The Times of London - Rockmount Shirts Worn by Eric Clapton


From James Doran in Denver, Colorado

Steve Weil was about to turn off his computer after a long week selling cowboy shirts from the shop his grandpa founded almost 60 years ago when an email arrived from Eric Clapton.

"At first I didn't believe it," says Weil, a 47 year old MBA from Denver who runs Rockmount Ranch Wear, the company that invented the modern Western shirt, the ready-made bolo tie, the curl-brimmed cowboy hat and many more items found in the discerning cow poke's wardrobe.

"It was a Friday night, I was about to go home and an email arrived from this rock legend asking me to get him some shirts for the big Cream reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall. I thought it was some kind of joke," Weil says.

But it was not, and within a week he was on a plane bound for England to hand deliver a dozen "Sawtooth 640s", Clapton's favourite shirt. The guitar legend in exchange gave Weil two VIP back stage passes to the concert of a lifetime.

Weil - a devout anglophile educated at Bristol University who owns an ancient Austin Healey and a clapped out Bentley - gushes as he tells of partying after the gig with Sir Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman and Ringo Starr.

But the Weils -- Steve, his father Jack and his 104 year old grandfather "Papa" Jack -- are no strangers to celebrity for they have dressed many a star from Gene Autry, to Elvis, David Bowie and Johnny Cash.

Rockmount is an American icon that has managed to survive the half-century decline that has decimated their business. They have continued to prosper while giants like Levi Strauss have been all but destroyed.

"I knew Levi Strauss," says Papa Jack, who is believed to be America's oldest working company president. "He got too big for his britches is what happened to him. I knew John B. Stetson too," he adds, referring to the one time maker of cowboy hats. "He's the same. They made too much money. You forget where you come from and you forget what you are doing when you don't have to work for a living."

Rockmount has not forgotten where it came from. The painstakingly restored 1908 store front in lower downtown Denver - or Lodo as newly arrived trendies have dubbed it - is lined with racks of brightly coloured western shirts, tall hats and cowboy boots from the stripped wood floors to the pressed tin ceiling.

Papa Jack still sits behind his desk every day telling endless stories of the years he worked as a traveling elastic salesman on the western frontier. He recalls every detail from his photographic memory with a thespian's flair and an impish glee.

The western outfitter was once as common on Main Streets in Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Utah and California as Starbucks and The Gap are today.

"When my grandfather started this business we had more than 240 competitor labels in this country, " says the youngest Weil. "Now we are one of a few more than 20. Over 90 per cent of our industry has been destroyed."  But it is not just the retailers and designers that have disappeared.

When Jack Weil started Rockmount in 1946 the cotton he used to make the shirts was grown in the southern states of the US. It was woven in Massachusetts and the garments were sewn together in Georgia.

Today the company still has factories in Georgia that make its trademark western shirts with jagged or "sawtooth" pockets and diamond shaped press-studs, or snaps as they are called in America.

But the industry is less than a shadow of its former self.

"Most clothing sold in this country is made in China or Mexico, or elsewhere in Asia or Latin America," says Weil. "It is very sad.

The High Street has also changed as almost all of the independent retailers that carried Rockmount's clothes have gone out of business.

The decline of America's rag trade has led Rockmount to reinvent itself in the past two years. The company was a wholesaler for more than half a century but has now moved into retail.

"We never did retail because we didn't want to damage our customers," says Papa Jack. But now one giant retailer whose name may not be spoken inside Rockmount's store has forced most of their one time customers out of business.

"Its all Wal-Mart these days," says Papa Jack. "I can't stand the sons of bitches. I know all about that Walton fellow from over there in Arkansas who started it. He was nothing but a Hillbilly."

But it was JC Penney who started the retailing trend that finished off America's manufacturers and wholesalers.

"James Cash Penney was his name, I knew him too," says Papa Jack. "His trick was never to buy a store. He would come into town and take over the most successful store by offering a fellow JC Penney stock. Then he would give him more stock if he managed to open a store of his own."

Papa Jack also has a thing or two to say about the US government's refusal to help the dying rag trade with tax breaks and about the way it allows cheap foreign made garments into the country with low duty.

"In the end you have to adapt to survive," says the youngest Weil, who spearheaded the drive into retail, came up with the idea for Eric Clapton's signature shirts and developed Rockmount into an international retailer.

His father before him was also an innovator as the first man to sell western wear east of the Mississippi who transformed Rockmount into a national business.

