Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
It’s as predictable as winter following autumn, or day following night. A chic woman arrives in Arizona from Chicago or Miami, Los Angeles, Paris, or Berlin. She enters a western wear shop and comes out wearing cowboy boots and sporting a cowboy hat. She may spring for rhinestone-studded jeans and a fringed leather vest. Goodbye, city. She’s now dressed for the Southwest, where clear skies are punctuated by cotton ball clouds, country western music floats out from the radios of passing cars, and the dry, dusty land is dotted with saguaro cacti, each looking like a green Gumby with outstretched, welcoming arms.
At the 640-acre Tanque Verde Ranch Resort in Tucson, girlfriends, families, and couples can put their western attire to good use by mounting a horse and riding out into the spectacular sunrise or sunset, accompanied by guides who are similarly attired, but whose clothes are a lot more dusty and aged by sun, wind, and many washings.
In the dining room, kids wearing their new boots and hats can take a selfie in front of a backdrop of saguaro and ocotillo cacti, and their parents drink Arbuckle’s coffee, the brand cowboys prefer.
Bob Cote, Tanque Verde’s owner, muses about why visitors purchase cowboy attire. “They’re buying into the mystique of the cowboy. We do a lot of European business here. If you took a group of ten Europeans and asked them to tell you their top ten images of America, I would hazard they’d name cowboys, Indians, and the Wild West. If you asked ten Americans, I don’t think they would say that. A European has to satisfy his perception. The Americans want to look stylish and feel like they belong in the West. Everyone who comes here rides. They go back to an old, romantic feeling, like they think things were 100 years ago. You can walk for miles here without seeing anyone. In Europe, there aren’t open spaces anymore. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a house and people. And TV shows and films have been instrumental in building the western image that people want to experience.”
Over an outdoor barbecue at the ranch, while visitors are listening to a cowboy singer and chowing down on chicken, ribs, cornbread, kale, and beef, Jewel Cummins, a bartender, reflects on the dress western phenomenon: “We definitely have clients who come for the western experience. Maybe they’ve never been on a horse before. They go into town, and they get boots and hats.”
“Do they wear them back home?” I ask Cummins.
As if in answer to the question, John and Fiona Miller from England sidle up in their cowboy boots. “Boot Barn has the most enormous choice of boots and jeans, and if you say you’re staying at Tanque Verde, you get 15 percent off the highest item,” John confides. “We’ll leave the boots here at the ranch in a storage box,” Fiona chimes in. “There’s no way we’d wear them at home. In England, we ride English, and we wear a completely different type of boot. We come here to Arizona twice a year to ride and drink and enjoy the weather. So of course we want western boots.”
Kean Brown, one of the authentic cowboys at the ranch, moseys over, his spurs jingling. “Everybody wants to come and be a cowboy for a little while. My in-laws, from Sweden, do just that. They go into town and spend $1,000. I have to store them ‘til their next visit, because they don’t take them back to Sweden. It’s the lifestyle they’re attracted by. It’s so different from what they have in Europe. It’s about freedom. Independence. A lot of people who come here live in a city and work in a cubicle. Here they find open spaces and the desert. It doesn’t bother me that they dress like cowboys. The real cowboy lifestyle is less and less. If people want to live out their fantasies, it’s a good thing. I’ve shipped a lot of handmade chaps to Germany. They do wear them — in western riding clubs.”
Brown takes off his Resistol hat. It’s a Stetson, made in the USA. “When I have to buy a cowboy hat made in China, I’ll turn in my resignation.” Cowboy Gary Vanderford sidles up and concurs, “Resistol. Tony Lama. Justin. Nocona. They’re all made in the USA.”
Patti O’Leary is visiting Tucson from Haddonfield, New Jersey. “No one wears cowboy boots at home,” she says.“ I went to Nordstrom.com and bought boots for under $100 because I knew I would only wear them for a week and I didn’t care what happened to them. I didn’t buy cowboy hats because I had to draw the line financially. I went for the look with the boots — pointy, with a heel, bootstraps, and buttons. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to wear my over-the-knee leathers.”
At J. Gilbert Footwear in Tucson, where all the cowboy boots are custom-made from the finest Italian leather, John Gilbert, the high-end company’s founder, talks about boot collectors. One of them is an unnamed royal from Dubai who buys a custom boot to reward himself every time he loses five pounds. Drake Martin started out as a customer and collector, and now he’s running the store and wearing elephant hide boots, “the toughest exotic there is.” Gilbert explains that all the exotic skins used to make the boots are documented, and the animals have all died of natural causes. “In Germany,” he says, “according to German customs, they have to pay $500 just to get documents about the skins used in boots and where they came from.”
