Jerry Ryan is a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool, authentic Western cowboy. Since the age of 21, he has rarely let the sun rise and set without donning a pair of his beloved cowboy boots. A devotee of the Best of the West, Ryan is a singular ilk, a real modern-day frontiersman. The owner and creative force driving Austin’s Heritage Boot, Ryan says such Western authenticity is of particular importance to him. And don’t let his Irish brogue and European sensibilities fool you; Ryan is the genuine article.
Though he was born in the 1950s in Dublin, Ireland, Ryan admits he’s been drawn to the fashion world and the romantic characteristics of cowboy culture for as long as he can remember. (His Heritage Boot price tags prove his affec- tion for the West began in childhood: The tickets are embla- zoned with a photo of Ryan in 1957 Dublin in which he is dressed in his best bib and tucker cowboy outfit – complete with cowboy hat and a toy six shooter.)
In the late 1960s, Ryan left Dublin and began his fashion career in London, one of the world’s leading style capitals. There, he opened Brooks Boots, a classically stylized boot shop that attracted “discerning hipsters on the cutting edge of British style and culture.”
Ryan says many Americans were taken with Brooks Boots because the shop sold hipper boots than were available in the States at the time. “We took cowboy boots and Americana and Western culture and made it hip, and then it conversely came back to America,” Ryan says. Upon his first travels across the pond, Ryan realized his footwear was still the best looking around. “When I came to the States for the first time in 1976, I was wearing cowboy boots that were better than anyone else!”
Ryan eventually made the move to New York City in 1982, and began manufacturing women’s leather clothing, selling his designs to the likes of Patricia Field, the renowned fashion designer who outfitted Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on “Sex and the City.” Five years later, Ryan headed west to San Francisco, where he worked as a buyer and line builder for several menswear stores before landing a job as a buyer and creator of custom men’s clothing at Turnbull & Asser, the esteemed English clothier known for dressing British royalty and Winston Churchill.
Before long, Ryan launched his own boot line, combining what he describes as “the classic design, patterns and workmanship” of the golden age of the cowboy boot with a “contemporary, rogue-vogue sense of style.” The boots were an immediate hit with Western aficionados and fashionistas alike.
About five years ago, after friends suggested he visit Austin, Ryan made a trip to Texas’ weirdest city, where, while sipping a cup of coffee at Jo’s, he had an epiphany. “I saw Leslie walking down the street, and everyone was greeting him and smiling at him,” Ryan recalls. “I thought, ‘If he can co-exist here, and the food and the radio station are good here, I can live here.’”
Soon after, Ryan and his wife Patti made Austin home. And within six months, the couple opened Heritage Boot on South Congress Avenue. While the store – with its hand- crafted cowboy boots and Western wear – struck a chord with Austinites, Ryan considered making a move to the city’s revitalized downtown. After only a year in business, that’s exactly what he did.
Now Heritage Boot can be found in the heart of Austin at 117 W. Eighth St., just a stone’s throw from the Texas Capitol.
“I knew I wanted to do this kind of shop in Austin,” Ryan says. “It’s all about the search for authenticity. I think people really appreciate that when they shop here. Over the course of time, people are willing to pay for the things that they cherish.”
And with a mesmerizing collection of exquisite, handmade cowboy boots, Rockmount Western shirts, handtooled leather bags and belts, and sterling silver belt buckles to die for, Austinites are finding a lot to cherish at Heritage Boot. Much of Ryan’s local support, he says, comes from Austin’s gay populace.
“I think gay people get it right before straight people get it right,” Ryan laughs. “I have a lot of gay customers, and I’m very thankful for that. There’s such a large lesbian community in Austin, and they’ve been great supporters of me. My gay customers appreciate the good value in relationship to what they’re buying. They totally get it.”
While he’s still settling in to his new location, Ryan says he has future plans to open another shop in the same vein as Heritage Boot, perhaps in Texas, perhaps elsewhere. And though he’s nearing retirement age, this cowboy has no intention of slowing down. Indeed, he’s sure to die with his boots on.