Catering to country culture’s next generation is big business
As the lunch bell rings and the Pleasant Valley High School students scatter into their social subgroups, one tangle of Wrangler-wearing teens heads to the parking lot, where they drop the tailgate of Ryan Patrick’s Chevy Silverado and lay into a Taco Bell lunch.
The 16-year-olds debate the latest developments in their circle, while Kenny Chesney plays over the stereo.
“There is a select handful at this school who are not ashamed to be who they are,” says Caitlin Dutro, who’s wearing snug-fitting jeans and a white tank top. Luke Geyer, a bit quieter than his friends, is bundled up in a Southwestern-style jacket.
The “cowboys” are a clique, sure, another stereotype in high school. But here’s what, wearers say, sets cowboy teens apart from their status-seeking peers: Their clothes make sense, and they’re comfortable in them and with whatever stereotype society slaps on them because of it.
Patrick, whose family owns three ranches, including the Red Barn in Los Molinos, helps with harvest driving forklifts and tractors. “I was about 6 when I learned to drive a tractor,” says Patrick.
He drives the truck to school “because I have no purpose for a car at all.”
“The preppy group doesn’t want to get dirty, and we want to get out there and get into it,” he says. The social ladder, Patrick says, means nothing to him. “If a new person comes us, we meet them,” he said. “We’re not afraid of change.”
Geyer, whose family owns cattle in Montana, says, “I’ll dress however I want and I’ll act however I want, [even if] they think all of us are rednecks.”
Western wear has always had a strong market, but the younger kids are making for a bigger and bigger part of it. Even chain retailers like Wal-Mart and Target are getting in on the trend, slapping “cowgirl” and “go West” on shirts and adding rhinestones to jackets and blue jeans.
“Western wear is on the fashion frontier and that makes it have every bit of the appeal of other fashions,” says David Halimi, owner of Diamond W Western Wear in downtown Chico.
His store manager, Megan Moffett, elaborates: “Western wear has very patriotic roots, from the American cowboy to the blue-collared worker.” And it’s pretty much the only genre of clothing that’s as functional as it is fashionable.
Barbara Ely, who opened Back at the Ranch just three months ago in Paradise, says she saw a market in the rural Ridge community that doesn’t have a lot of options for clothing, especially the Western-style garb so closely linked to the Ridge’s heritage.
“This is kind of a country community,” says Ely, a nurse who has horses. “I really enjoy the Western, country outlook. … It’s very wholesome. When you think of Western wear you think of—I hate to say it—apple pie and mom; wholesome things.”
But what is Western wear? The Resistol hat, the Wranglers and the pointy boots are not all that Western wear has to offer these days. Brands such as Lucchese boots (worn by the late John Wayne and President George W. Bush), Tony Lama, Justin, Stetson, Vogt and Montana Silver are some of the names Western wear can offer to its clientele.
It’s not just free advertising to relate that most manufacturers of Western wear emphasize quality, carrying wear-and-tear warranties like Wranglers'.
Diamond W shoppers come in all ages, Moffett says. The traditional cowboys—a little older now—shop for their functional clothing, while the teens and 20-something country crowd shops for “retro-country” styles.
Ely says she’s getting plenty of young shoppers at Back at the Ranch. “The trend is changing a little bit for the teenagers,” she says. It used to be baggy jeans, and now they’re looking to the form-fitting jeans and even the low-rise boot cut jeans. “The Western-wear vendors are keeping up with the times,” Ely says. And “everyone’s wearing boots now, even noncowboy people.”
This younger crowd is proud of its rural heritage.
Chris Charmley, a firefighter (and co-author Misty Harrold’s boyfriend), says, “By wearing Western apparel I am saying, ‘I’m an American, I’m independent and I don’t care about what you or anyone else thinks of me.'”
Charmley’s shirt orders: “Cowboy up.” It’s an inside joke that shows up on a lot of Western clothes but may go over the heads of the uninitiated.
Moffett explains that Lane Frost, a world champion bull rider, originally coined the phrase “Cowboy up.” It means, “Bear down and get tough.” Frost said this as he prepared to ride. Frost was killed in 1989 during the Cheyenne Frontier Days, and his slogan was commercialized to uphold his legacy. For the first years of its production, the “Cowboy up” line’s proceeds went to Frost’s family and the Justin Crisis Fund for people injured during the rodeo. The slogan has helped form the “retro-country” style, while keeping the younger country crowd in touch with its roots, Moffett says.
“Western wear is a part of our heritage,” Charmley says, adding a dig: “Baggy clothing came from people who couldn’t afford to buy clothes that fit them. I don’t understand why that has become popular. People make fun at us [the ‘country crowd'] because of what we wear, but at least my clothes stay on and I don’t have to constantly pull them up.”
The young crowd of Chico finds it ironic that in a community based upon agriculture, truly traditional clothing is laughed at.
But they don’t care. Audra Brock, a junior at PVHS, says, “We are going to continue to be ourselves, and this is part of it. They can’t make us stop being ourselves.”
Purposeful clothing is a key element of the Western lifestyle. “Skater clothes” wouldn’t last an hour out on the ranch, and in a rural setting clothing has to be made for survival of the elements.
Carhartt, a common Western brand, has come up with double-front jeans to deal with the toughest work. Wranglers are double-seamed. Boots are made steel-toed so you do not break your foot while working hard.
Moffet says, “The best thing about Western wear is the culture it represents. Everything has some purpose. Whether it is used for that or not is up to the owner of the product, and the needs of that owner.”
Patrick, who hopes one day to run the family business, grins when he thinks of how his peers might be judging the “hicks.”
“We go to school. We’re literate people," he says, a laugh revealing that he still has his teen priorities straight. "We sit at Northern Star Mills and talk about the same thing over and over again. Most of the conversations I have with guys are about trucks."