Most designers don’t get their start in the Marines, but Sarah Ford, 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 little western culture. Saddle up and read all about her inspiring story.
You’re a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, then attended Harvard Business School and started Ranch Road Boots. It’s quite a trip! What prompted you to enter the fashion industry?
It wasn’t something intentional, to end up in the fashion industry. Western culture is in my DNA, it’s something that’s been with me since I was little, my Texas roots. I’ve always had an innate appreciation for cowboy culture. My grandfather was a cowboy in the 40’s 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 value so much hard work and manual labor in western life, and bootmaking is certainly a reflection of that, it’s an art. Ranch Road was born out of that appreciation, love for the American West and a culture that transcends borders. Cowboy boots can be lively and decorative; they tell a story. I love the novelty behind them and that we can wear it as an extension or expression of ourselves so I wanted to make it available to more people. I have always been an entrepreneur at heart. I decided to get into custom bootmaking, and originally started the brand as a mobile cowboy boot shop, then quickly realized that in order to have a scalable business, we needed to create ready-to-wear collections, so years later, here we are.
You went to Harvard Business School – what are the most important lessons you learned there that you used when starting your business?
You don’t need a business school education to become an entrepreneur. The vast majority of successful entrepreneurs do not have an MBA. I created a company with a small savings account and used that to start a business. My education, the network I developed, and the experiences the Marines taught me were my initial 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 making custom boots and encourage anyone who can and loves boots to have the experience, we have some amazing and legendary boot makers in Texas. However, as a business model it is not scalable, things like lead time, fit etc. are constant operational challenges. The original idea was to crowdsource the design, so I would create a series of “T-models” where people could customize elements, but I’ve found that people gravitate towards ready-made styles, and the many options can be confusing; psychologically, I think people want to be shown what is “cool” or good. In 2019, we started developing an actual line of styles aimed mostly at men. Since then, we’ve changed our approach, refined 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 from other traditional western and footwear brands. Customers connect with our identity, our storytelling and the community we build. We’re trying to push the boundaries of people’s definition of “western,” designing forward-thinking, savvy styles that speak to West Texas shoppers as well as New York shoppers. We’re really moving to be an intentional brand in this space, known for the quality and styles we produce to the quantity we produce.
What are the little details that elevate the boots?
Unique designs, patterns, stitching, juxtapositions of colors and quality of leather that together create the boots. Things that go further eg: we include nice dust bags with every pair. Basically, these are all 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 break in, yet are really tough and durable. How do you find this balance?
Thank you! I think footwear is always tricky because our feet are not the same so breaking in a good boot is an easier feat for some than others. But this is the beauty of Goodyear’s welted construction, it’s the oldest, most enduring form of high-end footwear manufacturing, and an art in itself that requires hundreds of calculated steps. The construction process includes features such as cork-filled soles that allow the boots to mold to your feet over time. All of these features play a role in comfort, but most importantly in their longevity, as the studded construction means the shoes are foldable, and of course, have good leather that lasts and stretches and gets more comfortable with time and use.
Can you tell us something about your design and production?
All of our boots are Goodyear boots and as a result, there is so much “hand” to them. All are currently produced in family-owned Spain that houses generations of artisans with such skill and precision that is not uncommon, but it is rare and difficult to keep alive today. Our behind the scenes video gives a great insight into our boot making process in Spain. Leather is limited and because of our construction process we make everything in limited runs, which also makes our brand more intentional in terms of limiting our footprint and keeping our brand design unique.
What would you say to people who don’t think they can rock cowboy boots outside the house
ANYONE can rock cowboy boots! If you wear any type of boots, you can wear cowboy boots. Western boots are evergreen footwear and never go out of fashion, they are timeless. I think western boots just encompass different times, but they are very wearable at any age or time, and the style 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 the cowboy boots are and how the outfit shines. The way I wear them depends only on the season and my mood. For spring, I personally like to wear them with dresses of different lengths and I like a classic mini skirt and a t-shirt. I’m currently wearing a 1980s style baggy denim jumpsuit with jeans tucked into my boots, which I’ve heard is a big no-no haha. Who makes these rules anyway?!
Why did you start Ranch Road, Re/Booted?
Circularity is important to us, and when it comes to quality products, there’s simply no reason to create more waste if a boot traditionally can’t be sold because of a minor defect or because the sole is smudged in a photo shoot. The beauty of the product we make is that it is long lasting and can be re-nailed, so our boots can definitely be worn and passed down multiple times and through the 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 also a vibe that people seek and pay for. For me, this is part of being a brand that has and creates a purpose. We wanted to give our customers the opportunity to get rid of boots that no longer serve them and reward them for an environmentally conscious lifestyle; something that is more important than ever.
How do sustainability and CSR initiatives affect your business?
What we are 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 leather we work with. Part of the production in Spain means that our factory complies with the strict environmental and ethical standards of the EU. We are very aware of the move towards a more sustainable world and as our business and technologies scale, we will continue to use resources that allow us to produce lasting quality products with the lowest impact. We are a brand that embraces slow fashion, we believe that less is more, which is why we maintain a selective breadth of styles, restock on demand and retire products as we create new ones. We buy into the idea that our lives should be controlled, including the things we wear, and we are committed to being part of the circular economy.
This interview has been edited for clarity.