As Papa Jack returns to his stack of paper work a familiar looking fat man with a large white beard emerges from a fitting room in a bright red tasseled cowboy shirt and a red cowboy hat.

"Ho, Ho, Ho," he booms, inflating his mammoth chest as if to test the press-studs' durability. "It's great Steve, " he says. "But I would prefer the shirt with some embroidered holly and berries instead of the flowers can you do that?"

"Sure we can Santa," says Weil before saying again behind his hand "You have to adapt to survive."

By James Doran

Papa Jack Weil sits behind a large wooden desk at the front of the Rockmount Ranch Wear store, his tiny frame almost obscured by a mountain of paperwork as he hunches over a clacking typewriter.

"Pull up a chair, I'll be done with this presently," he says, before explaining how he is writing to a customer who owes the store some $1600 for consignments delivered more than three months ago.

But this is no ordinary accounts clerk. Papa Jack, at 104, is believed to be the oldest working company president in America.

The sprightly centenarian has worked in the American rag trade since the age of 15 and has seen it all.

Today he gets to work at 7:30 every morning and chases up unpaid accounts for the company he founded in 1946.

He cannot remember taking a day off in the past half a decade, and not because his memory is fading. He recalls, at length and with considerable flair, almost every detail of his long and fascinating life.

Papa Jack is a first generation American. His father, who died aged 91, came to the country from Alsace Lorraine in the early 19th century.

Jack A Weil, to give his full name, was brought up on the flat and featureless plains of Indiana but, like so many young men of his era, decided to "Go West" to seek his fortune.

He was an elastic salesman for the biggest supplier to the American clothing industry and drove his early model Chrysler - number 32 off the production line - all over his territory.

"My patch went from El Paso, Texas, down on the border with Mexico there, to the Canadian border," he says while his avian frame jiggles with a chuckle. "That's the whole country you see."

Customers frequently ask Papa Jack for the key to both his longevity and his success in business.

"Well, being from the Midwest I have always eaten a lot of vegetables," he says. "But I suppose really I am just lucky. I was too young for the First war and too old for the Second. War has killed a lot of men in my lifetime."

He gave up smoking at the age of 60, drinking at the age of 90 and red meat just four years ago when he was 100.

As for his success in business, he advises staying out of debt - Rockmount has always been self capitalised - helping others to succeed alongside you, and constant innovation. "And I was never envious of anyone else. That is very important," he says.

"I helped a lot of people get started. That's important too."

In the late 1920s a young salesman called Gene Autry came to Papa Jack and asked if he would set him up in business. "He worked for a very good customer of mine so I asked them if that would be alright but I vouched for him and said give the kid a chance," Papa Jack says.

"So I sent him enough merchandise to fit out his store which was in the lobby of a hotel, but he wasn't there for more than a week when a talent scout from Hollywood staying at the place heard him sing and hired him and that was the end of Gene Autry selling western shirts,' he laughs again. "I had to take them all back."

Papa Jack as the son of a Jewish French immigrant is the unlikely originator of American Western wear. The trademark cowboy shirt with bright colours and press-studs was his invention, as was the ready-tied Bolo tie and the cowboy hat with the curled up brim.

"I was always thinking of something new," he says, "But that's me. I'm a dreamer," he chuckles once more. "And I never stopped enjoying myself, not for a minute."

From James Doran in Denver, Colorado

Eric Clapton once sang of how he shot the sheriff and soon he will have the duds to match as the rock guitar legend is poised to launch his own clothing brand with a signature label cowboy shirt.

When the shirt is launched Mr Clapton will join the long line of rock and pop stars with their own brand of clothing such as Sean P. Diddy Combs, Russell Simmons and Eminem.

Mr Clapton earlier this month ordered a dozen of his favourite cowboy shirts to be flown in to London from Denver so he could wear them for his sell out Cream reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.

The shirt, known as the "Sawtooth 640" made by Rockmount Ranch Wear of Denver, has long been the guitarist's preferred cowboy shirt.

Since the concert Mr Clapton has been in negotiations with Rockmount , the company that claims to have invented the classic western shirt, and is understood to have specified the design for a shirt himself.

It is expected to be similar to the "Sawtooth" shirts he likes to wear on stage, which have a distinctive jagged pocket and diamond shaped press-studs, but with the addition of lyrics from one of his songs embroidered on the back.

"The special design and the lyrics on the shirt are top secret," said Steve Weil, the grandson of Rockmount founder "Papa Jack" Weil who still works at the shop despite being 104 years old. "But we hope to have it in stores by the Fall."


James Doran
New York Bureau
The Times of London


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