The artist as business leader

Jacki Headley was at the forefront of a downtown renaissance

Jacki Headley with her husband, Graham Hutton, on a trip to Seattle.

Jacki Headley with her husband, Graham Hutton, on a trip to Seattle.

Photo courtesy of graham hutton

One of the seminal events in the modern history of downtown Chico—and in the life of a young businesswoman named Jacki Headley—occurred in 1980, when Crocker Bank, then located on the corner of Third and Main streets, announced it planned to demolish the building next door to make way for an expanded bank with drive-through lanes.

The doomed structure was the historic Nottelmann Building on West Third Street, between Broadway and Main. Once the home of Nottelmann’s Harness and Saddle Shop, it had been in that location for most of the 20th century.

Suddenly aware that their downtown had a history that was worth fighting to preserve, many local residents began to picket the Crocker building, while behind the scenes influential citizens worked to forestall the demolition.

Finally, during one of the protests, bank representatives met outside the building and explained to an angry crowd that they didn’t want to demolish the building, but no one had stepped forward to buy it. Jacki Headley, the 29-year-old owner of Woof & Poof, quickly raised her hand and yelled, “I’ll buy it!” The fact that she had no assets didn’t seem to enter her mind.

Headley met with the bank, and not only did Crocker officials agree to sell the building to her, they financed it as well.

With her action, Headley emerged as a leader among the group of young entrepreneurs who were then revitalizing Chico’s downtown following the defection of such big national retailers as J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward to the recently constructed North Valley Plaza Mall.

Headley, who died in her home at the age of 60 on Jan. 28, dedicated herself to a lifetime of entrepreneurship and community service. The Chico icon made an indelible mark among local business owners and on the fabric of the Chico community she so loved. She was a woman of great style and creative energy, determination and spunk. Preserving the history of Chico and working to ensure new structures and uses would not distract from the historical legacy of the town would serve as an ongoing theme in her life.

Headley’s retail business, Made in Chico, celebrates 30 years of operation this year. After previous stints elsewhere downtown, it is now housed in the very Nottelmann Harness and Saddle Shop building Jacki Headley was so instrumental in preserving.

The late 1970s and early 1980s represented a “renaissance” period in downtown Chico spurred on by the relocation of major downtown retail stores to the North Valley Plaza Mall (a process that would be repeated, to a lesser degree, following the opening of the Chico Mall on East 20th Street in 1988).

Headley in her Woof & Poof facility located in the former Gold’s Gym.

CN&R file photo

The retail drain left downtown Chico with lower square-footage rents, and a group of young entrepreneurial artists seized the opportunity to start businesses in the vacant storefronts.

Headley, Nancy Lindahl, Dave Kilbourne, Fred Marken, Bob and Barbara Malowney, Bruce Hart, Rebecca Shadd and Rick and Nan Toffanelli all started downtown retail and restaurant businesses at around the same time. Many of them had come out of the Chico State Art Department. These “young Turks,” as Lindahl has called them, quickly became a force downtown by injecting new, young energy and ideas with businesses such as Kilbourne’s Pyromania Tallow Works, Marken’s Metamorphosis women’s-clothing boutique and LaSalles Restaurant and Bar, Lindahl’s Zucchini & Vine home specialty shop, the Tofanellis’ Nantucket Quilt Shop (now Nantucket Home), the Malowneys’ Bird in Hand store, Hart’s Mountain Sports outdoor gear, Shadd’s Perché No! ice cream and espresso shop, and Headley’s Made in Chico.

Headley, Lindahl and Tofanelli attended a Downtown Chico Business Association (DCBA) meeting focused on the upcoming holiday season. Most of the members were long-time, mature and conservative business people. Their collective jaws dropped when the three young business owners surprised the group by dressing up in elf costumes and performing a choreographed dance to Cabaret’s “Money Makes the World Go Round” while jingling coins in their pockets.

While the “Made in Chico” label pinpointed our college town north of the 37th parallel, most folks didn’t know that Headley’s flagship company, Woof & Poof, founded when she was just 24, produced her stuffed, uniquely designed characters to be shipped across the nation to mega-businesses like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean. Her designs are the originals that now have been pirated, reproduced in China and shipped back to the United States.

Jacki Headley’s life as an entrepreneur began almost 50 years ago, when she was growing up in Orange County.

She was the first of two daughters (her sister is named Jan) born to Jack and Jean Headley. Jack Headley was the skipper on John Wayne’s yacht, The Wild Goose, docked in Newport Beach. Her mother worked in banking and optometry. Jean reports that Jacki was interested in creative clothing design at an early age, making her first dress in the second grade out of paper sacks with a woven grass belt.

At 14, the young entrepreneur presented a dress she had made to an exclusive boutique shop on Balboa Island and asked the proprietor if he was interested in buying it. The gentleman liked her creation, but told her he would need a dress in every size he sold. Headley took that proclamation as encouragement and promptly set about drawing and cutting patterns in the specified sizes and making all the dresses. The boutique owner was floored when the teenage couturier walked in with a multitude of sized dresses.

