Ron Rider is a character.
A few months ago, I called him up to talk for an interview. I was unreasonably excited to speak with him—we’d been chasing each other around for a while, and everyone I’d talked to about Ron made very, very clear that the man behind Rider Boot Company is one of the more interesting, colorful people in the shoe world, period. We’d each earmarked about 45 minutes.
Three and a half rollicking hours later, I had a fantastic problem on my hands: what in the hell to do with three and a half hours of tape with Ron Rider? While the conversation flowed as naturally as conversations can flow, it also slalomed its way through dozens of different topics, from the infinite importance of customer service, to dangerous misconceptions people have about how shoe sizing should work.
After a lot of thought, and a lot of listening to Ron Rider talking through my headphones, I realized that I needed to chop it up, and create a running series: “Ron Rider On:”. This is the first, but over the coming months, you’ll see a bunch more of these, on topics of all sorts, told the way only Ron Rider can tell a story.
But to start things out, we of course talked about the birth of Rider Boot Company, which is an absolutely fabulous, often gonzo story full of shoes, and Italians—and revenge! It’s all chronicled below, 100% in Ron’s words. It’s very worth the read.
“So at Franco’s Fine Clothier in Richmond, Virginia, we had large store. I think we had 12,000 square feet at the one location. Franco had bought a Safeway supermarket if I remember right, and turned that into a clothing store. You’re in New York, ask around. You could go call half the people in the men’s tailored clothing business up there, and they’ll tell you about Franco’s Fine Clothier. Everybody knew us. I mean Hickey Freeman, he used to consult on their fittings.
What you know of inventory in a men’s clothing store is nothing compared to what it was 15 years ago, 20 years ago. I mean the numbers were incredible. White shirts? We probably had 8,000 white shirts. If somebody was going out of business, we’d buy the whole lot. Burl trousers. We would have burl trousers to fit elementary school kids through a 60 waist. I mean, we just, we had everything.
We eventually had a men’s department and a ladies department. We always had carried Ferragamo shoes. I kind of inherited that, because Johnston & Murphy, where my dad and I both worked for years and years, always actually carried Ferragamo shoes in their own retail stores.
Well, Ferragamo USA, which is…I don’t even know if it’s officially not really even Ferragamo Italy, or at least it wasn’t back then. It was its own private little company. So Ferragamo stayed in Franco’s shoe department after I came around. But now that there was a shoe person—me—involved, we wanted to expand the ladies department.
So we started going up to the New York ladies’ shoe shows. With men’s, we didn’t have any problem. We could buy anything we wanted. We had the best shoes. Great credit. Nobody would say no to us. On the men’s side, we would be turning lines down. There would be all these sales people sitting out in the parking lot all the time, trying to sell us their lines.
In the ladies, not so much. We had kind of an older, retiree-type of ladies business, and we wanted to try and update it a little bit. So we went to the market in New York and I went to the Ferragamo booth—not realizing the Ferragamo men’s and Ferragamo ladies was, again, another totally different company. They were basically just middlemen buying from Ferragamo Italy with the rights to sell in America.
So Ferragamo ladies did not want to sell us, because they didn’t like our customer base. The customer was too old. We didn’t have a fashion customer. They refused to sell us shoes. No way. It’s like, we buy $30,000 a year of men’s Ferragamo. What are you talking about? What do you mean you won’t sell us? I want ladies’ Ferragamo in the store. No, sorry. We’re not going to sell you.
Fine. Next door we go to Stuart Weitzman. Stuart Weitzman wouldn’t even let us in. We gave him the business card. Franco’s Fine Clothier, Richmond, Virginia. She hands the business card back, wouldn’t even let us in the booth. Wouldn’t even let us look at the shoes. Well, I got so pissed off, I went over to the off-price center, which was on 57th and between 5th and 6th, I guess. And through one of the side doors, one of the offices in there, that’s where you go for what’s called promotional, or off-price, ladies’ shoes. Out of season, that kind of stuff. They would buy closeouts from manufacturers.
Mr. Seymour was the private label Stuart Weitzman brand. So when Stuart Weitzman was in a market, they would sell the best stores Stuart Weitzman, and then they would sell the middling stores the same shoes, but it had a label inside: Mister Seymour. Mr Seymour was also the big promotional item. They would avoid the price-fixing thing, because they could always say, well we’ll sell you Mr. Seymour, so you can’t sue us.
So I bought all the Mister Seymour shoes that we could afford. We ran ads, sold them at cost, knowing that it would just piss off Stuart Weitzman and the big retailer that sold Weitzman in the area. Which it did. And they got on the phone screaming and hollering. Where did you get the shoes? Who did you buy him from? We didn’t sell you! All this kind of stuff. It ended up being a real pride issue for us, right? At the end, somehow I blurted out, you know what? Let’s just go to Italy and make our own damn ladies’ shoes!! Three days later, I think we probably had it all arranged to go to Italy and buy our own ladies’ shoes.
We got on the plane and went to Italy and started figuring out: what the hell, how does this work? And the idea was, we wanted to buy ladies’ shoes, right? Through my contacts in the business, I found out who made whose shoes. Back then it was really hard to figure out, through my father and people I had known all along, I found out who actually made Ferragamo shoes. Anyway, we started putting things together and buying ladies’ shoes.
