Western is a direction as much as it’s a lifestyle. It spans traditional looks that never go out of style in core markets to mainstream interpretations that ride the ups and downs of the genre’s popularity to subtle hints that add a kick to basics. Fringe, a stacked heel and inlay detail are design elements that are as much western as they are American. • Lately, western has been experiencing a revival on a broader scale. New York Fashion Week saw several designers incorporate the look into their fall collections while the riding boot silhouette has reigned supreme for several seasons now. Some also point to the crossover popularity of Taylor Swift for ushering in a sundress and cowboy boot fashion two-step that spans far beyond honkytonks and rodeos. And unlike previous western fashion popularity spikes (think Urban Cowboy and Garth Brooks), Swift’s reach is broader, deeper and (continues to be) much longer. • Last but not least, western fashion is in step with the overall heritage movement that is sweeping consumers. In the wake of the recession, shoppers are turning to trusted brands and classic looks. Not as willing to take financial or fashionable risks and seeking long-term wear from their purchases, western styling presents a sure bet.
Miles of suede fringe swished down the runway on bags, coats and skirts at the recent Michael Kors Fall ’14 show. Tommy Hilfiger accented hems with the shaggy embellishment, too. Even Rebecca Minkoff topped off two-tone booties with colored tassels. But while the favored trim of rock stars and bohemians is back—and with a decidedly western flair—it’s business as usual at Minnetonka. The family-owned Minneapolis-based moccasin maker has been crafting fringed footwear for adults and kids alike since 1946.
“We excel at fringe,” claims President Scott Sessa, adding that the embellishment’s recent runway renaissance is a nod to classic Americana and is perfectly encapsulated by the brand’s simple, beaded Thunderbird moccasin, a style that has resonated with millions of consumers worldwide for more than 50 years and counting. “Retailers are still excited about Minnetonka [and the western revival] bodes well for us,” he says. For Fall ’14, the brand has applied fringe to a number of suede styles easily suited to a range of women’s wardrobes. There’s a three-layer fringe tall boot for festivalgoers, an ankle-high western boot with antique studs and a slim bootie on a low heel with wraparound straps and tassels.
“We’re fortunate that the brand has a wide age appeal,” Sessa shares, noting that it hits every demographic from college kids to stylish moms. And with wholesale prices ranging from $21 to $49.50, he believes that Minnetonka is a natural extension to any retailer’s buy when it comes to rounding out their western assortment. “For some of our customers we offer the opportunity to touch on the western trend without going all in but traditional western stores, which we also sell to, sell a lot of Minnetonka, too,” he says. “We don’t compete directly with western boots but we feel we can get more of the customer’s day.”
Durango: The Rebelette
When the words “outlaw” and “fun” are built into each one of your designs, you’re bound to gain a reputation. “It’s our heritage to be a little irreverent and have a badass side,” says Amber Vanwy, sales and marketing manager of Durango, a division of Rocky Brands. That would explain the built-in bottle opener camouflaged by sweet pink flowers, turquoise rick rack and a scarf print wrap snaking around fall’s popular Crush style. “Those words are always in the back of our head and I think that is what makes us stand out as a brand,” Vanwy adds.
And badass ladies are taking note. Take pop star Miley Cyrus who is currently rocking white and red bejeweled Durango boots on her “Bangerz” world tour, paired with what else but revealing cat suits and furry club kid jackets. Or the slew of brides donning cowboy boots down the aisle and pinning the images to Pinterest. Vanwy says TV is helping to mainstream the category as well, naming shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Voice” as major influencers. “I mean, Blake Shelton is a household name now,” she quips.
The way Durango sees it, the more big brands (i.e. Ralph Lauren and Chanel) that get into the western business and the more celebrities sporting the shoes, the more it legitimizes the category for customers who are on the fence about buying their first pair of cowboy boots. “They help create more awareness and people become less afraid to try it,” the exec says of the bold look.
For Fall ’14, there is plenty to choose from including old school western boots decked out with patriotic stars, pops of fuchsia, jade and purple, and even a spot of leopard. “We’re doing a pretty heritage collection with leather outsoles—super traditional styles that are based on throwback western designs,” Vanwy describes. The brand also sees a spike in demand for footwear with accessories, adding belts, clip-ons and fringe to boots. To complete the look, Durango is updating key pieces in its range of apparel and accessories, which launched last year. Vanwy says the line of studded biker jackets, fringe vests and rugged handbags has given Durango something new yet familiar to offer its longtime retailers. “It’s executed in a way where our customers can get around it. It’s all leather, so we aren’t going too out of our area of expertise,” she notes.
