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This Boot Maker’s American Leather Supply Chain Means Producers Are Customers, Too

Not every footwear brand has the advantages Ariat does—the same American ranchers that provide the hides for its products play a vital role in providing the consumer insights required to make its Western, equestrian and work boots fan favorites.

While the brand’s roots are based in traditional Western wear, founder Beth Cross felt there was white space in the boot world in terms of innovation. Specifically, she wanted to add comfort and performance features into Ariat’s boots, turning what the brand termed “the oversimplified construction” of a riding boot into something that could appeal to a wider audience.

The process required to pull this off was much more complicated than putting the same technologies into a pair of sneakers, according to Ariat vice president of global marketing Liz Bradley.

There were only a handful of factories that could take on such a project, she said, and most of those facilities were in China.

“Over time we’ve been able to take the expertise that we learned there and take it more globally,” Bradley told Sourcing Journal. “We have manufacturing all throughout Asia—we have it in Mexico where there’s a highly handcrafted piece to western boots in León.”

Ariat also manufactures its boots in Italy and elsewhere in the U.S. When it comes to the United States supply chain, however, Bradley said it’s all about one thing: the leather.

“Our leathers are probably the most important part of our product,” Bradley said, pointing to the rugged conditions Ariat boots can be found in around the world. “The quality, the durability, the ability to waterproof, all those kinds of things are really important to us and our consumers.”

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American leather, which makes up about 80 percent of Ariat’s leather supply chain, is preferable due to the strong standards in the national beef industry, she said. American ranchers provide a higher quality of care for their animals, leading to higher quality leather down the line.

“The leathers are very large, they’re very thick,” Bradley said. “For our type of product, we need that kind of thickness. We’re not making a Gucci bag that’s super thin and supple.”

Within the symbiotic relationship between Ariat and American leathers is another kind of synergy. The very same ranchers that provide leather to Ariat are within its target demographic.

Through those connections. Ariat is able to send its products directly into the field and examine how the everyday wear-and-tear of farming, oil drilling and ranching affects its products. It’s this extensive wear testing that has led the company to an “incredibly low” defect or return rate, according to Bradley.

Ariat understands the value of its relationship with that demographic, she said, and invests time, money and attention in these “core agricultural and ranching areas” in order to keep its customer base healthy and connected.

For more than 25 years, Ariat boots have relied on the resources and input of American ranchers, creating a unique synergy between supply chain and consumer.
The Highland boot is one of Ariat’s popular lifestyle silhouettes. Ariat

Ranchers aren’t the only consumers Ariat is attracting with its products these days. The boot maker is exploring new offerings for both its workwear and lifestyle collections.

Ariat has a growing selection of casual styles fostered by an increased commitment to the category in recent years, Bradley said. Women’s short boots have been one of the most popular lifestyle silhouettes while Ariat’s men’s footwear is focused on heritage and incorporates uniquely American materials like bison leather.

“When we can, we kind of lean into that quality, so we’re expanding in both areas—both in the lifestyle area and in the performance work area,” she said.

Thanks to its hardy supply chain and relationships with American ranchers, Ariat believes the quality of these lifestyle products is what sets them apart from other brands working Western wear into their offerings.

An Ariat boot is designed to last in the roughest conditions, whether that’s a city street or the dusty paths of a cattle ranch. Consumers respond well to this, Bradley said, because it represents a kind of authenticity that other brands can’t provide.

“Consumers want to be associated with something that’s real and that’s going to last, that’s truly authentic,” Bradley said. “I can guarantee you that fashion boot is going to last because our developers aren’t going to make something that won’t last.”

In the time of the coronavirus lockdown, Ariat found it had yet another advantage over its peers. Because the brand primarily focuses on work boots, a category deemed essential in many areas, much of its in-store revenue was protected during the lockdown.

Additionally, Ariat sells its products in a variety of specialty shops, including farming and ranching supply stores. These stores were largely untouched by lockdown restrictions as the ranchers and workers in U.S. agriculture continued with business as usual during the pandemic.

“We’re continuing to do well, so we’ve been able to kind of weather the storm and keep on going,” Bradley said. “It’s been kind of incredible honestly, but sales are good and we make products for people who are kind of just out there doing jobs.”