A lot of famous people are walking off with Tony Benattar's works of art-Madonna, Ralph Lauren and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few-and he doesn't mind a bit. Frankly, the owner of Toronto-based Liberty Boot Co. is thrilled that so many celebrities want to be seen wearing his fancy cowboy boots. "They're always asking about them and usually want a celebrity discount," he says, "but I just tell them to go to the stores."
Benattar's hand-tooled boots have been featured in coffee table books and museum exhibitions. And, like most artwork, they don't come cheap: Prices range from $950 to more than $14,000 for a custom-designed pair.
The 49-year-old boot manufacturer has a simple formula: traditional craftsmanship-the leather toe boxes are hand-carved, for example-combined with intricate pop-art designs. As Benattar says, "It definitely gets out of the Western world and into high fashion."
His haute couture approach seems to be working: Last year, Liberty sold 6,000 pairs of boots, topping $6 million in retail sales. While the boots are designed in Toronto and crafted in León, Mexico, they are primarily sold through high-end retailers in the American Southwest.
A bass-playing rocker who grew up wearing cowboy boots, Benattar's love of Western footwear led him to the boot mecca of León in search of a perfect pair, and ultimately drew him into the business. Initially, he became a distributor for boots manufactured by Vicente Fox (who later became president of Mexico). But when Benattar learned that the U.S. market stood open as a prime stomping ground, he decided, in 1986, to develop his own brand.
In the early '90s, his fortunes soured, and with Liberty on life support, Benattar spent $35,000-his life savings-to lease a showroom in Denver. Then he waited-for exactly two hours, which is how long it took for representatives of Billy Martin's, a high-end retailer of all things Western, to walk in and sign a contract for $250,000 (U.S.) worth of Liberty boots.
After a wild ride in the '90s, Benattar's business settled into an even pace, if not a gallop. But will supercool cowboy boots keep it going forever?
Toronto marketing expert Len Kubas warns that Liberty's boots are at risk of becoming a passing fad. Or the business could sink if a competitor swamps the market with knock-offs.
Benattar isn't overly concerned about copycats-they've been stealing his designs for years. He's also convinced that, as he develops his brand, he'll attract repeat business. "They're in and out of fashion, but never out of style," he says. "For a little company, I think we cast a large footprint."
STOMPING WITH THE STARS
When Madonna's Drowned World concert came on TV in 2001, Tony Benattar turned to the guy sitting next to him in a Toronto bar and said, "Those are my boots, man." It seems the singer's stylist had spotted a pair of Benattar's boots and decided she had to have the funky footwear for Madonna and her dancers.
Benattar doesn't try to force his boots on celebrities; he lets them discover them on their own. "I figure I'm in good retail locations and the stuff appeals to them," he says. Still, all those boot-wearing celebrities add up to great free publicity for Liberty.
He recalls that when he met with executives from Ralph Lauren, "their eyes popped" when they discovered that so many stars wore Liberty boots. "Really, it helps the reputation of the company," says Benattar, "and I think it helped to bring cowboy boots out of exile after cheesy late-'80s fashion."