Western fashion is once again riding high.
The Americana trend was touted for fall by such designer brands as Dior and Calvin Klein, who featured new twists on denim, while Coach created shearling coats and Alexander McQueen offered patchwork dresses.
The Wall Street Journal called out European designers, who “reworked motifs from America’s pioneer past—handmade quilts, fringed suede and bandana prints—for women who dwell far away from where the buffalo roam.”
The fashion magazines likely will be on to something new next season, but for some Colorado-based businesses, western hats, boots and clothing aren’t a trend. They’re a constant.
“It is always about the old meets the new with us,” said Roxanne Thurman, a Texas native and owner of Cry Baby Ranch who has long loved western wear’s golden years of the 1940s and ’50s.
“Trends go in and out but I stay the course and stay true to what I like,” said Thurman, who started her business as a temporary store on Denver’s Larimer Square in 1989, offering vintage western wear and collectibles. She quickly ran out of her one-of-a-kind items and next looked for additional vintage and new clothing and accessories to sell to customers who shared her passion for items with western roots put together in modern ways.
She has continued to find designers and artisans who are the craft beer equivalent in apparel and accessories: they produce in small batches using high quality ingredients, mostly sourced in the West.
Western wear aficionados flock to Cry Baby Ranch for handmade jewelry from artisans like Margaret Sullivan of New Mexico, one-of-a-kind leather and suede handbags, women’s clothing from such designers as Ann Tobias for Roja and washable suede pants from Beverly Anderson for EQ Wear. Visitors will also find Pendleton blankets and scarves as well as men’s shirts from Stetson and jackets from Rhonda Stark.
One of Thurman’s favorite items for this season is a pair of leopard print shortie boots custom made for the store by Tres Outlaws. They retail for $895, which is pricey, but the boots are handmade in El Paso, Texas, and are limited edition.
You can count on Thurman to show customers how to put together a new-meets-old western look as well. She likes to wear those shortie boots, for example, with rolled-up jeans and a clean white collared shirt accessorized with silver and turquoise jewelry.
Tom Yoder is unequivocal when it comes to the mission of his Kemo Sabe stores in Aspen, Vail and Las Vegas. “We have one simple goal: to be the best store in the USA,” he said.
You can buy a western hat, boots or leather bag in many places, but you won’t find the process anything close to what you’ll get at Kemo Sabe, he promises. “We deliver an experience through our service and our romance of the West.”
Yoder and his wife Nancy started the business 27 years ago, naming it after the American Indian expression meaning “trusty scout.” (Many people of a certain age remember the words from the TV show “The Lone Ranger.” Played by actor Clayton Moore the ranger would refer to his sidekick Tonto, portrayed by Jay Silverheels, as “Kemo Sabe.”)
The retailer originally sold a variety of western apparel and accessories. Today, they specialize in hats, boots, leather good, vintage jewelry and collectibles. “Hats aren’t an easy thing to get right,” says Wendy Kunkle, the store’s general manager. “You can buy boots anywhere, but a hat is much more difficult to purchase,” she said.
Kemo Sabe’s hat styles are unisex. “It’s how you dress them up,” she says, noting they might put a beaded hat band on a style to appeal to women. They offer a variety of brim styles and crowns to meet an individual’s needs. “I’ll cut lavender from the woods, or find some straw. We like to swag a hat up like crazy.”
These days Kemo Sabe makes and customizes most of its goods at its “hat ranch” in Basalt. The company’s Grit line, started in 2015, includes hats, bags and other leather goods. The bags’ signature is a tassel that’s accented with a bullet casing. Some feature pieces of vintage textiles, rugs or blankets.
Yoder recently bought an 1889 building on South Galena Street in Aspen, gutted and renovated it and moved to the new location. “The building is so old and authentic, the merchandise jumps out of it,” he said. In the new location, the company will be hosting parties and special events. There’s a bar on the mezzanine level and a penthouse with a rooftop deck.
The old building echoes Kemo Sabe’s love of items that look worn and well-loved. “Like you’re rooting through your grandfather’s closet,” Kunkle said. “We carry things that are timeless; a piece of art in your closet that you get to wear.”
Rockmount Ranch Wear was in business for almost six decades as a wholesaler of shirts and accessories before it opened a retail location. Today, the store in a 1909 historic building on Wazee Street in Denver’s LoDo district feels like a museum because it houses not only the company’s headquarters but a lot of memorabilia from Rockmount’s early days.
