Cowboy Quickstep

Far from any cattle ranch or desert sunset, the invasion of the boot-leggers has made urban cowboys out of parking-lot jockeys

TALK about Americana. With more than a hundred years of history in their soles, cowboy boots are striding onto city streets and into suburban outposts. In New York, pointy-toed black boots strut across sidewalk cracks far from any dude ranch. In Boston, one woman tells of shopping for boots in Colorado where a saleswoman asked: ``Will you be working cattle or sheep?'' Amidst all the urban hubbub in such cities - where 10-gallon hats and riding into sunsets are about as common as parking spaces - cowboy boots raise the hipness scale. ``I get a kick out of Wall Street people coming in a gettin' a pair of boots,'' says Sonny Harmon, boot designer at Billy Martin's Western Classics on Madison Avenue in New York. ``They're the suit and tie type ... they can slip on pair of faded jeans and a pair of boots and feel different about themselves.'' Only in the past five years have cowboy boots again become vogue, he says, at prices ranging from $175 to $3200 (for a full crocodile boot). ``It's a Western feel. It gives you the old cowboy image.''

Designer Ralph Lauren gets the credit for fueling the trend ``with his whole American classic form of dressing,'' says Ellen Goldstein, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Pop-culture icons like Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, actress Angelica Huston, plus well-known musicians (Bruce Springsteen, heavy-metal and folk/country groups) sport Western boots. In Boston, Greg Bournazos, manager of a Western-wear store called Helen's, looks out over a large boot collection and says, ``if any of this ends up in movies, we'll get a direct response to it.''

And the trail leads worldwide. Boot manufacturers and stores see more foreign tourists and overseas orders than ever before from Europe, Japan, and Australia. ``Foreigners want that look,'' says Steve Carnes, manager of Just Justin Boots in Dallas. Many of them who visit his store want to buy the old worn-in boots hanging from the ceiling for decoration.

To no one's surprise, Texas is king in the bootmaking industry. City people assume that real cowboy boots are the pointy or needle-toed boots. Actually, the most popular boot in Texas is the ``roper'' - a lower cut, rounder-toed boot.

``I had never seen a pointed-toe boot until I came to the city,'' says Mr. Harmon. ``They do sell pointed boots in Texas and they do wear them, but they wear boots in a different fashion here [in New York] than we wear them out West. Mainly the boots are for work and you don't worry about how they look.''

Most cowboy-boot connoisseurs are more concerned with details, comfort, fit, and function than fashion, which is why this footwear endures. They're likely to wear boots year round and look for names such as Lucchese, Tony Lama, Justin, and Larry Mahan. As store manager Bournazos puts it: ``You get into the boot mode.'' The average boot customer has about three pairs, but owning 10 pairs is ``not that big a deal,'' he says.

For David Kaufman, a Boston University student who has worn boots for seven years and spent summers in Wyoming, boots built-to-last are cost effective. ``If you get a pair of boots and take good care of them, they can last close to 10 years,'' he says. ``A lot of people don't realize that what you're buying into is artwork.''

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