When Eugene, Ore.-based Will Leather Goods opened the doors of its first flagship store on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in late September, 60-year-old founder and Chief Executive Bill Adler found himself barely a belt buckle's toss from the Venice Beach boardwalk where he started his career hawking belts three decades ago.
"It was 1981, our first child had been born and there was a Screen Actors Guild strike that was going on for months," recalls Adler, a former actor (his credits include roles in '70s low-budget films including "The Pom Pom Girls" and "Van Nuys Blvd"). "So I started selling webbed belts from a stand on the Venice Beach boardwalk."
That first stand, Rainbow Belts, later became Billy Belts as the business expanded into wholesale, and, for the next decade, Adler found himself peddling all manner of belt and buckle sets across the Southland. His customer base ranged from the long gone Broadway Department Store ("They were my first wholesale order," Adler recalls. "It was 10,000 belts,") and the now-defunct Chess King chain, to a patchwork of local jean shops ("There were about five times as many jean shops around back then, " he says wistfully).
In 1992, Adler sold his Billy Belts business lock, stock and buckle to rival accessories company Brighton Collectibles, and, in 1995, he decamped with the family to Eugene, where he went on to design belts and other small leather goods for a who's who of brands including Nautica, Marc Ecko, Calvin Klein, Levi Strauss and Dockers. He eventually landed a license with another Oregon company — Nike — to make leather accessories for the Nike Golf and Tiger Woods lines.
In 2007, Adler launched the Will Leather Goods label, a line of sturdy, rugged but luxe hand-crafted leather bags and small accessories for men and women that has found favor across the globe at retailers including Ron Herman, American Rag, Nordstrom and the Isetan department store chain in Japan.
Five years later, after deciding he wanted to open the brand's first bricks-and-mortar store, Adler happened upon the perfect spot close to where it all began: a spare, narrow Abbot Kinney storefront with an industrial vibe created by a high, vaulted ceiling; wooden roof trusses and a huge skylight that floods the room with natural light.
And that's far from the only natural thing customers will encounter in the 1,748-square-foot space. The fixtures are crafted from reclaimed and repurposed wood, including slender juniper tree trunks and gnarled slabs of redwood.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the forest of found wood provides a subtle key to the merchandising. The rough-hewn walnut shelving and dark redwood tables and cases in one area showcase the men's wares, and the women's collection is displayed on shelves and juniper tables.
The goods include strappy leather cuffs ($45), zippered coin purses ($90), belts ($75 to $120) and a deep bench of bags including messengers ($150 to $250), utility totes ($175) and duffels ($250 to $495).
As the name suggests, leather is the material of choice, either by itself in the supple oil-tanned bags or in mixed fabrication pieces, where it is paired with hand-woven, vegetable-dyed Oaxacan rugs, colorful cotton canvas, repurposed batik-print fabrics and upcycled coffee sacks.
This latter category, dubbed the Found collection, offers both new mixed-fabrication pieces using old fabrics (from dhurrie rugs, vintage bandannas, Mexican serape blankets) and refurbished vintage pieces, including Swedish medical bags, military surplus gear and U.S. Postal Service mailbags circa 1940.
If all goes according to plan, the Venice flagship will be the first of several stores. Bill Adler plans to keep the family business based in Oregon, where son Brent, 28, is the merchandising director, while daughter Shane, 24, runs the Venice store.
That seems only fitting. Like her father once did, Shane also acts, with credits including films, plays and a bit part in 2010's "The Social Network." Now she'll be following in his merchandising footsteps too, 31 years and a 15-minute walk from where he launched his retail career.
Will Leather Goods, open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m,. 1360 Abbot Kinney Blvd. Venice, (310) 399-8700