why young designers are reclaiming cowboy culture
Welcome to the wild, wild west of 2018 — where queer go-go dancers wear neon cowboy hats and Cowgirls of Color star in fashion campaigns.
Pyer Moss 'American, Also' fall/winter 18 campaign; Saturn Rising via @neoncowboys
At the Country Music Association Awards (CMAs), Kacey Musgraves — along with duo Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line — were the first country singers to wear Versace on the CMAs red carpet. “I grew up singing and wearing all this traditional Western clothing, so it’s an homage to my childhood and where I came from, and also country music,” Musgraves told Entertainment Tonight . “And it’s high fashion. It’s yee-haw couture! I’m calling it ‘Yee-Sace.’”
Fortunately for fans of western wear, the genre is currently seeing a renaissance — and a reimagining. Maison Margiela, Fendi, and Helmut Lang all recently brought the cowboy boot back to the runway. Traditional western wear and high fashion are a fitting match; both have pristine attention to detail, high-quality fabrics, expert tailoring, and a flair for glam theatrics.
For the sartorial weirdos and obsessives who grew up going to schools with Future Farmers of America chapters (ahem, yours truly), yee-haw couture feels like a thrilling homecoming. But aside from the luxury labels embracing western glitz, there are brands more steeped in country culture redefining our stereotypical impressions of how cowboys and cowgirls should dress.
From Neon Cowboys, the line of light-up cowboy hats seen at Nicopanda’s spring/summer 19 show and on artists like Twin Shadow, to Miron Crosby, a line of South Texas-produced cowboy boots Garage dubbed Fran Lebowitz-worthy, these brands well exemplify what western wear can look like in 2018.
Then, of course, there are the rodeo queens themselves, Cowgirls of Color, a team which competes in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (“The greatest show on dirt!”), an event celebrating black cowboys and cowgirls. Cowgirls of Color was recently featured in a Pyer Moss campaign titled “American, Also,” which focused on underrepresented Americans, particularly black cowboys from the 19th century.
Kisha “KB” Bowles, one of the four Cowgirls of Color living in the D.C. area, understands the appeal of her boots and hat. “It’s very clean and very chic, but it has a rough edge to it,” she says. “People love that kind of bad boy/bad girl vibe.” She’s also working on developing her own collection of western wear — vintage pieces, some designed by her — that can be worn just as comfortably walking down city streets as it can on a ranch.
Asia Hall is the founder and CEO of Neon Cowboys, a line of disco-meets-rodeo hats, earrings, and tutu dresses that light up and glow in the dark. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Halston head designer and red carpet couturier Kevan Hall. Now living in Orlando, she dreamt up the idea for a light-up cowboy hat after attending country music festivals in California and wanting something that better represented her idea of what being a country fan could look like.
“I had gone to these festivals and wanted something more aligned with who I was, and not necessarily so steeped in traditionalism,” she says. “I thought maybe I would wear a guys hat, but that wasn’t the right fit. I wasn’t really into the bedazzled or bejeweled designs they have for women, where they’re burnt on the sides or have a dip-dye detail. I just wanted something more modern.”
You might have the seen Neon Cowboys hats on the space cowgirls of the internet, from Simi and Haze at their interstellar birthday bash to queer go-go dancer Saturn Rising in his latest music video. According to Asia, 90 percent of the brand’s Instagram content is user-generated, and each photo posted looks like a party you want to be part of.
If you’ve experienced the satisfying hard click of cowboy boot heels or the sheer joy of a flashy cowboy hat, you know the feeling. It makes complete sense that people are embracing western wear — it’s sexy (if you want it to be) and self-assured, and it’s an aesthetic that, by virtue of its Americanness, belongs to all of us.
“Even if you don’t ride, the cowgirl western wear is a thing,” KB says. “Think about someone like Calvin Klein, he does western-themed advertisements all the time. Those are just models, they’re not getting on a horse, but they look like a cowgirl in a hat and a white tee. It’s a look, it’s an attitude. It’s something you can wear in the city and on the ranch.”
In this time of yeehaw couture, it’s interesting that many of the classic western looks being worn, whether on the red carpet or in style publications, are made by non-western wear designers. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors’ spectacularly bedazzled suits worn on seminal album covers like Elton John’s Rocket Man or by musicians like Cher and Sly Stone were one of the few times a western-wear brand appeared in mainstream fashion — or, more accurately in the case of Nudie’s, created a whole genre of rhinestone art unto itself.
Boot brand Miron Crosby, created by Lizzie Means Duplantis and Sarah Means, is one of the few western labels crossing over into high fashion. No shade to Helmut Lang or Maison Margiela, but there’s something pretty cool about seeing boots made by fifth-generation Texans land a Vogue spread. (Gigi Hadid wore Miron Crosby’s Margretta boost in the magazine’s October issue, and WWD included the brand in an April editorial). Lizzie and Sarah grew up on a cattle ranch outside of Marfa, Texas. They both lived in New York, Lizzie working in finance and Sarah in fashion, before they designed their first pair of boots.