But it isn’t all fun and games. Where brands tend to veer in one direction—either fashion or true work western—Vanwy says Durango’s blue-collar roots factor in its distinction amongst the corral of brands jumping on the western bandwagon. “We take care of the cute and fashionable, but there’s also a lot of comfort woven into the line that comes from our insight in making basic comfortable work boots that people stand in all day long,” she explains. “We know our materials, but we also know how to build a cute boot above that comfort.”
Taos: Southwest Swagger
Nothing screams America more loudly than a pair of rough-and-tumble cowboy boots, but this country’s first buckaroos actually came from Mexico. Known as vaqueros (the Spanish word for cattle herders) they taught the Anglo-American settlers in Texas, New Mexico and California everything they became legendary for. So it’s fitting that Taos looked to the southwest for its Fall ’14 collection. Inspired by the region’s natural beauty and melting pot of cultures, the brand combined earthy tones, rich leathers and intricate stitching to bow boots as rooted in history as the New Mexico town from which it takes its name.
“Western is such a classic, cool category,” says President Glen Barad. “At Taos we try to take trends and ideas and kind of broaden the customer. Because it has that southwest inspiration consumers really have a lot more options to wear it.” Short silhouettes on lightweight outsoles feature floral embroidery, nail head studs and perforations for a kick that’s a little more forgiving than hardcore western, says Barad, while burnished toes and heels add some authentic flavor to slouchy tall boots in black or tan suede. “We put zippers on them to make them a little easier to put on and off and the colors are friendlier,” he notes, adding, “What we try to do is be trend-right but we don’t offend anybody.”
Retailers have been responding positively, Barad shares. “We’re getting in a lot of new doors, from beautiful boutiques in the northeast to more casual ones in the southwest. You just feel good when it’s embraced by a great cross section of customers,” he says. Retailing from $235 to $255, he believes that the Taos price point combined with its comfort-infused removable footbeds provide an important point of difference at the point of purchase. Len Jacobson, director of communications, agrees. “As we evolve the looks on these constructions and try to explore new things, new colors, new ideas and embellishments, we’ll always try to make the styles accessible. We’re building stuff that has more staying power,” he says.
PS Kaufman: The Renegade
Designer Paul Kaufman’s western tale begins in an era when the world was recovering from a global recession, fashion was veering towards bold and strong shapes and the glitterati were eager to get back to their lavish lifestyles. Sound familiar? It was the ’80s and Kaufman—then designing his Santa Monica-based punk footwear brand NaNa Shoes—was creating rugged boots with a tough-as-nails ethos for the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon when he struck gold on a western-inspired style.
Flash forward to 2011 when actress and tastemaker Chloë Sevigny showed interest in the dormant brand for her collaboration with Opening Ceremony and Kaufman, who moved on from NaNa and was in the midst of designing his eponymous label, went back to his archives and dug out that golden nugget. “That type of interest made me revisit and revamp some of our old styles, “ he recalls.
Fall ’14 rings in women’s styles spanning ankle boots with leather covered studs and exaggerated goring to ones with simple side zippers placed on an angle. Boots retail for $325 to $499, with most under $400. Western influences have been a mainstay in the PS Kaufman line since its inception, mainly because each shoe is Goodyear welted—a cowboy hallmark—and handcrafted in Mexico by the same artisans who also make horse saddles. Those inherent qualities appeal to a western-seeking customer, but Kaufman says it’s not a direct iteration. Rather, he says, it’s about the mood the look evokes. “A lot of it has to do with the edginess of those styles. I’m big on the mash up and like to mix elements,” Kaufman explains, noting that he might just take a toecap or last with western roots.
Team it with his punkish pedigree, handiwork with recyclable materials (Kaufman uses tire rubber in outsoles) and eye for the offbeat—be it glitter blasted uppers or an ankle boot topped off with a harness, ankle straps and zippers—and the designer says he is in the realm of creating footwear for people who want something unique. That amount of detail and complexity also speaks to boutiques like Ego-Trip in Canada, Chicago’s City Soles and Bus Stop in Philadelphia. “We might be a little more elusive and under the radar, but we’ve built a clientele and following one person at a time,” Kaufman explains. Exposure in Anthropologie and Free People stores, which have picked up the brand’s hand-painted designs, has helped, too.
Whether Kaufman sees a long future with western design will be determined by what inspires him in his personal life. “For me, it isn’t about western, but what moves me, like music,” he says. “Western cycles in and out. Trends are so broad and everyone follows them, but that’s why we have to take our own path and develop our own niche.”