Many of the items on display are vintage men’s and women’s shirts, Rockmount’s best-known products. The signature design has diamond-shaped snaps and sawtooth pockets. And as testimony to the continuing popularity of vintage western designs with their fancy embroidery and vivid coloring, many shirts lining the racks of new goods for sale are reinterpretations of classic designs from the 1950s and ’60s.
“The store is more a laboratory for what’s coming next than it is a gallery that looks at the past,” said Steve Weil, the company’s president and grandson of Jack A. Weil. The senior Mr. Weil founded the business in 1946 and was involved until he died at age 107 in 2008. Steve’s father Jack B., was also an active owner until his death.
“When we opened for retail in 2005, we had had no previous contact with the ultimate customer. It was like opening our eyes for first time,” said Steve Weil. “Store buyers will always be our core business, but because we have a direct channel to the customer, we can see what they want and our retail business helps us decide if a given style is worth doing.”
As an example, Weil put three flannel shirt designs on the store’s floor this summer. “They sold all summer, when it was 90 degrees outside, which is shocking,” he said. “It got my attention, so we expanded to nine colors.”
Fleece is a similar story, and Rockmount is offering it in patterned shirts, ponchos and blankets.
“People are always looking for something fresh. It’s no different than any other clothing company,” Weil said. “We’ve put in 40 to 50 new shirt designs, along with other categories, since the first of the year.”
Rockmount has long been the go-to label for musicians and celebrities, with everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan and Jake Gyllenhaal wearing the Denver company’s shirts in concerts, films and on magazine covers.
“It’s magic. It’s not something we tried to do,” Weil says. “We see our stuff on TV all the time and we’re lucky that a lot of creative people know about us and want to promote what we do.”
Rockmount’s appeal—similar to that of Kemo Sabe and Cry Baby Ranch—is that the passion the owners have for their products and companies draws people who love the West.
“It’s our story and the brand,” Weil said. “It’s the fact that it’s not ubiquitous. It’s something special for someone who doesn’t want to follow the herd. It’s Americana at its heart.”
For people who want to embrace the western look but are afraid of coming off like they’re wearing a costume, Roxanne Thurman of Cry Baby Ranch has some suggestions:
Tie on a scarf from Pendleton or Wyoming Traders to give your outfit a little swagger.
Wear a bolo tie with a white shirt, ladies. They’re OK for guys, too, of course.
Roll up your jeans to show off your shortie boots.
Add some Native American jewelry to your otherwise non-Western basic dress, shirt and jeans or tuxedo pants. A tooled leather bag can have a similar effect.
For an easy way to make a child’s outfit look western, add a bandana.
Lindsey Thornburg grew up in Montana and Aspen, studied philosophy and fashion in California and now resides in New York City, where she has a design atelier in Chelsea. This style nomad loves the stimulation of life in Manhattan and goes to Paris annually, but heads West when it’s time to see family, play in the snow and recharge.
Thornburg’s signature design is a cape-like hooded coat made from Pendleton fabric and lined in everything from silk to shearling. It has no seams on the body, so the design of the blanket is uninterrupted. The bold, graphic cloaks are sold by such high-end retailers as Gorsuch, and have been photographed on such actresses as Blake Lively, Kate Hudson and Drew Barrymore.
While in Montana on a photo shoot at Paw’s Up ranch, Thornburg paused to talk via phone about her designs.
Q: You started by making cloaks from your collection of vintage Pendleton blankets but now have a collaboration with the company. How did that come about?
A: I’m the first designer in 110 years that Pendleton allowed to cut into their blankets. It gives the coats a specific canvas. I had never found anything fashion forward enough before that. I also traveled to Peru and was inspired by the highlanders. When I came back, I asked myself how I could create coats that were both utilitarian and beautiful.
Q: How do you think growing up in the West influenced you as a designer?
A: Everything has to have more function in the West. Fashion can be more frivolous in the city, where you can just look pretty. But clothes have to be functional here.
Q. What does the West represent to you and what do you like to do when here that you don’t do when you’re in New York?
A. I have my office New York, but I travel as much as I can back here. Everyone is drawn to a sense of home. I grew up snowboarding and I love sledding, snowshoeing. I have lots of family friends and we like hanging out.
See her designs at Lindseythornburg.com and Gorsuch.com
Suzanne S. Brown, former fashion editor of The Denver Post, has a large collection of vintage and modern western shirts. Most of them were given to her by her husband, who must have at some point confused her with Dale Evans.
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