10 Questions for Ron Rider

Ron Rider is a big fan of boots.

Though he is already market manager for Romano Martegani and footwear buyer at Franco’s Fine Clothier in Richmond, Va., Rider is taking on even more: He’s building a men’s brand named Rider Boot Co. The collection soft launched this fall and officially debuts in January.

“I don’t want to be a pioneer as far as doing something crazy pattern-wise,” Rider said. “I’m going to take classic patterns, do them on updated lasts, with unique materials.”

The result is a lengthy list of styles and sizes, such as three-eyelet chukkas, wingtips with leather soles and a balmoral cap-toe. Rider has developed every part of the business — from the materials made by Horween Leather Co. in Chicago to production at Calzaturificio Cortina in Northern Italy. He’s offering stock for retailers, single-pair specials and custom shoes. Prices range from $550 to $1,500 for regular calfskin, and $775 to $1,200 for in-stock shell cordovan. (Special makeups will cost $1,600.) Wait time for specials can take up to eight months, while retailers will wait three to four months for orders.

So far, Rider Boot has been picked up by Andrisen-Morton in Denver; Capra & Cavelli in Austin, Texas; Heimie’s Haberdashery in St. Paul, Minn.; and Finn Clothing in Portland, Ore. Also, Leffot in New York will carry three styles, including an exclusive shell cordovan laceup.

“As a retailer, to have an exclusive is great,” said Steven Taffel, owner of Leffot. “To come up with a special color is exciting for me, but also for the clients. They are always looking for something unique.”

Footwear News caught up with Rider at a trunk show at Leffot to find out why now is the perfect time to launch a men’s brand.

1. Why are you placing such an emphasis on boots?
RR: I like them. I wear them all year long — I always have. When the idea started a year and a half ago, there really weren’t a lot of boots on the market. I wanted to do it for the sophisticated guy. And I wanted him to have options.

2. Would you ever produce regular shoes as well?

RR: I’ve decided that I really want to concentrate the use of the [leather] material on boots. I might consider it, but I can do that at any time.

3. Why is shell cordovan so important to your collection?

RR: It’s probably the most durable leather you can use in men’s footwear. It’s not a hide; it’s the membrane below the hide, a muscle. It will last forever as long as you take care of it. These days, there are not a lot of shoes that are going to last beyond 10 years.

4. Is the economy a concern for you in the timing of this launch?

RR: No, [because] I don’t want to be a big business. Even Romano Martegani is never going to be a big business, and we have 50 accounts. For Rider Boot, this is a niche. I’m not going to Saks Fifth Avenue, or trying to do anything like that. It’s of no interest to me. Most of my time is spent working with people I want to work with who have a good client base and an interesting environment to shop in.

5. What’s the best way to market a brand like Rider Boot?
RR: If you gave me an ad during the Super Bowl, I wouldn’t take it. The better consumer doesn’t want to be fooled by marketing. Instead, it’s simple communication. If the customer even has a general interest, I’ll send him 65 pictures of different things we can do.

6. You’re very active writing on the brand’s Website. How important is your blog?

RR: It’s the best part of the business, and it’s absolutely critical for a niche brand. With the economy the way it is and prices they way they are, people want to buy from somebody they know. Our business is for people who care and who want to know where their shoes come from, what’s special about them, why they cost what they do. One day last week, we had 1,400 hits, and I want more.

7. What is the biggest challenge in men’s shoes these days?
RR: One is the exchange [rate]. It’s a big dilemma for anyone selling [in the U.S.]. And another is the way retailers pay their bills — it has a huge impact on what merchandise comes into this country. Banks aren’t interested in fronting money, because they know it’s risky. And [another is] generational — a lot of young people don’t want to work with their hands. … It’s not just the economy or something that has popped up in the last 12 months. These things have been building up for a while.

8. What are some of the obstacles Rider Boot faces?
RR: If I was in a hurry, I’d have 20 problems. But I’m not, so I can tackle each problem as it comes up. I’m fortunate to have a great partner. Franco Ambrogi has taken care of all this from the financial end and allowed me just to work. Because of his support, I don’t have any [major] concerns.

9. What is your next goal?
RR: I’m almost afraid to look too far ahead with everything the way it is now. In the next year, I’d like to see what the results are and make sure everything is arriving the way I want from a material and production standpoint. Then I’d like to be in some of the best retailers in the country starting next fall. I had meetings with groups from Japan, Germany and France at the Micam show this summer. I would like very much to work in the Japanese market.

10. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned while launching a business during this recession?
RR: You absolutely have to be on your game and prepared to answer questions. I had a call the other day from a guy who bought some shoes and polish and wanted to know how to apply it. How many stores are going to spend 15 minutes on the telephone with a guy explaining how to polish his shoes? I do.

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