MARLO THOMAS
08/20/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

Young Mother Goes From Working In Jails To Designing Wedding Veils

marlo thomas"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about Robin Mayer, a young mom who left a tough career in criminal justice to create custom pieces for brides on their big day." —Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

When Robin Mayer graduated with a master's degree, her parents felt safe in their assumption, that at the very least, they’d never see their beloved daughter behind bars. And yet, that’s where she ended up -- not actually behind the bars -- but inside the barbed wire that surrounds Rikers Island Correctional Facility.

“My parents were not thrilled that I decided to work in the correctional system,” Robin recalled. “They couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just work with people in the community. But I was very close to my older brother and he’d gotten into a lot of trouble as a teenager. I wanted to help him. I wanted to understand patterns of bad behavior. So I got my master's degree in forensic psychology.”

Robin wasn’t the first in her family to be captivated by the criminal mind. Her great uncle was Ralph Brancale, a well-known profiler, who consulted on the Boston Strangler case. He had tried to help Robin’s brother and she was determined to follow in his footsteps.

So the young mother took her first job at Manhattan House and Detention, in a relatively safe position, where she assessed inmates as they first came in. But within 8 months, she was told she was being transferred to Rikers -- a New York City jail system which houses more than 12,000 inmates, most of which are awaiting sentencing. It wouldn’t be long before Robin would find out exactly why her parents were so concerned.

“I was assigned to the women’s division as a mental health counselor,” Robin explained. “It was July 4th and I was working a double shift. There wasn’t a lot of staff there on holidays, so there were only two of us. I was in my office and when I looked up I saw an inmate walking in and closing the door. She had gotten past an officer who was on the phone. She started making sexual advances and before I could get help, she was groping me. And then she tried to bite my arm.”

“Another inmate managed to pull her off of me. Once they removed her, I went back to my office and looked at her chart. I thought she might have been on drugs. That’s when I saw that she had a history of psychosis -- and she had HIV.”

“I was in complete shock. What if she had managed to bite me? I had a little girl at home. But then, to make matters worse, when I tried to file a report, a deputy told me he’d ripped it up. I thought the officers were there to protect us. But they were protecting each other. He didn’t want the officer on duty to get into trouble. By 8:00 that night, when no one would help me, I walked out.”

Traumatized, Robin decided to take a few months off and consider other career paths. Ultimately, she would return to Rikers, to work with adolescents. But at the same time, she began working on a way to break out and begin a new career.

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“A friend of mine had just sold her father’s bridal business. They were making veils and accessories. One of their former clients came to her and asked if she could open up something on the side just for them. They were a huge account, but there was a non-compete in place, so she asked me if I’d be interested in starting a business with her.”

Robin’s friend promised to teach her everything she needed to know about the bridal business. They would be partners, but Robin’s name would be on all the paperwork. Eager to make a change, she agreed. She was ready to move from jails to veils.

“The start-up costs weren’t very high and we were able to hire artisans who had worked in her father’s business. So I began doing some overnights at Rikers and taking double shifts, so I could spend time during the week learning the business.”

But as the company continued to grow, it required more of an investment. And since Robin’s name was on the business, she was the one who had to take out the loan. Her mother was so eager for her to leave the jail system, she put the family home up as collateral.

“I was handling the financial end and setting up the office,” Robin said. “My friend was supposed to be bringing in the clients. But she wanted to get into low end mass production. I saw what our team was able to do and I had these great ideas of what we could become. I wanted to move more towards couture. We were having big arguments about where we wanted this to go and day by day our debt was getting bigger. A year later, she left with all the clients.”

Since everything was in Robin’s name, she was left with more than $50,000 of debt. But with a young daughter and her parent’s home at stake, she wasn’t about to bail on the business. And beyond that, she seemed to have an uncanny creative vision.

While she wasn’t sure where her ideas were coming from, she was determined to bring them to life. What she couldn’t have known was that she was about to pick up where another long lost relative had left off.

“At the time, the bridal trend was tiaras,” Robin remembered. “But I was drawn to styles from the 1920’s and 1930’s -- headpieces and veils that my grandmother and great grandmother might have worn. I’d bring in pictures from silent movies, beautiful lace and crystals, and work with our artisans to bring them to life.”

“But I didn’t know anything about sales or marketing. I remember asking Grace, our production manager, ‘What do I do, go door to door?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I have a suitcase!’ Grace came to this country from Uruguay with one suitcase and it was lucky for her, so she thought it would be lucky for me as well. And really, I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what people did. So there I was with a master's degree and a beat up suitcase -- and I started knocking on doors.”

“I’d try calling first, but people would just hang up on me. I’d go ring their buzzers, but they wouldn’t let me up. But there was this one store I didn’t want to give up on. So I went there before they opened and knocked on the door. I said, 'I know you open at 10, but I live in Manhattan and thought I’d drop by.' They laughed at my suitcase. But they agreed to look at my pieces! Then they asked where else I was selling. When I said nowhere -- they actually liked that and said they’d love to work together.”

That first 'yes' gave Robin the courage to continue -- enough courage that she decided to approach one of the most prestigious bridal salons in Manhattan -- Bridal Reflections. And to her surprise, a vice president picked up the phone and simply invited her in.

Days later, the executive was placing orders for two salons and asking Robin to do trunk shows. They wanted her to work with brides to create custom headpieces and veils.

“At that point, I was more afraid of the brides than I was the inmates!” Robin laughed. “But that’s where my years of doing therapy came into play. The mother is saying, ‘This isn’t what I wanted for you.' And I have to turn to the bride and say, ‘What do you want?’ It’s like doing family therapy every time. I didn’t go to school to become a designer. But somehow it all just seemed to come together.”

While Robin wasn’t quite sure how she ended up on this path, her cousins seemed to see it all clearly. When they heard what she was doing, they pulled out pictures and showed her that she was following in the footsteps of a relative she’d never met.

Her great aunt Mary Bovio had designed hats -- hats that were sold at stores like Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. Hats that were fit to be worn by a first lady -- and they were. Jackie Kennedy was her client.

“My cousins told me that the first time she got a check from the White House, it was for $206.50, and she framed it. The White House had to call and say, 'Ma’am, are you going to cash that?'”

So while Robin had set out to follow in Uncle Ralph’s footsteps -- some might say she was guided down a different road. It wasn’t long before she began getting calls from top name designers -- asking if she’d consider creating private label lines for them. Suddenly her work was showing up in stores like Kleinfelds, Lord and Taylor and Nordstrom. The orders became so big, that finally she had no choice but to leave Rikers. Last year alone, she sold nearly $800,000 in bridal accessories.

And this year, the Boutique de Voile designer found herself in the spotlight. When Tony and Tina’s Wedding reopened in Manhattan, Robin was asked to do the bridal accessories. Strangely enough, the show began at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School, before the audience followed the cast through Times Square for a big Italian buffet.

“It was like every Italian wedding in my family,” Robin said with a smile. “My mother would have loved it. She passed away before I left Rikers, but I feel like her hands are on everything that’s happening -- like she’s my angel and she’s pulling our ancestors out of the clouds. Pay attention to those little nudges you feel inside. I really believe they’re guiding you to where you’re supposed to be.”

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