Denver Business Journal - Steve Weil's Rockmount Puts the Cool in Cowboy

Husted: Steve Weil's Rockmount puts the cool in cowboy

The LoDo institution's iconic western shirts are worn by rock gods and movie stars.
By Bill Husted  – Contributing Writer, Denver Business Journal

Steve Weil is the third-generation Weil to run the family business, Rockmount Ranch Wear at 1626 Wazee St. in LoDo.

Weil, 57, has been married 21 years to the patient Wendy Weil and lives near Cheesman Park in the big old house that he grew up in.

Steve went to George Washington High School, where his son, Colter, is currently a junior. On to Tulane, then to England to study law. He came back to America in 1981 and soon figured the world had enough lawyers, so he joined the family business.

He started advertising the iconic western shirts Rockmount is known for: Handsome cowboy duds best known for the front snaps that replace the buttons. His grandfather, "Papa Jack," first designed the shirts and was the active in the company until he died in 2008 at age 107.

Now Steve runs the rodeo as the company's president, designer and tireless promoter. Along the way, Steve (with G. DeWeese) wrote the book "Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion" and an ode to his grandfather, "Ask Papa Jack: Wisdom of the World's Oldest CEO."

Steve's most recent adventure involved his design of a marijuana shirt that garnered international attention. He holds it up, but he will not wear it for a photograph. "I don't want to pander," he says.

He arrives on a bitter cold night at The Oxford Hotel's Cruise Room with his dog, Wazee, a mellow blond lab that pretty much accompanies him everywhere. Wazee is eventually expelled by a manager. Steve orders a Mandarin Martini.

Bill Husted: Do you miss your grandpa?

Steve Weil: I do, but, without sounding dramatic, I feel his presence all around me. I am in the business he started.

BH: Did you think you would do this when you were young?

SW: Not a chance. I didn't want to do this. I thought I was going to do law, maybe international law. I thought I would live somewhere else. But in 1981 it was a down market and the family business suddenly looked more attractive.

BH: Why don't you sell this building in LoDo? It has to be worth a lot.

SW: I'm too stubborn and we like what we do. People have been trying to buy that building since I was a kid. It was a warehouse and a wholesale showroom. It was never a factory. Denver has no clothing manufacturing to speak of. It's not a labor market that lends itself to sewing.

BH: When did it become a retail store?

SW: We dabbled in retail about the time my grandfather turned 100, in 2001. We were sitting in McCormick's looking out the window, having lunch. And we see all these people across the street, coming up to the door to buy our shirts, even though there was a sign. "WHOLESALE ONLY." But the stores on the 16th Street Mall and around town that used to carry our shirts had all closed.

So I looked at my father and grandfather and said, "We must be crazy. People are walking up trying to buy our shirts and we're sending them to the closest store which is 15 miles away. What do you say we open a little area in the store and give [retail] a try?' And they went along with it.

CNN was coming to town to do a story on my grandfather's 100th birthday and we put up a website. It changed the business and all of a sudden we had a way to reach people.

BH: Was the business doing OK before that?

SW: It was rough. Every business has its cycles, and ours was in a down cycle. The whole [western wear] industry was. But it's been good since then. We reinvented ourselves.

BH: When did your shirts become, well, hip?

SW: The transformation occurred over many, many years. Our shirts were in movies with Elvis and Clark Gable, but we were only aware of it years later. There was this transition when we began building our brand and publicizing the stuff that came to us naturally. Our customers included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Robert Plant most recently.

Those people came to us purely on their own and there is no greater accolade than to have a visionary like what you do. We became a destination, which amused my father and grandfather to no end. They made shirts, they designed shirts and sold shirts. It was a hard thing for them to grasp that we became iconic.

BH: Your shirts played a pivotal role in the movie "Brokeback Mountain."

SW: It should have won an Academy Award for Best Shirt. I got this call telling me that [director] Ang Lee wanted to use our shirts in this movie. And the guy said, "There is just one thing I have to tell you…" And I said, "Let me get this straight. Ang Lee wants our shirts. In the movie, Heath Ledger is going to wear them, Jake Gyllenhaal is going to wear them, Anne Hathaway is going to wear them, and Larry McMurtry is writing the screenplay. That's all I need to know. We're in."

It paid off. I mean, how many Academy Awards did that film win? [BH: three.] The shirts went on to a charity auction where they went for $101,000.

BH: Tell me about the marijuana shirt.

SW: We are known for our floral embroidery and I thought to myself, "OK, let's do an embroidered pot shirt." We call it the Cannabis Cowboy Shirt.

BH: I don't want to compliment you too much, but there is an element of genius here.

SW: We did it for fun. Life is short, so you might as well enjoy it. It was all about fun. It is not a political statement. The [Denver] Post picked it up and it went viral. Esquire did a story on it. We sold out, but we'll have more in a few weeks.

BH: What about the brouhaha about moving the National Western Stock Show to Aurora?

SW: I became the poster child of the total stupidity of the idea of Denver giving up the stock show.

BH: What do you think of Mayor Hancock?

SW: I feel that developers have taken over the city. The fact that there are no parking requirements on new projects is a disaster. It's insanity.

BH: What about opening a Rockmount store at DIA?

SW: I would be happy to do it if it could be done without too much brain damage. I've been invited to consider the idea but they have made it impossible to pursue.

BH: But plenty of Denver businesses are out there.

SW: The few local businesses that are represented are there in name only. None of them actually run their own businesses. I am unwilling to give up my brand for some suits to run. There is something fundamentally wrong that they are there in name only. It goes completely against the idea of having local businesses represented at DIA.

BH: What's an overrated virtue?

SW: Dying for Allah.

BH: Greatest extravagance?

SW: Vintage cars and watches.

BH: What would you change about your appearance?

SW: I see myself as a teenager and girls see me as their dad.

BH: Was your grandfather grateful that you reinvented the business?

SW: Not at first. Later he realized it was the future.

BH: What's your most treasured possession?

SW: Rockmount.

BH: Do you play music in the store?

SW: We play the music of the people who wear Rockmount, most recently Sam Smith.

BH: Favorite writers?

SW: Hemingway; Kent Haruf. I recently read Bill Bryson's "One Summer: America, 1927." That was the year before my father was born. I love reading books about the era of my forbearers. It makes me understand my roots.

BH: Motto?

SW: My grandfather told me: "Tell them the truth and you don't have to remember what you said."


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