Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Custom cowboy boots
Bootmaker Mickey Mussett is riding high handcrafting consummately Coloradan footwear for a discriminating clientele.
Are cowboy boots coming back into vogue? According to Mussett, they've never gone out of style.
"The golden age of cowboy boots is right now," says Mussett. "In 16 years, I have never had one single day when I didn't have a pair of boots to work on." He adds, "It's recession-proof."
Mussett's hand-made cowboy boots display craft and artistry -- and sport a steep price tag, starting at $3,000 per pair. Mussett makes anywhere from 14 to 24 pairs a year in the garage of his East Denver home.
Still, as personally rewarding as the manufacturing is for Mussett, the work is labor-intensive. And it hasn't exactly made Mussett a fortune. "I can't afford my own boots," Mussett says. "You will almost never meet a rich bootmaker."
When CompanyWeek visited his shop, Mussett was at work on a relatively straightforward but elegant pair of black cowboy boots for a Denver customer. But the designs and inlays on the boots can get ornate, baroque. He says about customers' requests, "They can take a flight of imagination with me, and I am all about it!" Mussett has fashioned a pair of cowboy boots featuring the New Orleans Saints logo for an oil worker. He's made a pair with the Boston Red Sox logo for a man who played for the team in the '60s. Another pair has Willie Nelson's face on them.
And then there's the time that then-Governor John Hickenlooper sat in Mussett's chair to have his feet measured, as the governor's security detail waited. The finished design included inlays of Hickenlooper's initials, the Colorado state flag, mountain peaks, the state capitol, mining tools, a banjo, an aspen leaf, a buffalo, and a barley and hop flower motif.
Clients often find out about Ghost Rider Boots online. Mussett says, "I'm going to be making a pair of boots for a woman in London. I made a pair of boots for a woman in Australia. I had a guy contact me from Afghanistan saying that he and his wife had determined that they wanted to ride horses around the world, and could I have a pair of custom boots waiting for him at Marseille [in France]? He was Irish. So, the Internet really provides this opportunity."
And how long does it take to make a pair?
"Three times longer than I think it's going to," jokes Mussett. For every boot, he measures pieces, cuts out leather, inlays details, hammers, nails, glues, and sews. He has a vintage curved needle machine -- almost a century old -- to sew the soles onto the boots. He uses a sander to take down the edges of soles. There's a leather splitter to slice the rugged material for heel counters. There's a press for binding the glued sole prior to stitching it on. At the end of the process, he will spend a day shining and polishing the new boots. "I do every aspect," he says, noting that's "unusual" compared with other bootmakers.
Perhaps it's because Mussett, 72, didn't grow up wearing cowboy boots. Raised in a military family in Denver, he eventually worked in advertising as a copywriter for 25 years. He says he "named Personal Pan Pizza" for Pizza Hut, and helped Trek Bikes roll out its first national ad campaign. As he grew older, Mussett asked himself, "How come there are no old copywriters in advertising?" He says he realized he was a "dead man walking in my own profession," and decided to switch careers.
Curious one day about how red leather comes to be made, Mussett began researching the topic. In the chain of events, he felt drawn to an ad on the Internet placed by a bootmaker who accepted interns. Mussett says he asked, "God, is this what you want me to do?"
Mussett found his answer. Instead of an office, he now labors in a workshop. And on one wall is a plaque that says, "God bless the American Cowboy."
He says his career change has "opened my life up unexpectedly to this great adventure where I'm involved in the cowboy community." Before interning at what would become his new career, Mussett says he'd "never stitched anything in my life, never sat down at a sewing machine. I had a talent for it."
Mussett calls cowboy boots an American art form like jazz (in fact, he's made one pair of boots featuring the image of a jazz musician). He says, "There's an architecture to what I do to custom [bootmaking] that is absolutely fabulous, and it inspires people. It really revs them up."
Noting that the word "manufacturing" is derived from manu factus ("made by hand"), Mussett feels he's part of the burgeoning craft movement which includes goods like custom-made knives and shoes. "It's back to a tradition in our country," says Mussett.
Challenges: Executing a series of exacting endeavors as exactly as possible: "There's like 80 to 100 steps to making a cowboy boot. So, the biggest challenge is to make sure each one of those is done precisely correctly. And no two pairs of feet -- and no two feet -- are exactly alike. Everything is custom. It's not like I have a pattern, and you come in, and I can just take that pattern and put it to your size and here we go. I start from scratch. They're one-off, every time. So, it's to solve those creative challenges -- and challenges in their feet."
Opportunities: "The biggest opportunity truly is word of mouth and the Internet," says Mussett. "I have people coming to me from Texas to [have me] make boots. Texas is Mecca -- it's the center of the [cowboy] world, and they're coming to me! They look at my website and the boots, and they're thrilled at what they see."
Needs: Mussett says he needs assistance: "People to help me to be in this shop, helping me to make these boots. Finding people who want to do this -- and learning it -- is very, very difficult." He says he's had five apprentices so far, but it takes a real "fire in the belly to make boots."