EL PASO, TEXAS — Showing off the bootmaking plant founded by his famous grandfather after a stint in the US Cavalry, Rudolph Lama can't help sounding a little patriotic.
"There are three things this country can still be proud of," he says with a glint in his eye, "Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Wrangler jeans, and Tony Lama cowboy boots."
It would be hard to find a product more emblematic of America than cowboy boots and Tony Lamas are considered top of the line. But reach inside and the label may read: "Made in China."
Chinese-made cowboy boots?
Sure enough. Some 35 to 40 percent of the Tony Lama line is outsourced, according to Mr. Lama, who now manages international sales for Justin Brands, which acquired Tony Lama Co. in 1990. Half of Justin's Chippewa Boots footwear is produced in China, while 20 percent of the company's upscale Nocona brand comes from Mexico, Lama says. Between 75 and 80 percent of the Justin Boots brand are crafted overseas.
It's not just Justin or big-time manufacturers. Around Cotton Street here in El Paso, about 100 small custom bootmakers continue to operate and they, too, are beginning to outsource production to foreign countries. Ariat, a high-end maker of riding boots in Union City, Calif., has all its boots made in China.
In all, the value of US production of men's western-style boots fell 40 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the US Census Bureau.
"We are operating in a global economy.... And the prevailing trend right now is to outsource," explains Lama. "All children's boots now come from India," he shouts through the hum of sewing machines.
Such admissions are touchy subjects for boot manufacturers. Since the interview with Lama, a spokeswoman for Justin Brands e-mailed that Lama "feels several of his comments were taken out of context and they serve to paint a negative picture of the brand" while the company itself was "proud to still produce a large number of products domestically." No new outsourcing numbers were offered, however. And in a second e-mail, the spokeswoman said that "if the people you spoke with gave you these numbers, then you are right."
At Justin's El Paso factory, modern methods have taken over in other ways. A computer-programmed embroidery machine has replaced 100 workers who used to do the fancy stitchings. The factory churns out 1,000 top-quality pairs of boots a day. The workforce is overwhelmingly Hispanic, some of them are residents of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which lies on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. They stitch and adjust and nail and glue, and shine - to help sell the final product for between $200 and $1,500 a pair.
"Mexicans still wear a lot of boots and know a lot about them," says Robert Torrez, the production manager.
"Much cheaper, if they are made in China," Lama interjects. (Indeed, Mexico's shoe industry reportedly lost 7,000 jobs in 2002, partly because of competition from Asia.)
Increasingly, the raw materials for boots also come from abroad.
"Even your regular cowhide now has to be brought from outside the country, mostly from Mexico, because there are practically no tanneries left in the United States," says Mr. Torrez. In their hide processing, he explains, tanneries normally use chemicals with heavy metals, which have been banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
But the legend of the American cowboy boot lives on, supporting a raft of US-based labels large and small. Country singer George Strait endorses Justin Boots, but Cirque du Soleil gets its footwear from Champion Attitude Boots, a family-owned shop in El Paso where the least expensive pair starts at about $300.
Other famous customers include Rosie O'Donnell, Mötley Crüe, and Paul Stanley, the front man of the rock group Kiss. US Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri recently ordered a pair allegedly to wear at his retirement party, according to Joey Sanchez, owner of Champion Attitude.
"We had 120-percent growth over the past four years," he boasts, but admits that two-thirds of his output now comes from Mexico, and a deal with China might be in the offing.
"They have better quality control in China than in Mexico," he says with a wink.