The client continues to examine the merchandise, wondering aloud how anyone could fit into a particularly trim leather skirt hanging from a clothes rack, as Brandt exits to the backroom to discuss his business and the clientele he serves. "Business is fabulous," he reports.
Located near Jesuit-run St. Louis University, Barbdwyr (15 S. Vandeventer Ave., 314-531-4711) fits snugly between what Brandt calls two "alternative bars" -- the Eagle's Nest, which attracts the leather crowd, and Magnolia's, longtime haven for the gay, the straight and the curious. Before Our World Too, the gay-and-lesbian bookstore, closed, this was the most flamboyant block in the city, one of the few places you'd see leather-bound men and women strut with all their exhibitionist pride, some playing their master/slave roles on the sidewalk, the dominants leading their submissives along with chains. Not that any of this activity has waned significantly since Our World's passing, but the empty storefront suggests more halcyon days.
A visit to Barbdwyr, however, and a talk with Brandt, belies the surface perceptions of life on the block -- and of St. Louis. It's obvious that somebody's keeping him in business, coming in to choose from the wide variety of cock rings, butt plugs, dildos, nipple clamps with electrical meters, leather harnesses, riding crops, leather caps and blindfolds, leather hoods that cover the whole head and buckle in the back, paddles (made of wood, leather and plastic) and whips. A magazine rack displays Unzipped Monthly, Leather Tribe, Leather Journal and Bound and Gagged, among other periodicals. Ankle shackles are out of stock, however, and Brandt complains about how hard it is to find a reliable, quality wholesaler.
Those somebodies keeping Barbdwyr in business and buying up those ankle shackles, says Brandt, are not a small, far-out fringe group, as might be supposed in a conservative Midwestern city. "St. Louis is conservative," Brandt affirms, "but it's also this." CEOs of large corporations, mothers, fathers, teachers, lawyers, bikers -- Brandt lists the cross-section of the population he serves: average age 35-40, equal percentages of men and women, about 50-50 gay and straight, as well as transgendered -- or, as one of his business cards reads, "men, women and beyond."
The bulk of Brandt's business isn't what's found on the shelves, however, but his own custom designs. If the client can fantasize it, he can make it. Leather is the most popular material, and Brandt designs and creates boots, bras, halters, pants, skirts, chaps, masks and whatever else people can conceive and Brandt can stitch. The appeal of leather is just something you have to feel or see, he explains: "It's amazing. Put on leather pants, leather boots -- it gives people stature."
Besides leather, there is rubber, yet another distinct fetish material Brandt works with, and there are holiday items: "I make over 100 Mardi Gras masks, signed. People now collect my masks. People call with color schemes. I've outfitted whole krewes." Brandt also creates wardrobes for drag artists; he shows a Christian Dior gown he is in the act of appropriating and the Tina Turner Thunderdome outfit one of his clients has requested.
He pulls out his portfolio, which, he admits, is hard to maintain because so many of his clients require anonymity. There is one stunning photo of (a man? a woman?) in a full-length leather gown that required four hides to complete. The base of the gown sweeps 18 inches, Brandt says, admiring his own handiwork.
Most of Barbdwyr's business comes by word of mouth. Brandt doesn't advertise much, because there's no need. He once put up a Web site but closed it down immediately because he couldn't handle the volume of business it attracted. He began doing custom work about 12 years ago, when he began designing leatherwear for himself and wearing it to the clubs. The folks in the clubs went gaga and asked him to make clothes for them. John Knowles, owner of Magnolia's, invited Brandt to sell his wares in the bar, but Brandt observed that many of his clients had no interest in the bar scene: "They'd come in, buy something and turn around and walk out."
Brandt, a graduate of Visual and Performing Arts High, previously made a living as a painter of home interiors. Since selling that business, rather than struggling to expand Barbdwyr's clientele, he's actually had to limit his output to maintain quality control. At one time he hired several employees, but the volume was forcing his regular clientele to wait longer for their merchandise. "The work suffered," Brandt admits, and so he pared production to the point that he and his partner are kept busy but not overly stressed.
His timing in opening Barbdwyr was opportune. Not only does he have location, location, location -- as the Internet has grown as a popular medium, so has interest in erotic exploration. Those CEOs and lawyers and housewives who wouldn't be caught dead in an "adult" store have found a safe avenue to pursue their desires on the World Wide Web. "The growth of the Computer Age changed the face of everything and brought people out of the closet," Brandt says. The step from computer screen to the door of Barbdwyr is not as hard a one to take as it would have been in the more prudish, more repressed past.
Once that step is taken, people find Brandt the most affable shopkeeper one could ever meet: Imagine Will Rogers -- gay, out and into leather. The plaid-shirted client admiring the bondage items, before he slips out the backdoor with his purchases (confidentiality is guaranteed at Barbdwyr), stops to shake Brandt's hand. "Thank you for your hospitality," he says gratefully.
Brandt thinks he developed his ease with clients by watching his mother, a dressmaker herself, when he was growing up. "She taught me to respect people and to believe everybody is your friend." He says he knows how that sounds, but, from experience, it's what he truly believes.
He's never had a hassle since opening the store. Quite often, people who come in for the first time "are shocked, they're giggling, but by and large they leave with an understanding and respect." He's noticed that those who return enter dressed a little more stylishly -- "a low-cut shirt, better shoes.
"People are comfortable with me because I express myself," he says, and, in turn, they find outlets for their heretofore closeted forms of self-expression. This is what Brandt believes he really provides: "It's such an important life experience. When you accept who you are, it's like being saved." He was once skeptical of such language, he admits, "but it's true. It goes hand-in-hand with finding yourself.
"B/D S/M is not about pain, it's about stimulation. It's about trust. It's about pleasure. It's about learning how to give the type of stimulation your partner can receive.
"You can take anything to the extreme, which is how the media presents it. B/D S/M is always shown in a sexual light, but it's more about self-expression, adventure. It's about fun. It's fun to dress up. It's fun to be something you're not."
-- Eddie Silva