Western American culture is going through a renaissance. Cowboy boots are no longer exclusive to the plains of Texas, as Western culture at large has become mainstream.
The western-inspired style has become a mainstay in the pop-cultural consciousness: cowboy boots were spotted on the runways of Saint Laurent, Celine, and Isabel Marant this cycle; Lil Nas X became yet another musical artist to challenge the white-centric stereotypes of country music and Western culture; and Beyoncé paid tribute to Black cowboys in her latest Ivy Park drop.
For Tecovas founder Paul Hedrick, who started his own Western boot brand in 2015, the popularity of the shoe he grew up wearing does not come by surprise. “I couldn’t think of any other piece of apparel that you wear every day and had stories and meaning like cowboy boots,” he said.
Hedrick is a Texan through and through: The founder was born in Houston, raised in Dallas, and currently lives in Austin. And while he always identified with the Lone Star state, it wasn’t until he left Texas for college that he realized how much he missed it.
Like many Texans, he still remembers his first pair of cowboy boots. “I remember wearing my little red Justin Ropers around,'' he said. “I view it as a right of passage. I remember wanting to wear them at the grocery store.”
Hedrick also knows that Western and cowboy boot culture is something that’s being recognized and embraced by those raised outside of the state. Mental barriers to fashion choices are coming down and product accessibility is increasing; consumers are exploring more styles than ever before.
“What I love about the cowboy boot industry and the Western-wear industry, and wearing those things in general, is that it really does transcend the origin of what it is, without being inauthentic,” Hedrick added.
“A brand can still be authentic to its core and be born in the west, but be designed and sold in a consumer-first way.”
With over 300 employees and exponential growth since its founding, Hedrick has set out to make the western lifestyle more inclusive and approachable. While maintaining the independence and poetic romanticism of cowboy origins, Tecovas removes the mystery from buying cowboy boots and western wear, keeps prices affordable, and creates a sustainable business that keeps customer service at the forefront.
From cattle herding to fashion: The origin of the cowboy boot
The origin story of cowboy boots can be traced back to one common theme: utility. While historians argue who exactly created the first pair, they came to life in the mid-1800s during the great cattle drives in Texas.
During these cattle drives, many cowboys realized that military boots were not ideal for the conditions in the West. Military boots were uncomfortable in horse stirrups for long hours and were impractical while riding through water and brush.
Out of an overwhelming need for comfort, these herders designed their own type of boot. These boots had a higher length to protect their legs from thorns and critters, while also being loose enough to quickly take on and off in a hurry. In addition, the shoes have a pointed toe, making them ideal for easily sliding in and out of the stirrups.
While the shoes grew in popularity, they were also difficult to make. Each boot was made by hand as a custom fit. Only those with means could afford a high-quality pair.
Decades later, cowboy life was depicted in stereotypes in Hollywood Westerns—with gritty actors like John Wayne defining the masculine genre. Cowboy culture began to take a life of its own. Europeans would go on to create their own depiction of Western life (often dubbed Spaghetti Westerns from American critics due to the Italian heritage of many of the filmmakers), and celebrities like Clint Eastwood became icons along with the boots.
Bootmakers began to experiment with colorful stitching and designs and they became commonplace not only on the silver screen but also on the fashion runway. "Cowboy boots are worn in so many different ways today and not just for their original purpose,” Hedrick said, “the fact that they’ve been around for so long and evolved over time is amazing.”
While Hedrick’s origins did not start with herding cattle in his home state, he knew the importance of the shoe and sought to create a brand that delivered handmade boots directly to consumers. “You can wear cowboy boots and not be a working cowboy,” he said. “It doesn't matter if you're a hipster or sixth-generation Texan; the moment you put on a boot, it means something.”
Prior to Tecovas, and still today, a lot of cowboy boots are sold at big-box retailers or smaller independent stores that specialize in the shoes, with limited or no online options. Hedrick says that the older stores that offer classic cowboy boots often have various sizes and colors stacked up in poorly maintained aisles, making the experience intimidating and cumbersome.
“Generally, you had to rely on the expertise of a salesperson,” Hedrick said. “In part because of the retail experience and in part because no one had built a consumer-direct brand before. It was much more challenging to develop a relationship with a brand.”
With Tecovas, Hedrick wanted to change that. He didn’t want to just open up a digital shopping experience with consumers but also “create the most approachable, beloved brand in the category.”
Building a modern, best in class brand
In order to cut down costs without sacrificing quality, Tecovas began selling its boots exclusively online. With online sales, the company could create a seamless experience between sales and customer data. “We've generally learned that the simpler and more intuitive, the better when it comes to our own product and storytelling” added Hedrick.
Tecovas boots are handmade in Leon, Mexico, which is considered the boot capital of North America because of its tanneries and close proximity to the U.S. border for distribution. While the company admits its approach to creating these boots is not the easiest or cheapest, the handcrafted care of the product—over 200 steps in the process—does help it last longer than other brands.
