Esquire - How Rockmount Ranch Wear Created a Style Icon that Spans Subcultures
It's Yeehaw Week at Esquire, and we're exploring all the ways in which Western style and culture are coming to bear on what clothes we wear (and what music we listen to) now. We kicked off with a look at the "Yeehaw Agenda," and the deep history of the Black Western aesthetic. Then, we talked Western wear with mega-DJ Diplo and the founder of Ft. Lonesome, the clothier that made his infamous VMA suit. Now, it's the inventors of the snap-front Western shirt at Rockmount. Giddy up.
In the late ‘80s, Steve Weil was watching an old retrospective of Elvis Presley when he noticed the King of Rock was wearing one of his grandfather’s shirts. In 1946, Jack Weil founded Rockmount Ranch Wear, which is credited with inventing and popularizing the snap-front Western shirt. But, for the first half century of the company’s existence, the folks in charge didn’t realize how popular Rockmount had become among actors, musicians, politicians and beyond. That’s because, at the time, Rockmount shirts were only sold wholesale, and the Colorado-based Western wear company didn’t have direct contact with its customers.
When Steve — now the president of his late-grandfather’s company — began to catalog and archive who had been wearing Rockmount, he found it on everyone from Bob Dylan to Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Today, 73 years after Jack founded the company, Rockmount still holds that cache of cool, having been worn by Jack White, Matthew McConaughey, Maren Morris, Miley Cyrus, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Paul McCartney...the list goes on and on.
A Rockmount shirt custom-designed for Eric Clapton.
In fact, when I talk to Steve in early September, members of the Rolling Stones had been into Rockmount a few weeks prior to shop (the band played at Mile High Stadium in Denver in August). Amos Lee stopped by the weekend before we spoke. As Steve tells me, the arrival of the internet made it easier for people like Eric Clapton to reach out to Rockmount directly with orders. “We didn’t have direct contact with the consumer until about 2001, when my grandfather was turning 100 and we went online and added a retail store,” Steve tells me. By the early 2000s, it was possible for Ang Lee to reach out to the brand to use in the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain.
“I think it's because there's a bit of rebellion in wearing Rockmount. It's a rebellion against homogenized culture and mass market,” Steve says of the artists and celebrities drawn to the brand's styles. “They're all about creative individuality. And I think they get that from us, and we get that from them. And to me, there's no better validation of what we're doing than when you have intensely creative people like what you're doing. We work with Robert Redford at Sundance Mountain Resort. And I love that, because here you have this extremely creative person who likes what we do.”
A Rockmount sign from the "Cowboys and Rock Stars" show at the Foothills Art Center in Golden, Colorado, in 2011.
Over the summer, as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” dominated the charts, the overlap of Western style and hip-hop enjoyed a moment in the spotlight as it never had before, and the team at Rockmount was overjoyed with their style once again being absorbed into other trends. “Its appeal to hip-hop and street wear — in the way that Rockmount went from country music to rock — it totally makes sense that it would cross into new frontiers,” Steve says. “What other fashion appeals to skateboarders and granddads?”
Throughout the years, Rockmount has remained a fashion staple and a family business. Jack’s son, Jack B., joined the company in 1954, and Steve grew up in the business and became president in 1991 — expanding Rockmount nationally, then internationally. It’s now sold as far as Tokyo, Paris and London.
Steve, Jack A., and Jack B. Weil at Rockmount’s headquarters on Wazee Street in 1982.
Today, Steve’s nephew and Jack’s great-great grandson David Oksner is the latest member of the family to join Rockmount. Born exactly 90 years after his great-grandfather, Oksner tells me Jack figured out how to use a computer well into his 100s. Jack was the oldest CEO in the world, and working “daily until age 107,” as Rockmount boasts. As Oksner, who’s 28 years old explains, it’s incredible to see how Rockmount’s credibility has transitioned into the digital age.
“We have folks who reach out to us, and they're like, ‘I'm an influencer. Can you send me a shirt, and I'll tag you on Instagram?’ Think about what that would've been like in the 1940s,” Oksner says. He tells me just recently he was watching an episode of Portlandia on Netflix, where Steve Buscemi was wearing a Rockmount shirt in one scene.
A detail of one of Rockmount’s signature embroidered Western shirts.
As Steve, who literally wrote a book on Western wear, explains, the jump into hip-hop and street wear tracks with the history of the style. In 1978, he says, the movie Urban Cowboy helped popularize Western wear with a wider audience.
“That was the first time that Western went mass market. Previously it was a niche, mostly regional,” Steve says. “Urban Cowboy made it ok for most everyone to don something Western: a hat, boots, shirt, belt.”
And it’s true — Rockmount shirts are appropriate for any occasion for any sensibility. "Hell, I wore one to a wedding last month", he said.
Jack A. Weil, Rockmount’s CEO, at 99 years of age, in 2001. Rockmount boasts that he worked daily until he was 107. Weil passed away in 2008.
Rockmount has only one location, its flagship store on Wazee Street in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood. Of course, having set up its operation in 1946, Rockmount was there long before this area of Denver was ever known as LoDo. The storefront — which is one part museum, one part fashion heaven, one part tourist destination (literally tours go through here), one part rustic ranch depot —converted from a wholesale to a retail space in 2002. It's unassuming, charming, and packed with bold embroidered shirts, bolo ties (also popularized by Rockmount), and hats. Rockmount, despite its old-school origins, is hardly conservative in its approach to fashion.
Steve’s goal has always been to remain rooted in Rockmount’s storied past, while pushing the boundaries of what Western wear can be. In recent years, Rockmount made national headlines for one shirt beautifully embroidered with a pot plant.
Rockmount’s Cannabis Cowboy shirt is still part of the brand’s lineup.
“The pot shirt we did because I started thinking that a pot plant kind of had a palm tree thing going on,” Steve says. “And I thought that would make good embroidery. So we did an embroidery kind of commemorating the legalization of marijuana.”
They have other bold styles, like the rocket shirts that Steve calls the Atomic Cowboy. “We stay relevant and reinvent ourselves. And that's been extremely important, because the one thing that came from my grandfather is constant innovation,” Steve says.
For fall, Weil is working on a second run of popular flannel and fleece shirts that have already sold through. Then he’s thinking about next spring. And after that? Probably the next century of Rockmount.