Western wear has spread across all lines of fashion faster than a prairie fire. City folk started going wild for the West in the spring, after influential designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Isaac Mizrahi and Marc Jacobs offered a fashion roundup of gingham checks, fringed leather and chambray. A posse of imitators quickly followed with their own versions of Western-influenced fashions in all prices and categories--men’s, women’s, children’s, even cowboy duds for babies. Western wear is still riding high, moving into the heavier leathers and suedes as fall approaches. The result: City slickers who have never stepped foot on a dude ranch are moseying around in cowboy boots, suede chaps, 10-gallon hats and silver-tipped belts. These cowboy wanna-bes are more sophisticated than the urban cowboys of the 1970s. They’re more inclined to borrow only one or two pieces from the West and mix it with their contemporary wardrobes. Some are wearing $3,000 cowboy boots made of hand-stitched leather with their city jackets and suits. Chaps, once worn by cowboys over their Wrangler jeans to protect their legs, are being sported by women over black Lycra leggings. For many, going West simply means donning a silver concho belt with jeans or a catsuit.
“You don’t have to have the full-on Tom Mix cowboy look,” says Ted Greve, manager and buyer for Out of Santa Fe in Fashion Island Newport Beach.
“Mel Gibson has been wearing boots and he’s not considered a cowboy or a wanna-be cowboy.”
Whether riding a horse or a Harley, one can wear Western-flavored styles such as Out of Santa Fe’s black deerskin motorcycle jacket with silver conchos and Indian beading on the sleeves ($1,295), or a cowboy shirt with a tiny black-and-white houndstooth print ($250).
One also doesn’t have to be a cowgirl to wear the short triple-tiered broomstick skirts with campy cowboy prints ($85), or the nine-inch Rocketbusters, replicas of ‘30s and ‘40s boots with colorful leather inlays of cacti and riding cowboys ($295-$895).
Patrons of the Linda Bentley Boutique in Fashion Island Newport Beach have gone hog wild for black suede chaps with gold metal studs. The full-length chaps with fringe down the side ($575) look hot with black Lycra leggings, while a short chaps skirt ($299) is a great cover for a catsuit.
“It’s a sexy little look,” boutique owner Linda Bentley says. “These are for the sophisticated Orange County cowgirl who keeps her body in good shape.”
To be sure, many of the Western styles are not authentic cowboy wear. Designers have given the Western classics a fashion-forward edge that often makes them impractical for ranch hands.
Huntington Beach belt designer Al Beres takes pains to describe his silver-buckled beauties as “nouveau Western.”
“We’re the Rodeo Drive cowboy, the Madison Avenue cowboy,” Beres says. “I don’t design for rodeo cowboys, but they wear my belts anyway. Cowboys are hip, too. They don’t want to be left out.”
The Western craze has been a boon for Beres: His company recently enjoyed its record month in sales. Al Beres belts, some with conchos and studs on lizard and leather straps, sell at the Giorgio boutique in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa and Mi Place in Fullerton and Laguna Niguel ($125-$825).
The revamp of Western classics has been attracting a more fashion-conscious clientele to Howard & Phil’s Western Wear in Brea Mall and South Coast Plaza.
“Western wear was always there, but for many years people considered Western as just plaid and denim. Now more fashion looks have crept in,” says Don Williams, merchandise director of Howard & Phil’s corporate office in Canyon Country.
Their Western shirts have jumped in popularity thanks to brighter, livelier conversational prints. They now come in bold patterns with Western scenes.
“Cowboy shirts used to be tiny floral prints in maroon, dark blue and black. Now they come in bright royals, reds, yellows, oranges, purple and teals,” Williams says.
Western-influenced jewelry has also undergone a transformation from the days of silver and turquoise.
Raoul Sosa is one of a new generation of Southwest jewelry artists drawing on Indian heritage for contemporary designs, according to Ron Cohan, owner of Zia Jewelry Gallery in San Juan Capistrano.
“They’ve taken the old Native American techniques of inlaying stone against stone while using modern stones and colors,” Cohan says. They’re hammering their sleek creations from gold instead of silver, and they’re using fiery opals, blue lapis and purple sugalite in place of turquoise and red coral.
“The sugalite goes with a lot of the clothes, especially purple cowboy boots,” Cohan says.
Why is the West being worn again?
Some say Garth Brooks and the growth of country music are to thank for Western wear’s mass appeal.
Denim & Diamonds in Huntington Beach, just one of several new country-Western clubs in Orange County, has tripled its business since changing from Top 40 to country-Western music, says Clint Hughes, director of marketing and entertainment.
Denim & Diamonds patrons dress in a curious hybrid of Western and contemporary fashions. They can even buy hats, shoes, and exotic-skin boots on the premises.
“On the men we get everything from boots and jeans to coats and ties,” Hughes says. “For women, it’s a bustier underneath an open Western shirt, tight jeans, tight skirts, bike shorts and of course, boots. I call it Elly May Clampett chic.”
Greve suggests hard economic times have created a desire to get back to the basics, “and there’s nothing more basic and genuine than Western wear. People want items that have intrinsic value.”
They’re looking for well-made and timeless goods, such as the artfully executed sterling belt buckles, boots that are not mass-produced but made by three or four craftsmen and hand-painted silk skirts, jackets, shirts by Riflefire.
“There’s a huge difference between rubber tomahawk touristo quality and unique American craftsmanship,” Greve says.
Williams traces the Western wear trend back to the surge of patriotism that followed the Gulf War.
“People are more nostalgic for home-grown, made-in-America things,” he says.
“Then there’s the desire to be something you’re not. There’s a lot of people wanting to be John Wayne,” Williams says. “In everybody, there’s a little bit of cowboy.”
How to tell a wanna-be cowboy from the real thing: Look at their jeans. Real cowboys are at home on the range in the Wrangler five-pocket jeans.
“They’re looser and roomier for riding and working on the range,” says David Moore, assistant manager of Howard & Phil’s Western Wear in South Coast Plaza. The wanna-bes tend to give themselves away by wearing Guess? or other designer jeans with their Western shirts and boots.
While the Western trend may taper off, he’s betting it won’t fade like a pair of old jeans.
“Western has become a legitimate fashion category, whereas before it was a novelty,” Greve says.