The cowboy boot has long been an emblem of life on the Canadian Prairies, but now the western staple has begun to blend with 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 those city buyers, while showcasing a local manufacturing process it maintains despite struggles to find skilled labour and materials.
The store, which opened recently in the city’s Beltline district, near the Calgary Stampede grounds, is twice the size of the brand’s previous flagship location. It brims with extras intended to capture the attention of consumers who might ordinarily opt for humbler kicks. The space includes an area for events, a shoe shining station, an espresso stand and a bourbon bar. Visitors are also able to 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, seven-and-a-half-hour production process.
“It’s really no longer just a big-box retail sort of format with a factory tacked onto the back of it,” said Alberta Boot’s CEO, Eytan Broder. He referred to the new space as a “brand experience centre.”
“It’s a much more sort of modern approach to retail,” he said. “It’s an interactive space. It’s an educational experience.”
Alberta Boot has specialized in handcrafted cowboy boots made 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 wants to ensure the brand is recognized as part of the story of the modern west. The company has longstanding relationships with the RCMP and other police departments.
The new store’s opening follows the launch of an e-commerce platform for the brand, and the openings of two other stores last year, during 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, following 20 years of less formal involvement in the event.
But the company is facing challenges when it comes to securing materials and equipment, as well as staffing the factory.
Mr. Broder said Alberta Boot has to import almost all of its raw materials, equipment and machinery. Because of a lack of operating tanneries in Canada, all of the raw leather used in Alberta Boot’s production process is imported from facilities in Europe, South America and Mexico.
“We’re developing very strong partnerships with specific footwear experts in places like León, Mexico, where there’s a massive footwear industry, and in places like Taiwan,” Mr. Broder said.
It has also been difficult for the company to find staff with the specialized skillset needed to make its boots. To address that, Alberta Boot has been partnering with community colleges, trade schools and various agencies to attract young people to learn the craft.
“We’re stuck with this problem of finding fantastic people who want to join us, and then we have to train and teach them,” Mr. Broder said.
Once the boots are made, the problem becomes finding ways to sell them to a broad consumer base. The new flagship store is not the only way Alberta Boot is chasing those buyers. Mr. Broder said the company has been able to appeal to younger people because of what he described as the “Yellowstone effect,” a reference to a television show that follows a ranching family in Montana. The series, which premiered in 2018, stars Kevin Costner and has helped popularize cowboy boots and western style.
Mr. Costner was the marshal of this year’s Calgary Stampede Parade, which took place on Friday. As the event’s official partner, Alberta Boot outfitted him.
The company has created a commemorative Stampede suede boot. Mr. Broder said about 200 pairs have sold to buyers as far away as Copenhagen and Seoul.
Calgary Stampede president and chairman Steve McDonough said the partnership with Alberta Boot is exciting. He added that he believes the new flagship store will contribute to the revitalization of downtown Calgary, which has struggled to reinvent itself in the years since the 2014 oil price crash.
“It’s not your grandpa’s cobbler sitting in a dark room anymore,” he said.
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