Wendy Lane Henry vividly remembers the first pair of cowboy boots she ever bought.
She was a teenager walking through a Neiman Marcus department store in Miami when she spotted a pair of burgundy colored alligator skin boots.
“They were so different,” Henry said, standing in her store, Back at the Ranch, in Santa Fe, surrounded by hundreds of handmade cowboy boots she designed.
“My parents didn’t dress me like a cowgirl,” Henry said. “But I just had to have them.”
Half a century later, cowboy boots have become what Henry is known for. From his cozy adobe boutique on Marcy Street, Henry has worked to evolve classic American footwear, combining traditional Western aesthetics with modern, high-end, fashion-forward sensibilities and designs.
“We’re a luxury brand, the Rolls-Royce of cowboy boots,” Henry said. “We’re not ‘yeehaw.’ We introduced our cowboy boots to the fashion world.
Fashion has long been a passion for Henry. His mother, Meta Lane, was his first inspiration – an “elegant chest of drawers” with “excellent taste”, Henry said.
“She often wore jeans with a white blouse and a sweater over the shoulder. Like a Ralph Lauren model,” she said.
Henry got her first fashion job at age 15 when she worked at a women’s clothing store a few blocks from her childhood home in Hollywood, Florida.
“I knew I had a passion for clothes when I was very young,” Henry said.
In 1972, she opened a sportswear store in Miami and later a women’s clothing store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
In 1989, after nearly 10 years in New York, Henry visited Santa Fe for the first time. She fell in love. Six months later, she sells her apartment and closes her clothing store in New York.
“I knew I was done with New York and I always wanted to live out West,” Henry said. “The wide open spaces, the clear blue sky, no traffic. I came here, and that was it.
In 1990, she opened the original 400-square-foot Back to the Ranch, selling vintage western clothing and cowboy boots, before moving to Marcy Street 10 years later.
The first years were difficult.
“It was Ann and I in our little shop on Don Gaspar,” Henry said of her longtime friend, leather expert and colleague Ann Germano, whom she worked with for
“We never knew how we were going to pay our rent,” Henry said.
“It was day to day,” Germano added.
Henry had a form of insurance: a custom-made sterling silver belt buckle.
“I always thought if I couldn’t pay my rent, I could sell this,” she said, showing off the unique belt buckle with a 14-karat gold Texas longhorn engraved on the front. “Fortunately, I never had to.”
Locals helped keep the store afloat. Scott Seligman, a banker and friend, noticed that the store had almost no inventory and gave Henry a loan.
The late Forrest Fenn, a Santa Fe art dealer and author famous for launching a multi-state scavenger hunt, offered advice Henry would take to heart.
“He said stop selling cheap boots. Sell the good stuff,” said Henry, whose boots now start at $1,000 a pair.
The boutique’s fortunes really began to change when Henry purchased a boot store in California, securing a large inventory.
In cowboy boots, Henry, as she had done that first time in Miami, saw something timeless and classic.
“Cowboy boots are the epitome of American fashion that never goes out of style,” Henry said.
However, she noticed that cowboy boots were often uncomfortable and their designs were stuck in the 1950s.
“I brought my fashion background to the cowboy boot business because I saw that so much was missing and the men who made them didn’t want to do what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was male dominated. There were no colors. The boots didn’t fit well.
In 2003, Henry opened a factory in El Paso to manufacture handcrafted boots in various styles, designs, and colors of his choice.
“We saw something was missing and decided to do better,” Henry said.
The El Paso factory now employs a family of second and third generation shoemakers. “It’s a dying art,” Germano said of the tradition of handmade boots that dates back to the 1800s.
Artisans work with a dizzying variety of materials from around the world: crocodile skins, ostrich feathers and exotic skins, such as waterproof hippopotamus, which are dyed in rich colors. “The perfect red,” Henry said.
On average, a pair of boots, from start to finish, takes about two weeks to make. “They are so labor intensive,” Henry said.
Today, customers can choose from hundreds of models in the store. Some boots are carved by hand. Others, like the one with an intricate Day of the Dead scene, are stitched. “We come up with something new almost every day,” Henry said.
Buyers can also order custom designs and color schemes on their boots. A popular trend is to order boots with imbedded images of their favorite pet. “People love their dogs,” Henry said.
The store’s growing reputation has attracted customers from around the world, with dozens of celebrity customers including Lyle Lovett, Jane Fonda, former Governor Bill Richardson and rapper Post Malone.
“We’ve made boots for country and western singers, politicians, and Hollywood and Bollywood stars,” Henry said.
Back to the Ranch recently sold a pair of cowboy boots for $9,000, the most expensive sale in the store’s history.
The boots, Henry said, offer instant swagger: “It gives you attitude, a big moment.”
For Henry, the joy of work comes from the diversity of people she meets at the store.
“I’m 71 and I have no intention of retiring, selling or closing the store because we meet the most interesting people from all over the world,” she said.
“Every day I get letters from people who have been to the store,” Henry said, taking a thank you card from a man named Tom before reading it aloud.
“Santa Fe [has] some of the nicest people. I will never forget your kindness,” the man wrote.
“It almost means more than someone buying a boot,” Henry said. “That’s why I can’t retire.”