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Why Fashion Can’t Kick Its Cowboy Obsession

From Urban Cowboy to Coachella to Yellowstone, the Western look is a trend that returns again and again to the fashion mainstream. Prestige television, remote work and shifting political winds have all played a role in the style’s latest resurgence.
Models donning cowboy-inspired fashion standing in the desert.
This year, retailers in the US and UK introduced 240 percent more new styles of cowboy boots and denim shirts than they did in the same period last year, according to retail intelligence firm Edited. (Boot Barn)

Key insights

  • This year, retailers in the US and UK introduced 240 percent more new styles of cowboy boots and denim shirts than they did in the same period last year, according to Edited.
  • Western wear is a global trend: In Japan, men's magazine Brutus’ spring fashion issue featured a spread of cowboy and Native American inspired items.
  • Trend experts say there’s no one reason for the surge in popularity for all things fringe and denim, including Yellowstone and a growing love for the outdoors following the pandemic.

When the movie “Urban Cowboy” came out in 1980, Lee Peterson was working in merchandising for the mass American retail chain, The Limited (it later became L Brands).

The movie had been so popular, Peterson remembers, that as a fashion buyer, he had no choice but to follow the zeitgeist and stock up on clothes John Travolta and Debra Winger might have worn out on the town in Pasadena, Texas: prairie skirts, cowboy boots, western shirts and fringe jackets.

“That stuff blew up,” he said. “Sold like nuts in mid-America” — and then everywhere else too.

Today, Peterson said he’s seeing the same exact sequence of events play out. Except this time, the cultural phenomenon is Yellowstone, the wildly popular television show about a multi-generational family of ranchers in Montana.

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On TikTok, influencers declare “Coastal Cowgirl” — think cowboy boots paired with a white lacey sundress — the trend of the summer. On the runway, labels like Prada, Dries Van Notten, Wales Bonner and Diesel dressed models in cowboy boots, studded tops and various denim-on-denim looks. This year, retailers in the US and UK introduced 240 percent more new styles of cowboy boots and denim shirts than they did in the same period last year, according to retail intelligence firm Edited.

It’s truly a global trend: In Japan, men’s magazine Brutus’ spring fashion issue featured a spread of cowboy and Native American inspired items collected by Santassé founder Tassei Onuki. In Paris, Fursac creative director recently posted a call for sourcing tips for square-toe engineer boots — the Americana workwear style championed notably by Frye. In Australia, Google searches for cowboy boots have more than doubled compared with two years ago.

Western wear didn’t go entirely dormant in the four decades between Urban Cowboy and Yellowstone, of course. But sometime in the last two or three years the style hit an inflection point, shifting from kitsch costuming to a wardrobe mainstay. Trend experts say there’s no one reason for the surge in popularity for all things fringe and denim; Yellowstone is one factor, but so is the growing love for the outdoors following the pandemic. There’s also the increasing popularity of country music, in the US and beyond (Country music is the fastest growing genre in Great Britain). And in the years following Donald Trump’s presidency, the Americana aesthetic, closely associated with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” credo, has in many ways shed its political undertones.

The trend has been a predictable bonanza for retailers that specialise in western wear such as the direct-to-consumer bootmaker Tecovas, the equestrian brand Ariat and Boot Barn, a chain that sells apparel and gear for aspiring cowboys from Colorado to Connecticut. Boot Barn is on track to open a new store every week, with plans to triple its footprint in the coming years to 900 locations. Western wear also plays to the strengths of brands with Americana roots, such as Ralph Lauren, and Wrangler jeans.

Model wearing all-denim Prada on the runway.
Prada menswear Spring/Summer 2023. (Getty Images)

But plenty of brands that have few, if any ties to the American West are saddling up. Khaite, Isabel Marant and Saint Laurent regularly feature western-inspired styles in their collections. This year and last, MatchesFashion brought on board several brands that specialise in the category, including fashion western bootmaker Toral, Polo Ralph Lauren for women and Italian brand Fortela, which is heavily inspired by aesthetics of the American West. For its spring 2023 menswear collection, Prada paired more than half of its nearly 50 looks with cowboy boots, including a few all-denim getups.

“Everyone has had this western curiosity, this western fetish,” said Roopal Patel, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “But fashion-wise today, it’s more present on the runways and in pop culture where it’s less of a fad and more mainstream.”

