This piece appeared in SMH/The Age Traveller on 19 November 2015.
The day I walk into Rockmount Ranch Wear to see Steve, there’s a group of suited men at the back of the shop deliberating in Spanish over boots while a younger man roams the room looking for a good bull riding shirt. It’s spring and the rodeo circuit is about to start.
Rockmount sells direct to the public these days from the same building where this family-owned Western wear manufacturing business first began nearly 70 years ago. With its antique glass façade, retro window dressing, tasteful Turkish rugs, wooden floorboards and pressed metal ceiling, Rockmount is the oldest store in Denver’s historic Lower Downtown district.
Up in an open mezzanine office that runs along one wall, Steve Weil is having a creative brainwave on a new pocket design so I give his some space. I wander the shop mooning over shadow plaids and vintage threads while the suits continue to contemplate cowboy footwear and the lone wolf tells anyone listening that the crazy beast he’s soon to ride has killed hundreds who’ve tried. He’s so insistent that I can only conclude it’s a load of bulldust.
Which means we’re all in the right place. Although Rockmount originally designed its shirts to give cowboys, ranchers and farmers of the American West some practical new features and a distinctive look, the business is also built on the notion that you don’t have to be the real thing to wear the real thing.
“If we had to live off cowboys, we’d go broke,” Weil tells me upstairs from behind his messy desk. He’s the third generation of Weil men to run Rockmount, founded in 1946 by Steve’s grandfather who introduced press studs, sawtooth pockets and slim fit to Western shirts.
His name was Jack A Weil, but you can call him Papa Jack.
You already know something of Papa even though you didn’t think you did. His distinctive shirts have been worn by celebrities from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan, Miley Cyrus to Reece Witherspoon, Cary Grant to Jack Black. Anne Hathaway, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wore Rockmount shirts in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, two garments from which have since sold collectively at auction for just over US$100,000. Once you know what you’re looking for, there’s no mistaking a Rockmount.
Papa Jack was born in Indiana but fell in love with the Rocky Mountains and drove a spanking new Chrysler Roadster into Denver in 1926 to make a fresh life selling the romance of the cowboy life after he’d finished up selling garters and suspenders. The West is not a place, it is a state of mind, came from Papa Jack.
“I think he was designing for an emerging lifestyle that didn’t really exist,” Weil says.
Papa wanted his shirts manufactured in America where he could have control over the quality. He also refused to favour big chains like Wal-Mart over his traditional customers. Papa Jack not only singlehandedly changed Western wear, but inspired generations of his family to be involved in the company and generations of other people to wear its creations.
Like all businesses, Rockmount has had challenges and downturns over the years but, like a successful rodeo clown, survived by cleverly balancing imagination and energy. “My grandfather was creative and a good manager, my father was innovative and I try to tie them together,” Weil tells me.
Papa Jack gave up smoking, drinking and red meat over his lifetime but never relinquished the bi-weekly medicinal shot of Jack Daniels, and was the working CEO of Rockmount until age 107. Papa Jack died at home in 2008, the same year as his only son, and Steve Weil’s father, Jack B.
Rockmount sells all the accoutrements to support a good shirt and I leave with my bag of plaids and another full of skirts, belts and silk scarves for the urban cowgirls, cowboys and cowkids in my own life. The men in suits are still trying on boots when I’m walking out the door but the other guy has found himself a nice showy shirt that, whether it’s reality or fantasy, sure makes him look like he could qualify.