After a stint at Orange Coast Junior College, Headley let her love of art, textiles and design bring her to Chico State, where she majored in art and received her degree in 1973 and teaching credential the following year. After graduation, she spent a year teaching at a bilingual school in Mazatlán, Mexico, where she met Graham Hutton, a marine biologist from England who was conducting his doctoral research. The attraction was strong, and Hutton eventually joined her in Chico.

Here, Headley moved in with her friend Nancy Lindahl and began to make aprons that she sold to Oser’s department store, which had been a fixture downtown for more than a century and had resisted the lure of the shopping mall.

With six pillow designs, Headley sold her creations to friends and by word of mouth. She worked in Lindahl’s dining room designing, cutting and sewing her creations. Lindahl recalls that the only problem with using her home for production was “painfully finding Jacki’s hidden straight pins in the white shag carpet.” Headley credited Lindahl with encouraging her with good business sense and asking her periodically, when Headley became discouraged, “Where would you rather be and what would you rather be doing?” Headley’s answer was always: “In Chico sewing.” Lindahl would remain a lifelong friend and business ally.

Headley shortly after she purchased the historic Nottelmann Building in 1980.

CN&R file photo

Headley made a firm commitment to stay and do business in Chico. With $750 borrowed from her parents, money she repaid within the year, she purchased two sewing machines. “Jacki took to the sewing machine like a pianist to a piano!” said her mother.

Her textile art gained national attention in 1975 at a gift show in Seattle when she displayed four pillows with different appliquéd characters on the covers. Her creations had personalities, and names like “Uncle Ned,” and her fabrics were carefully selected and unique to her design concept.

Around this time, Headley and Hutton took a trip to visit his family in England. When she came down with a cold, Hutton’s mother, June, brought her a hot-water bottle to take to bed. The idea of making covers for the bottles that looked like soft, fluffy sheep popped into Headley’s head. The whimsical sheep covers became a huge success. Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis ordered 200 of them. The success happily sent Headley to the drawing board to create many more unforgettable stuffed creatures over the next 35 years.

Eventually, Headley found a space in the basement of the old downtown building currently occupied by the Down Lo. She called her business Woof & Poof, “woof” referring to weaving yarns to create cloth and “poof” being a play on the French word “pouf,” which symbolizes stuffing a pillow.

Unfortunately, the building was prone to flooding, so in 1982 Headley and Hutton, by now married, purchased the site of the former Gold’s Gym, most recently the now-defunct Café Culture.

At the same time, Headley rented a small space near the corner of Wall and Third streets. She hired a manager to sell her creations and other locally made crafts. Her retail store, Made in Chico, was launched—and, with it, the Shop Local movement in this community.

By the late 1990s, Woof & Poof employed more than 60 workers, enabling the company to produce and ship 40,000 Christmas stockings for Eddie Bauer Holdings Inc. during one holiday season. Quite a feat for a small, family-owned business.

In 1997, having outgrown the Gold’s Gym location, Headley built a production and warehouse buildings on Orange Street adjacent to the railroad tracks. Consistent with her design background and commitment to architecture that reflected the local vernacular, she hired local architect Tom Tarman to draw buildings with the old-style, sawtooth roof lines of warehouses and factories historically found along railroad tracks. The buildings received acclaim from the city of Chico and the Chamber of Commerce for their architectural integrity.

Headley and Hutton, who married in 1978, formed not only a lasting matrimony that produced two sons, Christopher and Oliver, but also a business partnership. Both were characterized by family, friends and colleagues as creative, independent and entrepreneurial. Hutton has been an artist and woodworker for more than 30 years and refers to himself as a “build it, fix it” guy. Those who know him might also refer to him as the Headley-Hutton rudder and a gourmet cook.

Headley’s business savvy was matched by her commitment to the Chico community. She served on the city’s Architectural Review Board, the Chico Heritage Association board, the 1994 Chico General Plan Task Force, and the Janet Turner Museum board. She was named Business Woman of the Year by the Chico Soroptimist Club and received Chico State’s Distinguished Alumni Award through the College of Humanities and Fine Art. She was a frequent guest speaker in Chico State business classes and the annual Sustainability Conference, where her interest and expertise in migration and population were recognized.

Down-to-earth and without the ego that could be attached to someone who was as talented and successful as she was, Headley was most accurately characterized as sincere, friendly, almost bubbly. She engaged everyone with genuine interest. “A woman of style and good taste with dirt from her garden under her nails” was how many friends might have described her.

Together she and Hutton cultivated many of those friends over the years. Meandering through their vegetable and rose gardens while Headley harvested homegrown produce for a meal, you could see the joy she felt in her life. The left-brained businesswoman and the right-brained artist were in perfect harmony.