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Alberta Boot Company shapes local heritage with the Modern West through brand expansion

Antonio Juarez works on the sole of a cowboy boot at the Alberta Boot Company in Calgary on June 9.TODD ​​KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The cowboy boot has long been an icon of Canadian prairie life, but now the western staple has begun to blend into urban wardrobes. Alberta Boot Co.’s new 30,000 square foot flagship store in the heart of Calgary is part of a concerted effort by the company to win over shoppers in the city, while showcasing a local manufacturing process that it maintains despite its difficulties in finding skilled labor and materials.

The store, which recently opened in the city’s Beltline neighborhood near the Calgary Stampede grounds, is twice the size of the brand’s former flagship store. It’s packed with extras meant to capture the attention of consumers who might normally go for more humble kicks. The space includes a space for events, a shoe shine station, an espresso stand and a bourbon bar. Visitors can also see manufacturing in action, through a 30-metre glass wall that looks directly into the Alberta Boot factory, where each pair goes through a 230-step production process, lasting seven hours and half.

“It’s really not just a big-box retail format anymore with a factory taped to the back,” said Alberta Boot CEO Eytan Broder. He called the new space a “brand experience center”.

“It’s a much more modern approach to retail,” he said. “It’s an interactive space. It is an educational experience.

Manny Ochoa prints leather designs for a pair of boots.

Seams are sewn into the leather before it is shaped into a boot.

Josh Adam, one of the youngest workers at the Alberta Boot Company, got into the business of making boots.TODD ​​KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Alberta Boot has specialized in handcrafted cowboy boots using traditional techniques since its founding in 1978. The company was purchased last year by a group of local Calgary investors, led by Mr. Broder . He said the group wanted to ensure the brand was recognized as part of the history of the modern West. The company has longstanding relationships with the RCMP and other police services.

The new store opening follows the launch of an e-commerce platform for the brand and the opening of two other stores last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – one at the Fairmont Banff Springs and the other at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Earlier this year, Alberta Boot signed a multi-year contract that makes it the official boot of the Calgary Stampede, after 20 years of less formal involvement with the event.

But the company faces challenges when it comes to securing materials and equipment, as well as staffing the plant.

Boot patterns are displayed on a wall.

A display of women’s cowboy boots ready for the Calgary Stampede.TODD ​​KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Broder said Alberta Boot has to import almost all of its raw materials, equipment and machinery. Due to the lack of operating tanneries in Canada, all rawhide used in the Alberta Boot production process is imported from facilities located in Europe, South America and Mexico.

“We are developing very strong partnerships with specific footwear experts in places like León, Mexico, where there is a massive footwear industry, and places like Taiwan,” Broder said.

It has also been difficult for the company to find personnel with the specialized skills needed to manufacture its boots. To solve this problem, Alberta Boot has partnered with community colleges, trade schools and various organizations to encourage young people to learn the trade.

“We’re stuck with this problem of finding fantastic people who want to join us, and then we have to train them and teach them,” Broder said.

Once the boots are made, the problem becomes how to sell them to a large consumer base. The new flagship store isn’t the only way Alberta Boot is chasing those shoppers. Mr. Broder said the company was able to attract young people because of what he described as the “Yellowstone effect,” a reference to a television show that follows a Montana ranching family. The series, which premiered in 2018, stars Kevin Costner and helped popularize cowboy boots and western style.

The finishing polish is applied to boots intended for an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.TODD ​​KOROL/Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Costner was the parade marshal for this year’s Calgary Stampede, which took place on Friday. As an official partner of the event, Alberta Boot equipped it.

The company created a Stampede commemorative suede boot. Mr Broder said around 200 pairs have been sold to buyers as far afield as Copenhagen and Seoul.

Calgary Stampede President and Chairman of the Board Steve McDonough said the partnership with Alberta Boot is exciting. He said he believes the new flagship store will help revitalize downtown Calgary, which has struggled to reinvent itself in the years since the 2014 oil price crash.

“It’s not your grandfather’s cobbler sitting in a dark room anymore,” he said.

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