By Nick Pernokas
Thirty-six-year-old Lyndsi McGee grew up in central California. In her twenties, she moved to Los Angeles. Perhaps it was the ghost of L.A.'s pop culture, that is so prevalent there, which fueled her love for 1960s retro fashion.
"I was an avid vintage shopper," says Lyndsi. "I always loved the classic Sixties saddlebags."
Lyndsi purchased a lot of the old handbags from thrift shops. By the time she got them, they’d usually sustained damage like broken straps and hardware.
"I thought I'd try to make one," she remembers.
Around 2013, Lyndsi purchased a Tandy kit, which contained several projects including a handbag. The Tandy handbag became the first one she made and her inspiration to make more. Soon, Lyndsi was making Christmas gilts for friends and family. More encouragement from them followed.
In 2015, Lyndsi met Nick Del Negro. Nick worked in the restaurant industry, but he came from a family of engineers and builders. When Lyndsi decided to make her own bags, Nick took it as a challenge to design one. Nick was familiar with computer drafting programs, so soon he had a workable prototype.
In 2016, Lyndsi and Nick rented their first workspace and they started promoting their business with social media. The name of the business came from a vintage enamel pin that a friend had given Lyndsi.
“That’s where Mean Jean Leather was born," says Lyndsi.
In 2017, they moved into a small storefront and shop at Echo Park in Los Angeles. Lyndsi also worked at the Ace Theater. a historical music venue in the city. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was in decline and after a while the couple thought about relocating their business. Nick's father had purchased some property out in the desert at Pioneertown, an old movie studio near Joshua Tree. In recent years. the small town had become an upscale destination for tourists. Nick and Lyndsi enjoyed visiting and in 2019 they moved to Pioneertown permanently.
The couple renovated an old tack room on their new property to create a small, 200-square-foot shop for Lyndsi to build her bags in.
As Nick became more involved with leather, he began following some of the leather trade message boards. Nick began to see saddlemaking as the pinnacle of leather work. He met Kentucky saddle maker Ben Geisler online. Ben was a former student of noted saddlemaker Dale Harwood. As they became friends. Nick decided that if he could design bags, maybe he could learn to build a saddle. Ben soon enlightened him and told him that his lack of an equine background could hinder his ability as a saddlemaker. Nick began to learn about horses and riding from a neighbor, and found that he really liked it. He also began to repair some of his neighbor’s tack.
"After a year and a half of pestering Ben. I convinced him that I wanted to learn from him because I liked the look of his saddles." says Nick.
In the summer of 2020, Nick went to Ben’s shop. He spent a week building a saddle next to the one Ben was building. A rough out Wade saddle was the result, along with the fundamentals that Nick needed.
"He has been a huge mentor in life as well as in saddlery, says Nick.
Nick has a separate shop in the garage where he can do saddle-related construction under the Pioneertown Saddlery name. The garage also houses a clicker and sewing machines.
Today, Mean Jean Leather is strictly an online business, although Lyndsi and Nick produce everything locally in their Pioneertown shop. Mean Jean’s products, including their belts and dog collars, are not sewn. Generally, they are laced together attractively, which adds to their Sixties retro look. The simplicity also adds to the fluid lines of the bags. Vegetable tanned leather is used for the bags, including the lace. Much of it is sourced from Italy. The bag leather that doesn’t require stamping is similar to bridle leather and is finished by the tannery, saving Mean Jean a lot of labor. The downside to the Italian leather is that much of it is only available at eight ounces and below.
Geometric tooling patterns are used on some bags as a contrast, creating a unique marriage of rock and roll, and vintage Americana. The stamped bags are usually antiqued.
"I like everything to look streamlined and to be one color." says Lyndsi.
Mean Jean is strictly a retail business. Small bags start at $148 and up. Return customers are common and many of them own multiple purses. Lyndsi usually produces small runs, around six bags at a time from a couple of sides of leather, and they sell out right away. Many of the same customer's names pop up each time. This small niche is a reliable customer base for Mean Jean. Lyndsi will do custom orders, but they're usually for dog collars and belts because of the individual measurements required. An order blank with measuring instructions can be virtually sent to a customer. The belts run about nine ounces in weight because the vintage round buckle hardware won’t accommodate thicker leather.
Social media drives Mean Jean Leather and demands a commitment. Instagram and Facebook are the venues that they use.
“If you miss a day of posting in this business, you re forgotten because you’re competing online with bag makers that are basically just factories," says Nick.
"I try to have fun with it and show the finished product in progress." says Lyndsi. "Behind the scenes and then showing someone actually wearing the bag."