Tecovas has nearly 100 types of Western-style boots for both men and women in over 15 sizes. The boots range from the original cowboy to equestrian to a Chelsea-style boot. Hedrick describes the boots as having “comfort without sacrificing authentic craftsmanship” and “style without being unapproachable or gaudy.”
In the early days, while they had a well-made boot, Tecovas needed to increase awareness of the brand and ultimately establish themselves as a cowboy boot of record in the industry. The company started to test and iterate with PR, influencer gifting, and affiliate marketing. None worked as well as they hoped.
But out of constraint comes creativity. The team started to activate in-person events and test into digital advertising.
“The in-person events honestly kept the lights on in the early months,” Hedrick said. “I can remember a holiday shopping event at my former elementary school where we sold maybe 20 pairs of boots and it pretty much covered my fixed costs for the month.”
The events didn’t just pay the bills, but they were also critical for customer research, feedback, and sales training. Digital advertising on the other hand, had even more of an impact that they were able to get extremely disciplined about.
“We had daily and weekly spend models with strict restrictions and aimed to break even on first purchase. We were able to scale that significantly in those first couple years.”
Today, Tecovas have been worn by celebrities including Jason Momoa and Olympian Tara Davis. Esquire called the shoes “The Western Boots That Every Guy Can Wear—No Cowboy Hat Required.”
But as the company continues to grow in name recognition, Hedrick wants the brand to remain a leader in customer service. “Texas is friendly at its core, and I love the idea of creating the friendliest brand around.”
Leader of the herd: from online to in-store
Though Tecovas started as a strictly ecommerce brand looking to offer a different narrative of the cowboy boot industry, the company has since opened 17 retail locations around the Western U.S., including spots in Colorado and North Carolina.
Hedrick says that there are “many, many people who strongly prefer to buy products in person,” simply for the ability to try things on and to connect with staff who know the products intimately. And the data supports his thinking. According to a First Insight report, 71% of surveyed shoppers spent more than $50 or more when shopping in-store compared to the 54% that spend more than $50 while shopping online.
“We offer 30 sizes in many of our men's styles. We have great customer service. We love design, hospitality, and welcoming people in person. Sometimes, it's hard to translate that full experience into a FedEx or UPS-delivered box.”
Tecovas first dipped into the brick and mortar space in 2019 by converting its Austin office space into a showroom. While the showroom didn’t carry any inventory, customers could try on boots for sizing and ask staff questions.
“In that little store, we ended up doing a sizable sales run-rate out of 400 sq ft. with no inventory. The sales per foot per hour were probably close to Apple store numbers,” Hedrick said. “So we knew there was demand. Thankfully, it turned out we could open bigger stores and do even better.”
A boot-shaped growth curve
Today, when you walk into a Tecovas retail store, you find the company's full product line, accessories, and even a drink on the house. The retail outposts pride themselves on this unique customer experience, furthering the brand’s mission of making cowboy boots and western wear for everyone.
Tecovas began its retail expansion with three stores in the largest Texas markets—Austin, Dallas, and Houston—with a strong feeling that they were going to be successful. “Off the bat, [we knew it was] something people were waiting for,” Hedrick said.
In 2020, the company had a goal of opening ten stores, but due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, they had to scale back operations. Still, Tecovas was able to open eight of those stores that year and opened the remainder in early 2021.
“It was not a slow burn, it was fast and furious,” Hedrick said of the expansion. “We feel really confident about our retail vision.” He added that the stores were profitable despite the challenges of the pandemic.
This growth provided key product learnings for the company and indicated that Tecovas could sell Western lifestyle and culture outside of footwear. In addition to cowboy boots, Tecovas now sells accessories and clothing like handbags, wallets, jeans, and more.
With such success despite a challenging 2020, many companies would probably pump the breaks when it comes to growth. But Tecovas is just getting started. Hedrick says that the company’s plan is to grow at a similar rate over the next few years.
His approach to business is like a pendulum swinging, adding that “some things have to breathe and some things stop and go.
“The most important thing to do is grow in a manner that doesn’t sacrifice the customer’s experience, product’s quality or the reputation of the brand in general.”
The cowboy state of mind
If Hedrick could tell his younger self one thing it would be to remember to strap in for the long ride. “You get out what you put in, and starting a brand from scratch is a long journey,” he said. “Probably longer and harder than I ever really realized from day one.”
It’s a reminder of the origin of the boot itself: dedicated cowboys herding cattle across a vast, unknown expanse, searching for a new frontier.
“I’ve been asked what makes a cowboy before and how we think about it is [that] a cowboy is simply an honest, hardworking, shoot-you-straight person; they believe in doing what’s right, they believe in their handshake meaning something,” Hedrick said. “They’re rugged and entrepreneurial, and aiming for the frontier. It’s a state of mind.”