When I was a young boy, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a fireman or astronaut (even back then I must have sensed, on an instinctive level, that I would be neither strong nor good at math), but a cowboy.
Of course, this was back before there were EDM DJ’s, User Experience Designers and American Ninja Warriors, so lots of kids wanted to be cowboys, and there were lots of cool western clothes to dress up our daydreaming. But then, once I wasn’t seven anymore, the supply seemed to dry up and I was left to wear “normal” clothes. (A quick perusal of family photos reveals I rarely dressed normally, but I’ve been uncharacteristically wise enough to not share those photos here.)
Flash forward to 1997, and I was working for a late night television show (being discreet about which one is my greatest Stupid Human Trick), and found myself in Denver, Colorado about to fly an entire studio audience to New York for a Denver-themed taping. While wandering LoDo waiting for the plane, I found myself on Wazee Street and in front of a giant window display of the cowboy clothes of my youth…but made for grownups!
Thus began my awareness of (obsession with) Rockmount Ranch Wear, and a friendship with its president, Steve Weil. Whatever you know of western wear, you largely have Rockmount and the Weil family to thank for it. In a nutshell, from Rockmount’s website:
Rockmount is a three-generation business started by Jack A. Weil (1901 – 2008) who worked daily until age 107 years old (and was believed to be the oldest working CEO in America). A true pioneer, he introduced the first western shirts with snaps (the Rockmount signature design with diamond snaps and sawtooth pockets is considered to be the longest production style shirt in America). Jack A. was motivated to develop a distinctive look for cowboys, ranchers and farmers living in the American West. Cowboys have a strong independent identity and want to be different. Jack A. offered them a special fashion statement.
So, while Jack A. had the vision to innovate a new distinctly American fashion, others had influences, too. His son Jack B. (1928 – 2008) joined Rockmount in the 1950s. Jack B. started in sales and brought Western fashion East. He helped popularize it across the country. Western wear was mainly popular in the American West until the 1950’s when Jack B. was one of the first salesman to sell it east of the Mississippi River.
Eventually his son, Steve joined Rockmount, and by the late 1980s had expanded the brand’s popularity to Asia and Europe. His grandfather’s “Western state of mind” had spread from the American West to world-wide in 40 years. Steve brought back fine 100% cottons and gabardines, which had not been used in 30 years since the advent of permanent press polyester blends in the ‘60s. Today, what distinguishes Rockmount from other brands is the company’s commitment to quality and classic design. While other companies fall all over each other copying what seems to be selling that season, Rockmount is committed to going its own way.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Steve and chat about the past, present, and future of his family’s 70-year-old business, a heritage brand if there ever was one.
Heddels: Rockmount has been around for seven decades–to what do you most attribute your success and staying power?
Steve Weil: We are stubborn and always thinking about new things. We stick to our roots but still introduce new items weekly. While other brands take months to get to market, Rockmount can develop new designs in a week, and be in the stores in six weeks.
H: What has changed most about running this type of business, both from the time of your grandfather and since you’ve been running the company?
SW: Business in general and retail in particular have undergone seismic shifts in recent years. When you consider my grandfather started out with an abacus, then went to computers, he always stayed on top of things. The challenge we now face is that the retail landscape has consolidated and there are fewer independent stores to which we sell. We have added rockmount.com and our own flagship store in downtown Denver. This has helped us deal with the demise of retail.
H: Is there one item that you can’t imagine not carrying…a Rockmount signature piece?
SW: We are a shirt company first and foremost. Our signature design has been with us always. I can’t imagine not making it in white pima cotton or denim…forever.
H: What keeps you doing this…ever considered–gasp–selling the business?
SW: We’ve been on a roll for the last 10-plus years. My grandfather did this over 60 years, my father 50 years, and I am now at 35 years. (As I said, we are stubborn.) I’ll keep on doing it as long as it is fun and we are profitable. We receive inquiries from time to time about selling out, but I come from a long line of workaholics. I like to have some work to do even when on vacation. I need the structure, so if this led to something else I would consider it, but stopping cold is not in my DNA.
H: Is anything from Rockmount made entirely in America? What’s something people might not know about the challenges of clothing truly “Made in the U.S.A.”?
SW: We make everything we can in the USA. Unfortunately, it is not feasible in some categories, so we are forced to import. But in many ways, we are the last guys standing. It’s not easy making shirts in the U.S., but we do it because real western shirts should be made in the U.S.A., not third world countries. It is absurd to make Americana in places that do not pay living wages by our standards.
H: What part of your company’s past most inspires you?
SW: I love that rock stars like Elvis, Bob Dylan, Springsteen, and Eric Clapton wore and wear Rockmount. We never know who is going to contact us or walk in the door. Not too long ago, Robert Plant came by and I got to spend time with him over the course of a weekend. He was inspiring, eloquent, approachable and full of energy.
H: What’s something we can look forward to from the brand in the future?
SW: Something new every week! Right now we are building up our flannel inventory. We have these really sweet shadow plaids coming out.
H: Some pieces…the retro embroideries for instance…seem kinda’ out there. Who buys this stuff?
SW: Grandsons to granddads. (JB: OK, fine—I have more than my fair share of these, too.)
H: This has been a family business forever–think it will stay that way…do you want it too?
SW: Sure, I’d like it to stay in the family, but that happens less and less. Second generation succession is something like 30%, third generation 7%. It may not be in the cards.
H: What place do you feel Rockmount holds in the heritage brand universe?
SW: I think there is a strong appreciation for heritage brands, especially small family businesses. And despite being small, we have a huge reach, selling in dozens of countries to an amazing range of people.
H: When you meet someone and they ask you, “what do you do,” what do you tell them?
SW: I make the world safe for western wear.
Safe indeed, and we’re all the better for it. Thinking back on my childhood fantasies, I didn’t really want to be a cowboy, I wanted to dress like one. (A family outing in my early teens that included horseback riding was nothing short of terrifying…horses are enormous and mine made it very clear he did not want to be ridden no matter what I whispered to him.)
I still have an aversion to encounters with livestock, but I’ll take all the Rockmount Ranch Wear I can get. And since the Autumn mercury here in Venice Beach could dip down into the high 60’s, I’ll be checking out those flannel shadow plaids Steve mentioned. You might set a spell, mosey on over to the site, and do the same, pardner. (See, not even the lingo works for me…I’m as authentic as Stallone in Rhinestone.)
Rockmount Ranch Wear is located at 1626 Wazee St., Denver, CO, 80202. Learn more about them at their official website.