The Italian shows are huge. The MICAM show. Not the Duomo. That’s weird, with what’s happened to the business. Back then, shoe people only showed at MICAM. They didn’t show anywhere else. So we went to the MICAM and after getting our ladies’ buys done, we ended up poking around into the men’s areas. That’s how we ended up with Gravati, Moreschi, and different things like that. And somehow, I think it was probably the last day of a show, we made one more pass through, just to kind of take a peek and make sure we didn’t miss something. We were looking for bedroom slippers, or something.
And there was a guy sitting underneath an elevator, in a booth. At trade shows, you have the regular aisles and formal booths, but you always see some random people, some kind of out-of-place brands and whatnot. And they’re usually brands that can’t afford to show at the show, or they’ve got a friend of a friend that let them throw their line up, and they get stuck in a corner or whatever.
And that’s where I saw this Cortina Martegani booth. I mean they had like eight shoes next to the espresso bar. By the exit. Right? I walked in, and I saw a plain toe medallion derby. And I was like, holy fuck. This is—this is the shoe. This is everything. This is perfect. We just spent four days here, and this is the one shoe. This is it. Ended up talking to the guy and we hit it off right away.
So we bought a few pairs and sure enough, they were gone immediately. If you look up Romano Martegani, Romano Martegani was actually a very, very famous brand. They were the very first Italians after the war to have a showroom in New York, actually up on Madison Avenue. Romano Martegani! He created the low-vamp slip-on that was so popular in the 80s at the Studio 57 or whatever, that whole crowd. The slippers. David Letterman wore them all the time. He took like 16 pair, I mean, going way back. That was their style.
When I found Romano Martegani—because we’re not in the 80s at this point, or late 70s obviously—they had actually closed down and sold the trademark and the leftovers of the factory to Cortina, to the folks that I met, Giancarlo. So Martegani at that point was not the same Martegani. Cortina had bought the lasts and the patterns and all that, after Romano died. I mean, that’s what happened. The family sold it to them. But the actual Martegani factory is long gone. The brand is most as most people would know it is all produced by Cortina and we just used that name.
So after a couple of seasons they really became my favorite. We were probably selling more Gravati. We were definitely selling more Moreschi. And then Martegani was probably third. But I liked the shoes the most because they were substantial. You know, Gravati, Moreschi—they’re lighter weight. The typical American version of Italian shoes, right? You always say, you know, the lightweight Italian shoes!
Of course people in Italy don’t wear lightweight shoes. That’s always been the American merchants’ version of what they wanted to sell Americans—lightweight versions of Italian shoes, that happened to made in Italy. That goes back to after the war, when we paid for all those factories to be built.
But anyway, at that point boots weren’t really a thing. Like Allen Edmonds would have a couple in the fall, and in the spring market they would say, ‘hey, we’re gonna do the chukka in brown calf, and you oughta put eight pair in.’ It was never really a big deal. I wanted to go back to where I grew up, wearing all the defects shoes—we always wore in the seventies, like desert boots and hiking boots and stuff, no matter what time of year. It wasn’t the season. You always had boots. I wanted to have a boot selection and not just one brown chukka boot.
So I said, let’s make a bunch of chukka boots. I want to have like six, eight colors. And the factory had always made chukka boots, because they’ve always been popular in Italy. But it really didn’t fit the dress shoes we were doing, right? The tailored clothing version of shoes. So he said, we really need a different name on these. Because they’re different shoes. You’re not doing structured lasts, you’re doing our English last.
So I said, great, what name do we want to put on them? Cortina? He said, ‘nah, I don’t really know. I don’t know. Nobody knows Cortina—put your name in ’em!!’ So I said, ‘I’ll put my name in ’em!’ Giancarlo said, we don’t want to put Martegani in it. You’re not really doing Martegani. You want something different than what you’re buying, even though we’re all making it together.
This is your idea, and I don’t want to put Martegani in it. It won’t fit with the suit shoes that we do, the tailored shoes, the finishes and everything we’re using. What I wanted to do with boots did not fit that at all. I wanted to sell my Allen Edmonds customers. That’s who I wanted to sell my boots.
And it didn’t seem any make sense to just put Rider on the inside. And all I wanted was boots. So okay, Rider Boot. And, I guess we ought to call it a company. So, right: Rider Boot Company. I took some font off of Microsoft Word and they were in the samples one of the samples made an order. I said, I’m still doing a lot of the same stuff. And they were like, this little goes great. It’s a lot better than this and what you’re doing now you’ll have to put this back on them again. I’m like, yeah, okay, whatever. Maybe I will. What the hell?
When did it start? No clue. I think my son figured it out and put it on the website. 2011? 2008? I don’t know. Honestly, my brain, it doesn’t follow timelines well at all. It could have even been 2005 for all I know. It isn’t that important to me. I don’t really care when it started. I don’t care. Who gives a shit? All I want to know is: what am I doing now? And customers want to know what I’m doing now. I’m not sure anybody really cares that I threw a name inside of a boot with this Italian guy, whether it was 10 years ago, eight years ago, or 14 years ago. Maybe they do. I just—I don’t care that much.
But anyway, that’s how Rider Boot Company came to be.”