A Very Australian Kind of Icon
From wrangling to the Ritz, the R.M. Williams boot has left its rustic antecedents behind and allows you to turn an elegant foot wherever you are
Article by Nicolas Payne-Baader
Australian and fashion are not two words that immediately go together. Despite a pretty impressive back catalogue of small but accomplished designers coming out of Melbourne over the last decade or so, people are more likely to think of a hat with corks attached than anything else when asked about Australian clothing.
However there is one company that bucks the trend and it is nothing if not an Australian icon. The R.M. Williams boot is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Not dissimilar to a cowboy boot in its origins – and to some extent in its styling – the R.M. Williams boot has become an iconic piece of footwear.
The biography of the boot’s inventor and namesake makes for interesting reading, the son of a blacksmith he was taught to make boots out a single piece of leather (one of the distinguishing features of the boot) by the fantastically named Dollar Mick. Having spent several years doing odd jobs including Camel Driver in the outback Williams decided that leather working was the way to go. Unfortunately at the time he couldn’t actually afford leather so he took an ad out in the local paper advertising custom “Elastic Side boots” that had to be paid in advance allowing him to buy the leather to make the boots and hence the company was born.
But going from selling a few elasticated side boots to an icon doesn’t just happen overnight. The synthesis of a classic work boot is an interesting thing, it doesn’t take a lot of time hanging around in rural USA to realise that cowboy boots are no Madonna video novelty, they are a uniform. As can be said of a flannel suit or a brogue the more ubiquitous an item is the more people try and stretch the rules of what that style entails. For every plain black leather cowboy boot seen in the States there are snakeskin, sting ray, ostrich, pink, green and multi-coloured pairs somewhere else in someone’s wardrobe.
The R.M. Williams boot is no different. The classic Craftsman might be the anchor of the collection but for years they have been producing dozens of permutations to fit every niche their boot may be used for. Although the company’s original USP may have been to make a boot fit for a wrangler which wouldn’t wear out they soon realised that the same boot, minus the mud and dust was perfectly appropriate for dances, dinner and every other stereotypical thing you’d like to add. From the most rugged kangaroo hide, thick soled work boots to their elegantly chiselled suede brown “Craftsman” boot to their Bushman which at least to the untrained eye looks more Alice Cooper than Crocodile Dundee. Being a pretty savvy businessman, Williams also realised that there are a lot of men who’d like to look straight off the ranch even if they hadn’t done anything more strenuous that day than walking between their car and their office and his shop in central Adelaide always did a good trade. There’s also a reason that the only thing uniting the left and right wings of Australian Parliament is their choice in footwear – at least for photo ops.
The trajectory of the brand in the UK has been similar, traditionally stocked at outdoors shops like Elm of Burford and seen mainly for sale at country shows. Over the last few years they have quietly been sneaking their way onto Mr.Porter and into shops like Liberty’s and Shoreditch’s Present. The reasons are slightly mysterious although the path from Oxfordshire to Notting Hill to collective consciousness is well beaten by brands like Hunter and Barbour and the fact that a 49.9 per cent share was recently purchased by fashion conglomerate LVMH has surely aided the expansion and visibility. So too has their new Westfield Shop which opened up this year with a pleasingly Australian feel to it.
The boots have a lot to them, whether that’s political or style capital, and although the thought of an Australian fashion icon might make you feel funny inside the R.M. Williams boot is exactly that in its home country and international appreciation is very overdue.
Enquiries: R.M. Williams, 102 New Bond Street, Mayfair, London W1S 1SS / 0207 6296222 / www.rmwilliams.com.au/