Clothes make the (wo)man
Meet some of the folks behind a Reno business specializing in far-left-of-center garb
Kelley Goldsmith traces a green shield shape, just big enough to cover a person’s face, onto the fuzzy side of a piece of leather. After cutting the pattern out, she extracts a racquetball-size hole in its middle and turns to sit at her sewing station.
Around her, the white walls of Romantic Sensations’ back room are contrasted by an array of fabrics and threads in different colors, shines and elasticities. Various markers, rules and pincushions are scattered among cross-dressing catalogs strewn around in the workshop.
In the middle of the chaos, Goldsmith cuts away the excess cellophane packaging from an artificial vagina. The skin-toned latex becomes discolored without its crinkly protector.
“I feel like a gynecologist,” she says, as she positions the fake sex organ between two pieces of leather.
What is she making?
“I’m not sure. It has something to do with straps,” she says.
After she calls the question into the next room, Terry Sackett, the workshops’ leatherworker, tells her the soon-to-be garment is called a “Pussy Gag.” Fastened to a persons face, its purpose is best left to the reader’s imagination or, perhaps, Google.
After a few minutes under the sewing machine’s needle and a consultation with Sackett, the order is ready to be shipped to its recipient. Goldsmith goes on to her next project, a corset.
Goldsmith says most of her days as a sex wear seamstress are like this. Twice a week, she takes an hour-long trip from her California residence to the Virginia Street sex shop. There she spends the workday chatting with the company’s other two garment producers, working on toys, clothes and accessories with purposes and destinations she neither cares about nor imagines.
“Some things are kind of far out there that you wouldn’t normally think about,” she said. “It’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ here.”Sewing the seeds of love
A wife and mother, the kinkiest thing Goldsmith regularly wears is a plaid kilt when she drums in the Reno Pipes and Drums bagpipe band. With her Midwest-motherly vibe, one would expect her to knit a pair of socks rather than produce a dress used for role-reversing sex play.
The tale of her transplantation into the world of sex play isn’t sordid or shocking. Goldsmith took the job five months ago, after seeing an advertisement that Romantic Sensations was looking for a seamstress. Goldsmith had just had rotator cuff surgery, leaving her unable to run her self-owned upholstery business.
“After you fill out the application they have you look at their catalogs of the stuff that they make, and that’s when I saw that it isn’t your standard clothing,” says Goldsmith. “I wasn’t shocked, maybe a little surprised, but I didn’t think I couldn’t work there.”
Goldsmith said when she started working there it was complete chaos. She replaced the shop’s 26-year veteran seamstress. She credits the store’s second seamstress, hired a few months after Goldsmith, for putting the shop in order and creating patterns, templates used to create the clothes.
The products she stitches don’t ever unnerve this stoic seamstress. Goldsmith served as a firefighter and paramedic in San Mateo, Calif., and Alaska, with a few stints in San Francisco. She said eight years as a paramedic had exposed her to a lot of “alternative recreational … things.”
“Once you’ve sat through the San Francisco corners, in-service on different types of asphyxiation and things like that, you have pretty much seen a lot,” Goldsmith said.
She says she enjoys the challenges of her job. She’s been passionate about sewing for most of her life. The bras, panties and other things she makes at Romantic Sensations aren’t too different from the garments she would produce in a more “normal” gig, just with more lace.
Many of the cloths Goldsmith and her co-workers make don’t have any patterns, meaning most of the products are extrapolated from photos then stitched together by trial and error.
“It’s a lot of taking things apart because you don’t know how it goes together in the first place,” Goldsmith said.Time and tieds
Jeri Lee smokes a pipe held between his press-on nail clad fingers in his office, the walls of which are covered in illustrated erotica. Chatting with Goldsmith, his shoulder-length blond hair and a blue dotted, white dress cast a nearly perfect illusion of womanhood. Lee owns Peachy Ventures, Centurion Publishing and Transformation Distributing. He is Goldsmith’s boss.
Lee claims he probably owns the biggest bondage business in the world. His magazines offer thousands of products for cross-dressers, gay to straight and everything in between. He has been in business since he was 19. Now in his late 60s, he has been cross-dressing for the last 18 years and moved to Reno in 1995. He started cross-dressing after his kids left the house and moved to Nevada when California smoking laws become too strict.
During his 40 years building his bondage empire, Lee has dealt with suspected Mafia members, been set up by the FBI, sold videos to Larry Flynt, built his own castle and been sued by people from Hollywood to Hong Kong.
“I’ve been up and down all my life,” he said.
Lee started his first business in 1960, a Jack in the Box franchise. In 1968, after going broke a few times, Lee was operating a cleaning business when he received a fetish catalog.
After deciding he could also sell such gear, Lee put together a four-by-four inch magazine displaying dildos and hand-drawn bondage attire. After putting advertisements in San Francisco’s underground magazines, Lee received a strong response.
“Pretty soon I was pulling sacks of mail in with $3 in them,” said Lee. “I was making a fortune back then,” Lee said. “I had money under my mattress. Everything was good.”
His business grew from there. Lee got into video production, and in the early 1970s, opened a store near the entrance of Disneyland. In 1985, Lee said the store was selling about $10,000 a week in product. However, bondage still wasn’t very legal, and Lee claims the FBI ordered a bondage tape through one of his employees. The FBI later busted him for the tape. Lee went broke again and sold his video production business.
Though Lee has struggled, he says today he has finally made it. Able to be himself, Lee even models in his own magazines. Absent from the explicit content found in the catalog, he shows off shoes he designed in the opening pages. Next to those pictures, Lee addresses his audience, encouraging them to be themselves.
“Life’s too short not to enjoy who you are,” is written just below one of his pictures. He once published a series of photos chronicling his trip to Canada with his girlfriend to show how a cross-dresser can be himself anywhere he goes.
Lee says it’s easier to be a cross- dresser these days, and he credits his magazine for some of that positive PR. He goes everywhere in drag and is almost never harassed when he goes out in public.
“The only time I have a small problem is people from the Midwest, usually women, and they’ll point.” Laughing, he then pushes his voice to its highest octave. “‘Oh, look at that!’”
“They are probably just admiring your clothing,” adds Goldsmith.