy meant non-stop business.

It was in the conservative town of Medford, Ore., almost 20-years-ago, where Wesner began his journey towards his present occupation. When a friend from high school opened up a leather repair shop, Wesner, in need of employment, agreed to help out.

One day, a man came into the shop asking if they could make him a belt for carrying a sword. A few weeks later, the man returned asking for ten more and said he was selling them at Renaissance Fairs, events they did not have in their part of Oregon.

“Next thing I know, my friend’s calling, asking if I want to go to California to work at an event because he didn’t want to go by himself,” said Wesner, “I said sure. Why not? Long and the short of it is, the next seven years I work with him and we increase the size of our pavilion at Renaissance Fairs up and down the west coast.”

As they made the Renaissance Fair circuit, Wesner said people would approach their booth asking if they ever made any adult products, such as shackles and collars. While he thought it was a good idea, “The other guy was very tight laced. He said those people are all a bunch of freaks and we don’t want to deal with them.”

The requests did not stop. Wesner said that he finally wore down his partner, who agreed to let him produce some items on his own and display them in a small corner of their booth. Shortly after, the two had a falling out and Wesner started his own shop and immediately began producing adult novelties. Now into his sixth year on his own, Wesner said he is “getting a big response from the bondage and fetish communities.”

His work as a leather craftsman has allowed him to network with people in alternative lifestyle communities such as bondage and sadomasochism (BDSM). Wesner added that this networking is vital to his business because people in those communities do not usually want to broadcast their fetishes but will confide in him because they need certain items. “The funniest part is that you start talking to these people and they’re doctors and lawyers, they’re professionals,” said Wesner, “It’s not like they’re freaks, they just have different tastes. They’re some of the nicest, most well balanced people you’ll meet.”

Robert Wesner sewing at the Exotic Erotic Ball

Due to the specialized nature of his products, Wesner spends much of his time traveling up and down the west coast to different events in order to find venues for his products. In the three weeks leading up to the Exotic Erotic Ball, he drove from Oregon to San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair then directly to a four-day motorcycle rally in Las Vegas, then the Las Vegas Renaissance Festival then back up to Oregon.

Wesner said it was a frustrating few weeks because he made virtually no money at the bike rally and, as a result of new management at the Renaissance Festival, his sales plunged 50 percent from what they had been in the past.

Wesner said his decision to drive to San Francisco is what made the trip worthwhile. “I made more in seven hours in Folsom Street than I normally do in your average Renaissance Fair,” he said.

Despite three weeks of non-stop travel, Wesner said his success at the Folsom Street Fair motivated him to pack up his RV and trailer one day before the Expo opened and drive non-stop from Oregon back to San Francisco and shell out a “pretty penny” for his booth.

“I’m just barely treading water. If next spring is anything like this year I’ll be bankrupt by summer,” he said. With his overall sales down 50 percent this year, Wesner said his success at the Expo might be enough to keep him afloat.

AIn an attempt to stabilize his business, Wesner said he is broadening his scope and seeking out more biker and fetish type events. While he enjoys doing costuming products for events such as Renaissance Fairs, he said “that’s play money.” During this economic crisis, Wesner said people consider costume-type products to be a luxury.

This is not the case for fetish products, he said, adding that people in the lifestyle do not see fetish as a luxury. They see it as a requirement. Wesner said another important factor to consider is that many of the people involved in the BDSM lifestyle are professionals in the middle and upper classes who still have money to buy such products.

While Wesner has fashioned products for other venues such as Shakespeare festivals, independent movie companies and even Disneyland, he said developing a niche within these industries is a slow process since most work comes through word of mouth and networking takes time. “You meet people by happenstance and start making those connections. Trying to be a costume designer is almost the same as trying to be an actor in Hollywood,” he said.

For now, Wesner said he is just trying to do what he can to stay in business and weather the economic crisis. This means targeting the markets that sell and according to him, right now that is the fetish market.

As he snipped the last thread on the collar he was sewing, Wesner looked up and said, “Sex sells. No matter how bad the economy gets, people still have sex, and more of it.”

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