From Niche to Mainstream

The current tide of obsession with all things western began around 2018, when Yellowstone debuted to mixed reviews.

Soon, snippets of the cowboy lifestyle were showing up elsewhere in pop culture too. There was Lil Nas X’s viral country rap hit, Old Town Road, in 2019. Jan Rogers Kniffen, a retail veteran and consultant with experience at retailers like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, points to Dua Lipa’s full cowgirl look for her music video for “Love Again” in 2021 as another moment. In the video’s big dance number, the pop star dons a cowboy hat, cowhide jacket, zebra-print bikini and a bolo tie. The following summer, Beyonce unveiled her seventh album, Renaissance, which featured imagery of her riding a horse in a metallic cowboy hat.

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The pandemic also made the country life trendy for people cooped up in their city apartments. Yellowstone National Park and other parks saw a record number of visits in May 2021. A 2020 Gallup survey found that 48 percent of American respondents said they prefer to live in a small town or rural area, up from 39 percent in 2018. Remote work made it possible for urban professionals to leave the city for rustic destinations.

Girls in cowboy boots dancing.
In 2021, Tecovas saw a 70 percent growth in sales, and 30 percent the following year. (Tecovas)

They needed the wardrobe to match.

“There was a dramatic shift in the year after Covid,” said Tecovas founder Paul Hedrick. “People realised they could work from anywhere and a lot of them got exposed to the rest of the country, developing appreciation for the natural beauty of America … With people wanting to connect to those parts of the country, culturally it’s reflected in how they dress.”

In 2021, Tecovas saw a 76 percent growth in sales, and 31 percent the following year. This year, the brand is slated to expand its footprint to 30 stores, not including a Northeast location that will open some time next year. It’s on track to generate more than $200 million in annual revenue.

Another reason for the popularity of the western boom may be more subliminal. The current political climate — while still fractured — is in some ways less charged than during the Trump years. That’s made garb that evokes an unironic sense of red state America an easier sell.

“When you think of the clientele for a show like Yellowstone, it’s going to be a more red state clientele,” said Kniffen. “The question always was, will the coastal elites adopt it? And eventually, they did.”

Chasing the Boom

For brands specialising in western wear, the future looks bright.

Boot Barn’s footprint expansion will be in part fuelled by what the retailer calls its fashion customer, according to Isha Nicole, senior vice president of marketing at the company.

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“We’ve had this enormous customer base that’s hidden in plain sight,” said Nicole. The fashion customer is one of four consumer groups segmented by the retailer. The others are western, country and workwear — and Boot Barn has seen a sales increase in every category. In the nine months ending Dec. 24, 2022, Boot Barn revenue rose 11.5 percent to $1.2 billion compared with the same period the prior year.

“What happened was that cowboy boots jumped from costuming to feeling as natural as wearing jeans,” said Hedrick of Tecovas. “Now the sentiment when you talk to people in California and New York, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I’m ready.’ You can definitely see the surge in interest grow.”

But while brands like Tecovas welcome and embrace their new demographic of shoppers, few are bending over backwards to usher them in, instead allowing consumers to organically discover them. Ariat, a brand that makes horseback riding attire and other performance-driven western pieces, told BoF it will not change its marketing or distribution strategy to target the fashion consumer. Boot Barn, despite its ambitious retail plan, isn’t currently planning a location in New York City, where most owners of cowboy boots probably aren’t country music fanatics or have ever stepped foot in a rodeo.

“There are plenty of brands that are doing a fashion interpretation of western wear, like what you’d find in a Macy’s,” said Beth Cross, co-founder and chief executive of Ariat. “But people who come to us, they’re looking for the authentic places to buy, and that is in itself an experience.”

Robert Williams contributed to this article.

Further Reading

As Athleisure Cools, Denim Heats Up

A slowing demand for leggings has given way to the rebound of the denim sector, driven by Millennial desire for retro styles, customised product and technical fabrics.

The Athleisure-fication of Everything

Demand for leggings and sweats may have peaked, but the pandemic’s comfort-first aesthetic is hardly dead. It’s simply mutating into something else: a yet-to-be-named category that incorporates stretch and softness into a staggering number of fashion staples, from trousers to jumpsuits.

About the author
Cathaleen Chen
Cathaleen Chen

Cathaleen Chen is Retail Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and drives BoF’s coverage of the retail and direct-to-consumer sectors.

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