Cowpoke couture is back in the saddle again. A new generation of consumers is embracing western-style snap shirts, cowboy hats, boots and accessories, a trend inspired by the crossover success of bestselling country and Americana performers such as Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, as well as prime-time TV hits like Nashville and Justified.
"Over the last two years, we've had an increase in sales, and we're getting a lot more new customers who've never been in our store before," says Richard Alcala, president of Alcala's Western Wear, a 41-year-old family-owned retailer in Chicago's trendy West Town neighborhood. "It seems to revolve around country music and concerts--when there's a big show coming into town, we see a big spike in sales."
Twenty-eight percent of U.S. music listeners cite country as their favorite genre, more than any other format, according to The NPD Group. The research firm credits country's cross-demographic appeal to its diversity and accessibility. And it's happening in major metropolitan markets: This year New York City welcomed Nash FM, the Big Apple's first country radio station in 17 years.
Steve Weil--president of Denver-based Rockmount Ranch Wear, the venerable western apparel manufacturer founded in 1946 by his grandfather Jack--credits the 1980 film Urban Cowboy for initially driving country music and apparel into mainstream popular culture. In fact, he maintains that the urban cowboy trend never really faded away, but the media simply shifted its attention.
"I disagree with the contention that this is a recent resurgence. This is classic fashion that has been in vogue for decades," Weil says. "What makes Rockmount different from other brands is that we're not trendy. We don't follow seasonal cycles that come and go. We make successful products that have extremely long life cycles. That's our secret to survival."
Weil says interest in western apparel is a lifestyle choice, not a fashion craze. "We're trying to bring out products that appeal to a wide range of people who like the idea of the West," he says. "I design for my friends. They're not cowboys--they're people from a variety of professions, from banking to retail to resort real estate."
Rockmount's adherence to traditional western style doesn't mean the company is stuck in the past. "As a small business, we're extremely agile--we work on new designs every day and bring out new products monthly, if not weekly," Weil says. "Rockmount is also known for bringing disparate things together in a new way. For example, the fabrics we use are not necessarily used by others in this category. Everything we do, we do with a distinct twist."
Most Rockmount apparel is manufactured domestically and shipped to retail partners at home and abroad. The "Made in the USA" imprimatur is essential to western wear's enduring consumer appeal, says Alcala, whose store stocks thousands of boots and hats from American companies. "Europeans appreciate it even more than we do," Alcala says. "When they see stuff not made in the USA, they ask for something made here. They know if they buy something made in the USA that it's still high quality."
Overseas visitors make up just part of Alcala's clientele--neighborhood hipsters are a constant, lured by the store's Crayola array of Levi's jeans, and celebrity customers like Robert Plant, Bill Murray, John Malkovich and Steven Tyler have walked through its doors as well. All come in search of something colorful, comfortable and unmistakably classic.
"We're not competing with Sears, Macy's and Nordstrom. We're not selling the same products they do. We have something more unique," Alcala says. "It's not just country music that people like. It's the lifestyle. Europeans come to our store because they want to take something back with them that's American. Western wear started here. It's 100 percent American."