Colorado First: Frontier fashion

J. Skyler McKinley
November/December 2017

You’d have a real tough time telling a cowboy hat made and worn in 1890 from its 2017 counterpart. That’s the point: Western apparel is timeless in the way a hammer is timeless. There is a utilitarian earnestness to the cowboy boot, designed to slip easily into the stirrup of a saddle—and worn best with spurs. The snap-button shirt came about because, well, your shirt can’t tear on a fence post if it simply snaps open. Cowboy hats keep the sun and the dust and the bugs out of your face while leading a cattle drive.

And, fittingly for fashion that’s come to define rugged individualism, Western wear breaks the yoke of traditional social bounds. Businessmen wear rattlesnake boots to black-tie events. Walk into any watering hole in any Eastern Plains farm community and you’ll see a cowboy hat on most patrons’ heads. And Western Slope winemakers have been known to own a high-end snap button shirt or two—or 12.

In many ways, Western apparel is higher fashion than “high fashion.” It conveys, as all good art does, several different value statements all at the same time. And its roots run deep in Colorado – where its heritage is safeguarded and innovated upon by family-owned local companies and craftsmen. There is no Western wear without the West, and there is no West without Colorado.

Greeley Hat Works

2613 8th Ave., Greeley, 888-FOR-AHAT (888-367-2428)

For the past 21 years, Trent Johnson has owned and operated Greeley Hat Works, which has designed and sold cowboy hats in Northern Colorado since 1909. Over the course of his career, Johnson’s made hats for the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, country music star Toby Keith and even Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the George W. Bush administration, Johnson won the Department of State contract to produce the hats, featuring the presidential seal, that were gifted to foreign dignitaries.

His business card doesn’t mention any of that. It just says “hatter.” The title, despite Johnson’s runaway success, speaks to the unassuming nature of the folks he considers his primary customers: farmers and ranchers. “I sell cowboy hats to working cowboys,” he said. “People that use them as tools.”

Business is good. Greeley’s Weld County is the fourth-richest agricultural county in the United States, and Johnson is the region’s most venerated hat maker. But don’t worry: Even if you’re a city slicker, he’ll never accuse you of being “All hat, no cattle.” Why? Wearing a cowboy hat takes a lot of work. “It changes everything about you,” he said. You have to be mindful of how you get in and out of cars, for example. And, Johnson says, dozens of “rules and regulations” govern how you can, and can’t, wear a cowboy hat.

“You treat it like a sweetheart,” he said. “You know, you take it off at the table. You take it off when you enter a building. You leave it on at a bar.”

So long as you follow this cowboy code, then, you can’t be “no cattle.” And if you’re not the type of person to wear his work without respect to the traditions it represents, odds are you’d never find your way to Greeley Hat Works, anyway.

“Some people get drawn into Western wear because it’s fashionable. But a small percentage, those who come here to get a hat, for them it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “Many people change when they put on a hat, because the hats themselves show confidence, tradition, values and morals. That’s what’s fun for me: Carrying on the tradition of the American West.”

Rockmount Ranch Wear

1626 Wazee St., Denver, 800-776-2566

Skyler McKinley (author of this article) and Matt Patterson, a Denver leatherworker (right), pose with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper outside of Rockmount Ranch Wear, Denver. © Jason McSherry

It’s a contradiction in terms to describe someone as “Western royalty.” We don’t truck with kings out here – there’s a reason we left them in Europe. But there’s no more apt way to think of Steve Weil, the president of Denver’s Rockmount Ranch Wear and the third-generation heir to a dynasty in Western wear.

Steve’s grandfather, Jack A. Weil—remembered fondly in Denver as “Papa Jack”—founded Rockmount Ranch Wear in 1946. Originally dispatched to Denver to open a Colorado office for a Chicago clothing firm, inspiration struck.

“When he got to Colorado, my grandfather became aware of the fact that there was no fashion identity for Western people,” Weil the younger said. “So he began thinking about what that should be. The keyword that he used his whole life was ‘distinctive,’ something ‘designed in the West by Westerners.’”

What resulted is an art form as central to the identity of the American West as a Frederic Remington watercolor. Jack Weil concocted a form-fitting shirt—designed, his grandson says, to highlight Westerners’ broad shoulders and fit physiques—featuring flat, sawtooth pockets and, for the first time in fashion, pearl snaps. That’s right: Rockmount, as Jack Weil often put it, put the “snap” in Western shirts.

That “snap” he was referring to is more than just the buttons. It’s a certain independent cowboy ethos that lets the company boast America’s longest-running shirt design at the same time its products are celebrated by free-thinking, free-wheeling visionaries.

Rock stars, after all, wear Rockmount. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame owns “a pile of them,” Weil says. So do all of the members of The Avett Brothers. And Eric Clapton donned the shirts during the Cream reunion series in 2005—even flying Steve out, wares in hand, to see the show. Perhaps most famously, Bob Dylan wore a white Pima cotton Rockmount shirt when Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “Once upon a time you dressed so fine,” indeed. Even Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has been a client ever since he opened the nearby Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988.

How is it that this 71-year-old art form can reject becoming stodgy—and, in fact, constantly redefine what it means to be cool?

Now that, that’s the “snap.” “We produce things for people who have a sense of themselves as unique and as individuals,” Weil said. “People appreciate art with integrity. We just do what we do and that either flies or it doesn’t.”

Ghost Rider Boots

890 Grape St., Denver, 303-284-7744

Boot maker Mickey Mussett of Ghost Rider Boots takes special pride in his one-of-akind Willie Nelson boots. © Jason McSherry

The legend surrounding Mickey Mussett, the custom cowboy boot maker at the helm of Denver’s Ghost Rider Boots, holds that it’s impossible to “leave his shop the same as you came in.” Much of that is owed to his ability to sprinkle a handful of colorful, anachronistic and profound observations about life in every conversation. “The key to good boatmaking is good communication. You can’t shout across a stampede,” for example – not to mention “The culture these days makes it difficult to know if you is or is you ain’t. Well, cowboys is.”

And Mussett, to borrow a phrase, most certainly is. In everything that he does, he honors the artisanship of forerunners from back when you could find a bootmaker on every corner. He toils away on a circa 1930 Landis E sewing machine, which has stitched the soles on thousands of boots over the years. And Mussett doesn’t fuss with paperwork. “Cowboy boots take you back to an era when a handshake means something,” he said. “Everything is honor. You wear the boots, you wear the ideals with them.”

Mussett will be quick to tell you that his custom boots are nearly identical to those made, say, a century ago. “I make boots out of leather, string and glue,” he said.

One big difference? The price tag: $1,500, and two-to-three times that depending on how customized you want your custom boots. Take, for example, the “Boston Red Sox-red” alligator boots he crafted for a Sox fan, or the oilman who wanted a towering derrick emblazoned front and center. Or the boots Mussett made for Gov. Hickenlooper, featuring all sorts of Colorado iconography – and, for a guy known to pluck a string or two, a banjo. Hick wore those boots at his wedding in 2016.

But perhaps a few grand is pittance, considering who you become and the old-West values you keep alive by pulling on a pair of Ghost Riders. “You see a man in cowboy boots, you see a free man,” Mussett said. “The free man doesn’t answer to the machine.”

J. Skyler McKinley is AAA Colorado’s spokesman and director of government affairs.