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As Cowboy Boots Move Into the Mainstream, Demand Surges - 2002-06-15

The Wild West look that swamped the fashion shows worldwide earlier this spring signaled the revival of another American tradition - cowboy boots. Fashion models swaggered and strutted on catwalks in boots of every imaginable color and material, with designs including cacti, flowers, stars and bucking broncos - embossed, printed, inlaid or stitched on the boot tops. President Bush first renewed the spotlight on western footwear last year with his "Black-Tie-and-Boots" inaugural party and was followed by pop star Madonna with her western-theme album and concert tour. As the fashion begins to trickle into the mainstream, the American boot industry is bracing for a huge demand for cowboy boots. Zlatica Hoke takes us to the showroom and distribution center of the world's largest western footwear producer.

The Justin Brands distribution center in Fort Worth, Texas ships out about 9,000 pair of boots a day. That's more than two-million pairs a year.

"We have about 4,000 different dealers in the United States," Randy Watson said. He is the president and CEO of Justin Brands - a corporation of five western footwear producers: Justin, Tony Lama, Nocona, Chippewa and Justin Original Workboot.

"We sell, naturally, across the United States, but we sell internationally as well. We have a large presence in Europe, Japan, Australia and Brazil," Mr. Watson said.

Mr. Watson joined Justin Boots in 1980 when John Travolta's movie hit "Urban Cowboy" kicked off an earlier western fashion craze.

"You just couldn't make enough boots. We were opening factories and we were working two shifts and we were shipping at a frantic pace. In the mid-80's and late 80's, it slowed down and there was some downsizing in the industry and then again - it was almost a seven year cycle - it started to peak back up. Then we got into 1990, 1991, 1992 and (19)93 when we had just a phenomenal growth again, probably the largest year we ever had was 1992-3," he said.

The phenomenal sales of Justin footwear in the early 1990's were due in part to a whole range of additional products: tough lace-up work boots, climbing and camping boots and rubber-sole footwear. Randy Watson said the company has had to adjust to the times.

"A freshman in college today was born in 1984. And these kids - they've grown up in tennis shoes that have a lot of orthotics, features that make shoes comfortable, and a lot of cushioning and a lot of flexibility. So this young consumer today demands comfort and technology. The boots have changed from where they were in 1879," he said.

It was in 1879 that shoemaker H.J Justin in Spanish Fort, Texas began producing boots for cowboys who drove their cattle along the Chisholm Trail to the railway station in Abilene. His boots were designed for long hours on horseback over rough terrain. They had a high, underslung heel that could hook around the stirrup bar and a pointed toe for easier mounting. The tops were high for protection against brambles, snakes and other hazards of the brush. They were reinforced with cotton-thread stitches to keep them from rolling down.

By 1910, Justin boots were sold in 26 states, Canada, Cuba, and Mexico, for $11 a pair. In 1925, the company moved to Fort Worth, which was closer to the Chisholm Trail. As the demand for western boots began to wane, Justin added men's dress shoes to his production. Formal rodeos and western movies with popular stars such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey gave birth to a new and highly decorated boot style. Justin Brands designer John Pierce said these fancy boots from the 1930's and 40's are the latest fashion fad today.

"So we went into our archives, our history, our library of boots and we recreated some of the styles that Mr. Justin himself made," Mr. Pierce said.

The Justin Brand showroom is lined with rows and rows of boots of every size, shape, color and design. Some are quite plain and sturdy, designed for everyday use on the ranch. But those that attract the most attention are bright multi-colored styles with elaborate decorations. Some of them bear names reminiscent of old Hollywood western movie stars, such as Roy Rogers, and Pancho and Cisco. A pair of light blue boots is named Blue Skies, after a country singer Willie Nelson song. A red-white-and-blue pair is called Lone Stars after the State of Texas. And the list goes on.

"We have Miss Daisy's Lipstick, which is a red-and-yellow boot. We have Miss Daisy's Fudge, which is a fudge brown leather boot. Then we have A Night With Miss Daisy, Miss Daisy's Sky, Miss Daisy's Patter and A Rodeo with Miss Daisy. So those are all hand-embroidered boots," Mr. Pierce said.

In addition to color and design, John Pierce said there is a burgeoning selection of exotic leathers, from ostrich, snake, lizard and alligator to kangaroo, eel and stingray. Stingray? Yes - that flat, rectangular fish with a poisonous stinger under its tail. Boots made of fish skin? What's next, barracuda? Maybe, but western boots are back in the saddle and the Justin Brands company of Fort Worth, Texas is making the most of it.

Western boots go best with a western-style saddle.