The Old West still lives in custom cowboy boot maker Mickey Mussett's shop
Mickey Mussett at work
Custom cowboy boot maker Mickey Mussett didn't start out fancying up the elite. He's 65 now and only started making boots ten years ago, after leaving his job in advertising. The lure of leather and glue is what pulled him away and what keeps him busy now. "It's a very human and exciting thing, to make boots," he explains. "You dream with people."
Mussett runs his shop, Ghost Rider Boots, out of his garage, and he took some time to talk to us about the artistry in his craft, the spirit of the Old West and the freedom that cowboy boots give to those who wear them.
Are you from the West?
Oh, yah. I grew up here. I live in Denver, and I converted the garage into a boot shop. Rush hour is no problem.
How did you become a custom boot maker?
I was originally in advertising. All of a sudden, about ten years ago, I wasn't young and I couldn't get a job in my own profession. So I started looking for something where I would never have to hear someone say, "You're too old."
Then it got really bizarre. I had no idea what I was going to do. I love braiding my wife's hair and she cut it off, so I went looking for a leather shoelace to braid and found a leather company and there were rolls and sheets and all sorts of things and I started out doing some leather tooling and I came across a moment where my son came home from college and we were bored, and his art teacher said when you're bored conceive of and execute an art project in an hour. So I conceived of a leather cowboy boot Christmas tree ornament. And I thought it looked really cool.
Oil Rig Boots, by Mickey Mussett
And that ornament turned into boots?
Eventually. But I actually remember telling God that I only wanted to make cowboy boot Christmas ornaments. But you know what they say -- when you tell God your plans, he laughs at them. I came upon this moment where I hand-dyed everything. But I could only get a red that looked like old dry blood. I wondered how they got those brilliant red and greens. So I called a boot maker and he told me how they were dyed, and in the course of it, I went to and study with him for six months. Ever since, I've been making boots six days a week for nine years. It's been a strange. Beyond strange, really.
Since then I have slept on ranch floors visiting boot makers and I've mentored by the best boot makers in the world. In fact, one of my mentors is the best boot maker in the world. I had it in my heart that I wanted community and the community of boot makers has really rolled out to help me. I have never been without a boot order in nine years. My wife, we've been married 47 years, and she's been a seamstress since she was young, she can't sew what I can sew in boots -- there was a custom boot maker lurking in my soul. I love it and it turns out I'm good at it.
Dragonfly Boots, by Mickey Mussett
What's cooler than cowboy boots? Its an American art form. There used to be 300 boot makers in Denver. Now there are about 250 in the country. It's a rare bird when you find a custom boot maker. I make boots out of leather, glue and string. And it's a fabulous art form.
When I work with people I am also taking care of their feet. I just made a pair of boots for a man who had a leg two inches shorter than the other. The challenge he gave me was that he didn't want anyone to know. And I did it, and you can't tell. He said that since he was 16 years old everyone looked at him like he was a cripple and now he can walk across an airport and no one looks at him.
What's artistic about making boots?
All of it. The fit itself -- the architecture of a custom boot is different than the architecture of any other type of boot. It took me about eight years to get the ankle of the boot the way I want it to look. They say a cowboy boot should have the shape of a woman or a coke bottle. If you get the right shape, it can be a plain boot and the architecture alone will get the attention of those around you.
The second is the colors. My boots a lot of the time are red, white, and blue. The ones I have are red wing tips. I can tell you know that I would have never thought I would wear red wing tips, but they are beautiful. It's the marriage of form and function -- even if it's the plainest boot.
Eel boots, by Mickey Mussett
Why do you think people love cowboy boots?
People love the old West and this is a way to be a part of it. God knows how many cobblers have stood at my machines before I have. This is something that is so a part of the old West that I'm keeping that tradition alive. I couldn't dream this up. It just happened.
Our new rich in many cases, are like Bobos in Paradise, you know, that book by David Brooks? They're half bourgeois and half bohemian. Like Mark Zuckerberg. He's a guy who shows up in hoodies but he's one of the wealthiest people in the world. You have people who have the discipline to get success but the spirit that's bohemian. They want to put their feet up on a rail in the West and let their minds dream. The Western culture is that dream. People can get out and ride and have that free spirit. It's a spiritual thing. Spirits get liberated. No one puts their feet up and wishes they worked in a Steele factory.
It's a very American spirit. And whether you are wearing cowboy boots with your Levis or suits, you have a little bit of freedom on your feet.
For more information, or to contact Mussett, visit his web page.