Gilbert and Martin talk about the most expensive cowboy boots, which are made by Tres Outlaw and can sell for up to $80,000. “We’ve sold boots of his for $12-$15,000,” Gilbert says. “We’ve had boots with 14 karat gold acorns. Lady Gaga just had a pair of Outlaw boots designed.”
“When tourists come here, they want to be part of the Tucson experience,” Martin explains. “Our customers take their boots home and wear them in New York, Massachusetts, all over the world.”
“Our boots are a fashion statement,” Gilbert adds. “You can wear them in New York, Paris, anywhere. The boots will never be out of style. We never sell boots to cowboys; cowboys are not our customers. They buy work boots. Our customers are the guys who own their own company, collect watches and cars and the best of everything. One woman wore her boots to the White House. You can wear them with very dressy clothes. We started putting Swarovskis (crystals) on boots to trick ‘em out. But even plain, you can wear them anywhere. When we had a store in LA, all the stars and rockers were our clients.”
J. Gilbert boots can take four to five months to make. “People don’t come in here to buy a costume, like fringed clothes. We have a targeted customer. They have a mission. They want a good boot, and they want to be the only one on the planet with their boot,” Gilbert says.
For those without lesser means, J. Gilbert’s other shop in Tucson offers boots in the $250 to $400 range. They are still fine quality, but not custom-made.
I head over to one of Tucson branches of Boot Barn where Linda Lizardi, the store manager, explains that they get a lot of customers from Sweden, the UK, Germany, Australia, London, and all over the US. “When they walk in the door, they feel like they’re in Arizona and they want to be dressed up. They want what we have. They think we dress western. They think of Arizona as the Old West and want to be part of it. The boots, hats — they come in here and they have never worn a western-style hat. They laugh at each other — ‘look at me in this hat,’ and then they buy and are out the door. Next thing you know, they are bringing more friends. They think of John Wayne — we used to carry a John Wayne hat, but we sold out of it. They know the name Stetson and they want a Stetson hat. It’s made in the US. If someone listens to country, they can buy the Brad Paisley line.”
“They are chasing the sport,” says co-worker Lacie Crossan. “They want to be part of rodeo. For myself, I wear different boots for different reasons. I ride in square toes. With a dress, I wear round toes.”
Lizardi says that when someone walks in the door of the store, “you can tell by the way they look around that they’re not from here. You can tell what they want. You just look at them, see what their image is, or the image they want to be, and dress them up. People look at CDs like Alan Jackson and say, ‘I want that hat.’ Sometimes they email and tell you what they are looking for. You become their personal shopper. They walk out of here happy. I’ve never had someone come back to return boots or clothes because they’re not comfortable.”
The number one boot vendor in the store is Ariat, which is known for comfort, longevity, and affordability. Corral is also appreciated by a wide range of buyers. Lizardi says that people from outside the US, or Americans from the Northeast, especially, want Wranglers or Levis, boots, bolo ties, belts, hats, vests, dusters. They want to be dressed head to toe.
A fourth salesperson, Mayra Murrieta, says customers sometimes take clothes home “to show how we dress here. They get their ideas from the movies. People think we dress like this all the time. For my other job, I wear slacks, a blouse, and heels. But hey, here I am a stereotype.”
In Old Town Scottsdale, the story is the same. Country western music blares from a shop on the main street. A sign on the door of Saba’s Famous Texas Boots reads: “Please, no food, drink, or chew inside.” Salesperson Robert Schmidt says, “Most of the customers are buying for fashion or style or looks. A lot of folks have heard boots are comfortable. And if they fit right, they are. If your foot doesn’t like a boot, you won’t get it. Some folks, especially from New York, say that people wearing boots are called rednecks. So they buy a boot that looks like a shoe with a rounder toe and flatter heel. Germans are the biggest buyers in the store. They like the snaps on western wear. Mostly the men buy, when they are here on business.”
Roger Saba Jr., the owner, says that in the more rural stores, customers wear boots every day or have a horse. In the Old Town Scottsdale store, people from elsewhere are looking for the iconic, timeless, traditional styles. “We have fashion in our other stores, but here they want the timeless styles or their ideas of a western boot. A hat they’ll wear once or twice. They want to take home something to remember their experience, and they don’t want an imitation. They want it to be authentic. I think they do wear the boots back home. We have been in the business for 89 years, and it’s still going strong.
“A boot should be comfortably snug through the instep. There is heel slippage when you are walking. You break the sole in, and the slipping will subside. We guarantee the fit.” Saba wears Tony Lamas, made of ostrich. “I wear boots every day,” he says, laughing, “except when I wear shorts.”
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and author who lives in Santa Fe. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us.