Most designers didn’t start in the Marine Corps, but Sarah Ford, the founder of Ranch Road Boots, is no ordinary designer. She channeled her real-world experiences into building a company that honors her family’s cowboy heritage and invites everyone to embrace a bit of Western culture. Saddle up and read all about her inspiring story.
You are a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, then attended Harvard Business School and launched Ranch Road Boots. That’s quite the journey! What prompted the entry into the fashion industry?
It wasn’t something intentional, to end up in the fashion industry. Western culture is in my DNA, it is something that has followed me from a young age, my Texan roots. I’ve always had an innate appreciation for cowboy culture. My grandfather was a cowboy in the 40s and as a kid I loved hearing his stories. When he could afford them, probably in his 60s, he always wore a pair of handmade cowboy boots. I have so much appreciation for the hard work and manual labor in western living, and bootmaking is certainly a reflection of that, it is an art. Ranch Road was born out of that appreciation, the love for the American west, and a culture that transcends borders. Cowboy boots can be vibrant and decorative; they tell a story. I love the novelty behind them and that we can carry that as an extension or expression of ourselves so I wanted to make that attainable to more people. I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I decided I wanted to have a go at making custom boots, and originally I started the brand as a mobile cowboy boot shop, then quickly realized that in order to have a scalable business we had to do ready-to-wear collections, so years later here we are.
You went to Harvard Business School – what were the most important lessons you learned there that you used when launching your business?
You don’t need a business school education to be an entrepreneur. The vast majority of successful entrepreneurs do not have an MBA. I created the company with a small savings account and I used that to bootstrap the business. My education, the network I developed, and the experiences the Marines taught me were my starting compass.
You started your business with custom-made boots but changed business models to scale. What was the turning point for you?
I still love custom-boot making and encourage everyone who is able to and has a love for boots to have that experience, we have some amazing and legendary bootmakers in Texas. However, as a business model it is not scalable, things like lead times, fit, etc., are constant operational challenges. The original idea was to crowdsource designs, so I would make a range of “T-models” where people could customize elements, but I’ve found that people gravitate to completed styles, and a lot of options can create confusion; psychologically, I think people want to be shown what is “cool” or good. In 2019, we started developing an actual line of styles catering mainly to men. We’ve since changed our approach, honed-in on our POV and design language, and now our women’s business is our main focus.
What makes Ranch Road Boots unique?
Our point of view as a brand and the designs we make stand out against other traditional western and footwear brands. Customers connect with our identity, our story-telling, and the community we’re building. We’re trying to push the boundaries of people’s definition of “western”, designing forward, artistic styles that speak to the West Texas customer as much as the New York City customer. We’re really moving to be an intentional brand in this space, known for quality and the styles we make to how much we produce.
What are the little details that elevate boots?
The unique designs, the patterns, the stitching, the color juxtapositions, and the quality of the leathers that work together to make the boot. Things that go the extra mile, ie: we include nice dust bags with each pair. Essentially, it is all of the things that are quickly apparent when you see them online, and certainly when you physically interact with them.
Your boots are instantly comfortable and don’t need to be broken in, yet they’re really sturdy and durable. How do you find this balance?
Thank you! I think footwear is always tricky because our feet are not the same so for some breaking into a good boot is an easier feat than for others. But, this is the beauty of Goodyear-welted construction, it’s the oldest, most durable form of premium footwear making and an art in itself that takes hundreds of calculated steps. The construction process includes features like cork-filled footbeds which allows the boots to mold to your feet over time. All these features play a part in comfort but most importantly in their longevity because welted construction means that the footwear can be resolved, and of course, having good leathers that last and stretch getting more comfortable over time and use.
Can you tell us about your craftsmanship and production?
All of our boots are Goodyear-welted and as a result, there is so much “hand” in them. They are all currently made in Spain in a family-owned operation that houses generations of artisans with such skill and precision that is not uncommon but it is rare, and hard to keep alive today. Our behind-the-making video gives a great glimpse into our boot-making process in Spain. Leathers are finite and because of our construction process, we make everything in limited batches, which also keeps our brand more intentional in the sense that it limits our footprint and keeps our brand designs unique.
What would you say to people who don’t think they can rock cowboy boots outside of the
EVERYONE can rock cowboy boots! If you wear any type of boot, you can wear cowboy boots. Western boots are evergreen footwear and never really go out of style, they are timeless. I think western boots just encapsulate different times but they are very wearable at any age or time and styling can be modified in an infinite amount of fun personal ways, especially for non-traditional western boot wearers.
What are your favorite styling tips?
I love how versatile cowboy boots are and how they make an outfit shine. The way I wear them just depends on seasonality and my mood. For Spring, I personally love wearing them with dresses of different lengths and I love a classic mini-skirt and t-shirt moment. Right now, I’m wearing a 1980s-style baggy denim romper with jeans tucked into my boots, which I’ve heard is a big “no-no” haha. Who makes these rules anyway?!
Why did you launch Ranch Road, Re/Booted?
Circularity is important to us and when it comes to quality products there is just no reason to generate more waste if a boot is traditionally unsellable because of a minor defect or because the sole was dinged up on a photo shoot. The beauty about the product that we make is that it is life-lasting and re-soleable, so our boots can most definitely be worn and passed down multiple times and over generations. Vintage is a big part of our ethos and something we celebrate – the past inspires the future. Not to mention, worn boots are not only more comfortable, but they are also a vibe people hunt and pay for. For me, this is part of having a brand that has and creates purpose. We wanted to give our customers the opportunity to give up the boots that no longer serve them and reward them for participating in an environmentally conscious lifestyle; something that is more important than ever.
How do sustainability and CSR initiatives factor into your business?
What we’re doing with RE/BOOTED is the beginning of our movement and advocacy towards sustainability. At the end of the day, we work with leather goods but we consider everything in our business from our chosen manufacturing processes to the leathers we work with. Part of being produced in Spain means that our factory is being upheld to stringent EU environmental and ethical standards. We’re very aware of the movement towards a more sustainable world and as our business and technologies scale, we’ll continue to tap into resources that allow us to make durable quality products with the least amount of impact. We’re a brand that embraces slow fashion, we believe that less is more, which is why we keep a selective breadth of styles, restock on-demand, and retire products as we create new ones. We subscribe to the notion that our lives should be curated, including the items we wear, and are committed to being part of the circular economy.
This interview has been edited for clarity.