Now based in Dallas, their boots are made in deep South Texas at their cousins’ 160-year-old boot-manufacturing company Rios of Mercedes. Miron Crosby offers a boot that’s exquisitely handmade with a traditional silhouette, but in more subtle and compelling designs than many cowboy boots for women, particularly, tend to offer. The black-and-white Melanie boot has a minimal tulip trellis climbing up the shaft, and the Jeri has the ingredients of a mean guacamole — lime, avocado, chili pepper — trailing up the side.
“Sarah and I really want to maintain the integrity of the cowboy boot, how it’s made and be true to the silhouette, and yet kind of bring in elements of fashion that are relevant at the time,” Lizzie tells me. “We really want people to think of wearing them as part of their everyday lifestyle, and not think of cowboy boots as ranch or rodeo.”
Sarah and Lizzie grew up being gifted boots to commemorate most any special occasion—”other girls got jewelry, we always got boots,” Lizzie says—and they want people to see cowboy boots as something that can be an everyday staple.
Neon Cowboys isn’t your typical Western brand, and this is true for two reasons. Light-up DayGlo hats, before now at least, aren’t usually seen at two-step dance halls and also, I’m not sure there are any other brands that can say they’ve appeared both at London Fashion Week and in your local Boot Barn.
“I would say most of our customers don’t listen to country music at all,” Asia says, adding, “We have a huge international base of kids that wear it clubbing.”
Asia tells me that her mom is Chinese and her father, who’s from Detroit, discovered his family descended from slaves in Texas. She’s a second-generation American who very much believes in the American Dream—and really loves country music.
“I used to vend at these country festivals where it was just me,” she says. “I’m a young African-American woman. I would be sitting there making hats for people, and I would definitely see that side of the country, where I’m not supposed to be there, that’s the best way I can put it.”
The version of the American West that’s often presented to us is a white-washed one. Many people don’t realize that, in fact, one in four cowboys on the frontier were black. “People don’t even know there are black cowboys, so they really don’t think there are black cowgirls,” KB says. “Girls in this world have to prove themselves all the time. Especially as a black woman, you have to really show that, yeah we’re here, there’s a whole lot of us.”
She describes a parade the Cowgirls of Color participated in, in a “pretty mixed, diverse area” of Takoma Park, Maryland. “There was a couple of little girls throughout the parade, there was at least three little brown girls, you could just tell were mesmerized by us,” she says. “They looked at us, and they could see themselves.”
She looks forward to the day when rodeos are a more inclusive environment, when events are more multicultural, or even when there’s an all-female rodeo. She talks about Spanish women who ride—”tough women on bucking horses”—and dreams of what could happen if rodeo riders from different cultures came together. “It’s very segregated,” Bowles says. “But I don’t think it was meant to be that way.”
Asia has big plans for Neon Cowboys, including a YouTube channel where line dances — which traditionally pull from wedding fare like “Footloose” or the Electric Slide — are updated with current Top 40 songs by artists like Drake and Travis Scott. She dreams of creating a party environment that’s Coyote Ugly-meets-Hard-Rock-Café but “where now everyone is invited.”
There was one country artist, Asia says, who wanted to wear a Neon Cowboys hat at the CMAs, but got into an argument with her stylist, who thought the singer should have a more traditional look. The company fields requests from a lot of celebrities, very few of whom are country artists and many of whom are black. Solange (who also has been spotted wearing Rombaut’s cowboy sneakers) and Future are two of the names mentioned. “We still don’t necessarily fit in the mainstream yet, but the mainstream has seen it,” she says.
Cowboy culture and country music are things generally associated with Americana, with patriotism. This happens to be a time, maybe more so than ever, when the tropes of Americana and patriotism are fraught with the ugly side of good ol’ boys, with recklessness, with outdated stagnancy.
This, if you’re someone who loves both cowboy boots and progressivism, is a shame. There is something endlessly cool about being a cowboy. “Mama tried / Shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die / It wasn’t god who made honky tonk angels / I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey / The road goes on forever, the party never ends,” the lyrics tell us.
In its best, most optimistic form, the cowboy and the wild west can be the perfect flickering movie screen to project a more inclusive, more compassionate, still-wild narrative of what it means to be a pioneer. Ironically, something so tied to a specific traditional look — boots, hat, jeans — might be the medium right now to reinvent, to put LED glow-in-the-dark lights on, to tell the story of new frontiers and underdogs succeeding that people never grow tired of hearing.
“It’s more about us redefining what should America look like,” Asia says. “It should be more inclusive, it should be more accepting. We’re allowing these people that didn’t necessarily feel like they could fit in with Americana culture to have some kind of channel into it, including myself.”