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10 Questions for Wendy Henry

The Back at the Ranch designer and shop owner is a true cowboy boot aficionado.

Tucked away in a historical adobe building in downtown Santa Fe, N.M., is Back at the Ranch, a tony boot boutique founded in 1990 by Wendy Henry.

But Henry is not your typical cowgirl: She launched her retail career with a women’s apparel store in New York, and eventually traded her city pumps for a pair of boots. “I have a passion for cowboy boots,” said Henry, who regards the look as part of a lifestyle rather than being trend-driven. Customers seem to agree, because despite the recession, they helped drive business for 2009 up 6 percent over 2008.

When Henry’s 1,800-sq.-ft. store opened, it stocked authentic vintage boots, but the storeowner found the size offerings limited. So to serve a wider clientele, she added a selection of new product from leading boot brands. Eventually, she launched her own Back at the Ranch collection, and four years later, it accounts for all of the store’s offering (with about 700 boots available at any given time).

The boots are handmade exclusively in a factory Henry established in El Paso, Texas, and retail from $1,000 to $9,000, for an all-over alligator design.

Henry’s creations also have caught the attention of other boot retailers, with the line available in stores including Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum, Idaho, and Gunslinger in Bandera, Texas. Such retailers come to Back at the Ranch for its elaborate styles, which feature intricate tooling and delicate overlays and underlays.

Said Henry, “Customers don’t come to me for a plain black boot.”

1. When did you first fall in love with cowboy boots?
WH:
[I fell in love with them] as a teenager. I’ve always [been infatuated] with the West. Cowboy boots can be euphoric. Patsy Cline has been a cowgirl idol of mine — I even named my dog Patsy Cline. But my true cowboy idol is my husband, Cowden, who’s from Dallas.

2. How have you left your stamp on such a male-dominated industry?
WH:
As a retailer, I saw what was missing in the industry. You don’t find boot makers sitting around and reading fashion magazines. I live fashion and wear the [latest trends]. For example, I found that women couldn’t put skinny jeans over their boots. So I did a zippered short boot that fits under skinny jeans. It’s tapered at the top and hugs the ankle, with the back zipper making it easy to slip on and off.

3. What are the major influences of your designs?
WH:
I’ve been inspired by [everything from] rodeo queens to Ralph Lauren. I’m very visual and love fabrics and textures. I’ve created new styles from nail polish colors and perfume bottles. The hand-tooling I use has a Victorian influence. I was one of the first to embellish with crystals, and lug-sole boots is my latest trend. I have a vintage collection on display in the store that’s frequently used for inspiration for new designs.

4. Have you tried to emulate any boot makers from the past?
WH:
Of course, the pioneers, such as Justin, Acme, Olsen Stelzer and Ray Jones, have continually inspired my designs. But M.L. Leddy’s 5/8-inch box toe and traditional boot designs have appealed to me most.

5. What goes into creating an authentic cowboy boot?
WH:
It’s constructed of quality leather, is handmade, looks great, as well as [being] utilitarian. The last defines the fit of the boot. I’ve worked for years to perfect [mine]. From there, such details as a hand-carved toe box and underslung heel create the silhouette. Wood pegs are used to hold the insole and outsole together. Another true sign of a handmade cowboy boot is the slight upward turn of the toe.

6. Where do you find skilled craftsman today to produce your boots?
WH:
Our factory employs Mexican-Americans whose families have been making boots for generations. Each has his own expertise, such as stitching, inlay, hand-tooling, pattern making and lasting. Made in America in the world of cowboy boots is extremely important. [They’re] an American icon. People distinguish American-made boots as superior to those made anywhere else. American craftsmanship is incomparable.

7. What are the must-have boots in your collection?
WH:
My El Rancho, with its rough-out leather vamp, elephant-skin counter, red upper with bright stitching and underslung heel, is the boot that can be worn riding on the ranch or shopping in New York’s Soho neighborhood. It just gets better with age. And of course, there’s the full crocodile style, which can be worn with jeans, in the boardroom or to a black-tie affair. There are also beautifully inlaid boots and a hand-tooled [pair].

8. Cowboy boots require a breaking-in period. Myth or fact?
WH:
Absolute myth. [They] should feel great from the minute you put them on, and you should be able to walk for miles. The biggest mistake people make is buying boots that are tight. These are usually too small and become uncomfortable. That’s why it’s important for the heel to lift while walking.

9. How should jeans be worn with boots?
WH:
About 99.9 percent of people wear boots under their jeans. That’s why all my boots have special detailing on the toe. When the wearer looks down, they can see all the details. And women have the advantage of showing them off when wearing them with a skirt.

10. Why do cowboy boots have such staying power?
WH:
[They’re] one of the last true forms of Americana. They instill confidence when worn, have ageless appeal and are one of America’s most recognized fashion contributions. A boot can be as personal as a tattoo, but you can take off your boots.

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