His Boots Are Made for Talkin' About

Fashionistas are labeling the cowboy trend in clothing these days as "Brokeback chic" after this year's cowboy love story. One man whose style has always been in fashion — at least among real cowboys — is Paul Bond, a custom bootmaker in Nogales, Ariz.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Brokeback Mountain may have meant different things to different people, but apparently a number of movie fans who saw it remembered how much they like cowboy clothes. Boots and shirts with pearl snaps are enjoying a revival. I read that in the New York Times where I also saw a name I know, Paul Bond, bootmaker to the stars, and to anyone else who's got the money for custom-made cowboy boots.

Several years ago, I went to see Paul Bond in Arizona. Paul Bond Boots is in Nogales, hard by the border with Mexico. It's a big barn-like building where boots are shaped and sewn, mostly by Mexican craftsmen. There are shelves of boots and rolls of leather, hand-carved foot-shaped blocks of wood with customers' names written on them. There's a smoky smell of tanned hides and the clatter of sewing machines creating very individual, often brightly colored boots.

Movies have been good for Paul Bond's business, but forget Urban Cowboy and Brokeback Mountain. Bond made his name as a bootmaker when westerns were king. He'd been a rodeo rider, making and repairing boots on the side, and like lots of other rodeo cowboys, he went all the way west to Hollywood.

Mr. PAUL BOND (Bootmaker): It kind of tied together. A lot of people that were riding at rodeos had turned into stunt people at the movies. Started making movies for them and then they being looking me up a little bit, I was real happy with that. Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: You made boots for people like Rex Allen?

Mr. BOND: Yes. I made lots of boots for Rex, and I made John Wayne's boots, made Charlie Daniels', some of the old timers, Jane Russell, and Monty(ph) Montana and Gene Autry, Frank Sinatra; he played a cowboy once in a while, yeah. Clint Eastwood. He's not an old timer, but...

WERTHEIMER: Clint Eastwood is a young sprig to Paul Bond because Bond turned 90 last December. He's still the laconic, wiry man I remember, still working every day. He got his start in my hometown, Carlsbad, New Mexico; that's where he learned the boot making trade and also worked for the U.S. Cavalry breaking horses.

Mr. BOND: Yeah, when I worked at the boot shop, the boot shop was right next to the cavalry station and I broke cavalry horses, rode them back and forth everyday. Kind of polished up my riding. So then started rodeo riding and had a trick riding act and a Roman act, and rode bulls. I worked several events.

WERTHEIMER: When I was a kid I saw that Roman riding act. Paul Bond would stand on the saddles of two horses and ride them around the rodeo ring at full gallop.

Mr. BOND: When I was rodeo-ing, I kept my tools with me, kept my hand in it all the time I was riding in rodeos. And I chose boot making over saddle making 'cause it had more originality, that you could do a lot more, back to the fancy work. You could do some of the fancy work and put some the personality in a boot, make something out of them that people were proud of.

WERTHEIMER: Paul Bond said the boots he makes now are direct descendents of cavalry boots.

Mr. BOND: They went to high heel right then. Right when the change from the cavalry boot, just immediately, they put a higher heel on. Because the higher heel was well liked to ride with.

WERTHEIMER: I've always suspected that some of these cowboys liked that kind of a heel because they wanted to be taller.

Mr. BOND: There's a certain amount of that, all right. The heel is very comfortable up to two inches, a little more comfortable to walk on an inch and a half. Two inches, you can still walk on it.

WERTHEIMER: That higher heel hooks right in to a stirrup, he told us. So it does have a function. The top of the boot, the sock, as it's called, is where Paul Bond has made his mark. His boots are decorated with colorful inlays and stitching.

Mr. BOND: So these are just some samples up here. Like here's one of the New Mexico flag. Here's kind of one of our standards we do a lot, just the old big butterfly. Men and women both wear butterflies, it's kind of; but the men usually leave flowers off. But they wear butterflies. The Wyoming Bronc.

WERTHEIMER: Sort of a bucking horse...

Mr. BOND: Yes, Uh-huh.

WERTHEIMER: ...appliqu├ęd on to the...

Mr. BOND: Bucking horse, see they got...

WERTHEIMER: Or inlayed, I guess, he is.

Mr. BOND: Yes, uh-huh. See, that's where we cut out and inlaid inside there.

WERTHEIMER: These have got fancy stitching on them, too, and the flowers and leaves and things.

Mr. BOND: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: And it's a lot of layers of leather in there?

Mr. BOND: Yes. Each one of those just different little cutout, and beveled in and put in. After we cut this black piece out, inlaid into it, then put that black piece behind it is what raises it up. And then put the lining, little calfskin lining over the back of all those.

WERTHEIMER: I see. So you put the piece that you cut out right back under it.

Mr. BOND: Right back under it, uh-huh.

WERTHEIMER: Like quilting.

Mr. BOND: Uh-huh, like quilting. That's right, and a little boost.

WERTHEIMER: When I talked to Paul Bond this week, he said the New York Times mention has generated some inquiries. In case you're interested, his cheapest off the rack boots start at $425, the fanciest custom boot are closer to $8,000. These days cowboy chic ain't cheap.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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