Made in the West: Meet Your Local Western Artisans

Think “high fashion” and you’re more likely to envision Parisian couturiers, Hollywood red carpets or New York runways, not dusty dude ranches, rodeo circuits or mountain saloons. But make no mistake: There is pure artistry in the custom hats, boots, jeans and jewelry from these four Western artists with Colorado ties.


Photo by Jeff Nelson

The Jeans Maker

For Ryan Martin of W.H. Ranch Dungarees, creating the perfect pair of jeans is like pitching a no-hitter.

Some men dream of making the major leagues. Others of performing at Carnegie Hall. Still others of flying to the moon. Ryan Martin’s dream? To make the perfect pair of jeans. As the founder, owner, head designer, chief sewer—and, well, everything else—of W.H. Ranch Dungarees (“I joke that I have every job at my company from creative director down to janitor”)—Martin aims for perfection every day. “I’m completely OCD,” he says. “It takes six machines to make a pair of jeans, and they all have their own personalities and have to be treated in a certain way. My buttonhole machine is 74 years old and weighs 400 pounds; all it does is make buttonholes on flies and waists. But it’s nuts—if you even look at it the wrong way, it won’t work. And some days the machines beat me.” But just as often, he is the victor.

A sixth-generation pattern maker and sewer, Martin majored in apparel and textile design at Kansas State University before studying European pattern making and design in London. But always, his holy grail was jeans. Making them right is harder than you might think, so Martin began modestly, by sewing men’s ties out of denim and duck cloth. “My rationale was this: Ralph Lauren started with a tie, and what’s good enough for him is good enough for me.”

When Martin’s wife, Kim, suggested he try to sell his ties on Etsy, he replied: “What’s Etsy?” But the strategy worked. “I priced the ties high—$75— but they quickly got a cult following, started getting write-ups on fashion blogs, and New York magazine editors were buying them. It was crazy.”

That led to a brief but inspired collaboration with Denver-based Topo Designs, for whom Martin made 12 oil-cloth hunting jackets that “sold out in, like, 24 hours.”

Clearly, he had a knack for apparel. In 2011, Martin founded White Horse Trading Company (the name comes from the old Johnny Cash song “Man Comes Around”), and was off and running. “To get started, I sold all my best cowboy boots to pay for a few sewing machines and rolls of Japanese denim,” he says, adding that the Japanese “really appreciate the heritage of how American denim used to be made. “The denim I use wears like skin. It’s raw and crisp but it will break in and mold to your body in a way that other denim won’t.”

That, he says, is the way denim was made in its golden age. And for Martin, 35, jeans are like fine wine: The older, the better. “One of my hobbies is collecting vintage jeans, from the ’50s up to the ’70s. I’ll take them apart and study them to see how they were constructed. It’s really interesting to see how corners began to be cut over the years: thinner thread, cheaper denim. I think back to when my great-grandfather was buying his jeans at the feed store back in Victoria, Kansas: They were his uniform. He’d buy only one pair, and they had to last.”

Martin’s jeans pay homage to those jeans of old. “I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” he says. “I’ve gone through great pains to develop true vintage fits based off what has existed in the past—almost spec for spec, stitch for stitch.” And he creates the bench-made jeans using heirloom techniques passed down from a time “when a single garment could be made by one person, from start to finish, with a maddening focus on innovation, construction, fit and finish.”

Six years since starting the business, and four years since renaming it W.H. Ranch Dungarees, Martin, whose jeans have been worn by the likes of Harrison Ford, makes nine historically reproduced styles, ranging from slender mid-rise to full-cut high-rise and any combination in between. He can make only about 200 pairs annually, so a customer who orders the $395 jeans might have to wait a year or more to get them (unless they pay $600 for a four-week-or-under rush order). Customers hail from across the world, from Scandinavia to the Philippines to Texas to Hollywood.

In spite of his success, Martin says his goal was not to prove that he could create a good business. “My goal,” he says, “was to prove to myself— and anyone else, other than my mom—that I could make the best pair of jeans in the world.”

And does he think he’s succeeded? “I think there’s empirical evidence that that argument can be made, but— and this is a big but—I have never been satisfied with a pair I’ve made,” he says. “Because I know I can always do better—a better pocket, a better inseam. There are 150 operations involved in making a pair of jeans, and it’s awfully difficult to get 150 out of 150. It’s like asking a major-league pitcher to throw a no-hitter every game. But like a pitcher, I’m still a professional, and I strive for perfection every time.”

Handmade jeans
How much: Standard jeans, $375 (12- to 18-month wait); $600 for rush orders (four weeks or less)
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