Charles Street Leather Store Is in It for the Long Haul

Dan and Jill Pelo, who own The Designers; Leather Clothiers – a fixture of the Charles Street retail landscape for nearly four decades – owe a lot to leather, because in addition to providing them with their livelihood, it’s also the reason why they met.

While they both graduated from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis (Dan was a couple years ahead of Jill, however), the pair1, who have now been together for 45 years and married 40 years, were first introduced to each other as co-workers at a Minneapolis leather store.

The Designers; Leather Clothiers, Inc. at 106 Charles St.
Dan Pelo at work in his basement workspace at The Designers; Leather Clothiers, Inc.

Just like today, Jill was handling sales then, while Dan handcrafted leather items, as well as made alterations and repairs.

Dan learned about leatherwork firsthand, when, as a recent college grad, a friend who owned a leather shop gave him a job there, despite the fact that Dan didn’t have any pertinent prior experience.

“It was actually the school of everyday learning,” Dan said of his trial-by-fire introduction to his craft. “If someone would come in and ask us for something, we accepted the challenge, and if they were happy, then we were happy.”

In the 1970s, Dan and Jill opened their own store called Leather & Lace at Lake and Hennepin in uptown Minneapolis, which, Jill said, “specialized in motorcycle wear and hand-braided leather garments,” such as vests, skirts and jackets, mostly made from deerskin.

Leather & Lace found a loyal clientele in the biker crowd early on when the store received a large wholesale order from Drag Specialties, a catalog company, to make motorcycle chaps, which soon became one of the store’s best-selling items. Besides chaps, the store also sold leather vests and shirts, and Dan and Jill even traveled to South Dakota for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally one year to peddle their wares.

The Move to Charles Street

While Dan is a Minnesota native, Jill hails from Acton, where they live today, and by the early ‘80s, the couple had decided, said Jill, it was “time to get back to the East Coast.”

Jill came out ahead to scout out a new location for their business, while Dan stayed back in Minneapolis to run things, and she soon found the first home of The Designers at 103 Charles St. (where Vintage Taste is today).

Beginning in 1984, the Pelos ran the business out of a 400 square-foot storefront at that location, where space was so tight that Dan worked with his sewing machine from a makeshift space behind the cash registrar. He even had to cut all the leather pieces at home back then.

In 1995, The Designers moved to its current home at 106 Charles St., which at 1,200 square feet, provides three times the space as the old location, and that doesn’t even include Dan’s basement workshop, where he handcrafts the leatherwork and makes all repairs and alterations.

Dan makes jackets, pants, coats, dresses, skirts, shirts and vests, among other items, from materials including lambskin, lamb suede, cowhide and shearling, and the store also sells handmade women’s hats crafted by Eggcup Designs, a husband-and-wife team from Dover, Del; handmade jewelry crafted by local artists; gloves and handbags; and accessories from what Jill describes as “small boutique lines.”

Dan also makes ties and other neckwear, which in addition being sold at the store, were worn by members of the wedding parties in the respective nuptials of his and Jill’s two daughters – Emily, age 33, who now splits her time between Nantucket and Waterbury Vt.; and Catherine, 30, who lives in Virginia Beach.

When Catherine was married on Maryland’s Tilghman Island in October of 2020, all of the groomsmen, as well as the fathers of both the bride and groom, wore Dan’s suede bowties, which were later featured in the regional magazine, What’s Up? Annapolis.

And for Elizabeth’s October 2019 wedding in Vermont, the groomsmen all wore suede neckties made by Dan.

“We do a lot of neckties and sell a lot of them,” Jill said. “Why not? It’s a little niche.”

Dan also crafted a leather vest Jill likened to a multi-pocketed photographer’s vest, which has been donated by its owner to the Peabody Essex Museum, where it will soon be on display.

Celebrity Sightings

When Bono graced the cover of Time magazine on March 4, 2002, he was donning a leather jacket Dan customized using an American Flag lining, which the U2 frontman wore during the band’s 2002 Super Bowl half-time performance.

U2 had been in Boston the previous June to play four nights at the Fleet Center when a gofer for the band found The Designers and charged Dan with making the alterations to Bono’s jacket. The jacket pattern was then shipped from London to Dan, who had to use American Flag tablecloths to make the lining so as not to desecrate an actual American Flag, since that carries a penalty of up to a year in prison.

The store’s exterior made an on-screen cameo in “ A Civil Action,” a 1998 motion picture starring John Travolta and based on Jonathon Harr’s book of the same name that documents a landmark ‘80s court case involving environmental pollution in Woburn that was linked to area leather tanneries.

A scouting agent for the film chose the Charles Street building that houses The Designers because he liked the appearance of its second-floor window, said Jill, and the fact that the filmmakers opted to feature a leather store in the movie, given its subject matter, was purely coincidental.

 “They liked the look of the building,” Jill said. “It just so happened we’re a leather store.”

While the Pelos didn’t meet Travolta, who was reportedly only in town for one day to film his scenes, they did meet his co-stars Robert Duvall and William H. Macy.

The Designers also made custom clothing for cast members of “Spencer: For Hire,” a Boston-based ABC crime drama that aired from 1985-88 and starred Robert Urich as the titular private eye.

While Dan never saw Urich don the custom leather jacket he made for him on the air, Hawk, a recurring associate of Spenser’s played by Avery Brooks, regularly wore his custom Designers-made leather pants on the TV series.

“He was just the kindest, most gentle man I’ve met in a long time,” Jill said in recalling Brooks. “He was just very gracious.”

Giving Back and Looking Forward

At the onset of COVID, one of Jill’s friends alerted her to the dire need for PPE, and since The Designers already had plenty of fabric, Dan and Jill began making masks for free distribution.

Beacon Hill residents soon heard about the Pelos’ effort and began dropping off their own fabric donations at the store.

 To date, The Designers has given away an estimated 2,500 masks, said Jill, including 100 masks to Beacon Hill Village, as well as to The Arc of Massachusetts, a nonprofit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We tried to find niche areas that weren’t getting masks,” Jill said.

The neighborhood, meanwhile, can rest assured that The Designers is looking forward to continuing its long run on Charles Street

 “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time on Charles Street and on Beacon Hill, ” Jill said, “and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with the neighborhood and visitors, and also to build up our website.”

For more on The Designers; Leather Clothiers, Inc., visit www.designerleatherclothes.com; follow them on Instagram; email [email protected]; call 617-720-3967; or stop by 106 Charles St.

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