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The Washington Post - Jack A. Weil, 107; Entrepreneur Put Style in Western Wear

Jack A. Weil, 107; Entrepreneur Put Style in Western Wear

By Martin Weil

Washington Post Staff Writer 
Sunday, August 17, 2008

 

Jack A. Weil, a celebrated entrepreneur of the American West, who added snaps and snappiness to cowboy shirts and then sold those shirts to thousands who never saw the sagebrush, died Aug. 13 at his home in Denver. He was 107. The cause of death was not reported.

As founder and head of Rockmount Ranch Wear, Mr. Weil was regarded as a successful businessman and a symbol of longevity.

Considered the Henry Ford of the western shirt and a major force behind a notably American fashion, he was also said to be America's oldest chief executive.

A visionary and a classic innovator, Mr. Weil conceived the idea more than 60 years ago, according to grandson Steve Weil, that "westerners needed their own fashion identity."

Aiming, his grandson said, to give western wear a look as distinctive as the region's topography and lifestyle, Mr. Weil created a slim-fitting shirt that in its cut and its cuffs, its pocketing and its fastenings, was to prove immediately recognizable.

"Every design element was given a flourish," said his grandson. Distinctive in their dash and flair, the shirts featured a special yoke and elaborate hand embroidery.

Others, of course, helped create the western look, but Mr. Weil "was there at the beginning" and was "considered the father of the snap western shirt."

One of his company's designs, with its saw-toothed pocket flaps and its diamond-shaped snap fasteners, is "the longest running shirt design in America," said the grandson, who is company president.

Mr. Weil was born March 28, 1901, in Evansville, Ind., to a father who had come from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.

He moved to Denver to sell garters for a Chicago firm and later became a partner in a company that sold work wear to cowboys. He began making western shirts based on designs he saw in movies.

In 1946, he founded his own company. It soon became identified with the snap fastener, which was said to have the advantage of popping open if pulled, thus saving a shirt's fabric from tearing. Mr. Weil also popularized the bolo tie.

Known as an inventive marketer and astute businessman, Mr. Weil kept his company thriving through principles and practices that he often expressed with pungency and wit. Although Rockmount was famous for cowboy clothing, Mr. Weil joked that the family "would have starved if we only sold to cowboys," his grandson said. "You have to appeal to the cowboy in everyone," Mr. Weil once told the Associated Press.

Hence, his grandson said, he popularized his products in many ways, offering buyers around the world wearable symbols of the romance of the West. As a manufacturer, he offered small retailers the same prices as big chains, and felt strongly that to the fullest possible extent his products should be made in the United States.

According to the company, Rockmount shirts have been worn by many entertainers, including the cast of the Academy Award-winning film "Brokeback Mountain."

Survivors include a daughter, Jane Romberg of Steamboat Springs, Colo.; five grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

His wife, Beatrice Weil, died in 1990. His son, Jack B. Weil, who had been prominent in the company for years, died this year.

At the end, his grandson said, Mr. Weil "just gave out."

"He lived a vibrant life for 107 years and 5 months," Steve Weil said, "and he never got tired, until the last few weeks."

When asked for career advice, Mr. Weil would say, "Do what you love." He followed his own advice, his grandson said.

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