10 Questions for Tony Lama’s Mike Fuller

Tony Lama turns 100 this year, and the iconic Western brand has big plans to celebrate.

Lady Gaga recently tapped the company to design a custom pair of boots with hand-tooled unicorns and feathered wings, for the launch of her album “Born This Way,” which hits in May. Its boots also are making their way on to the silver screen, on the feet of Robert Duvall in the upcoming film “Seven Days in Utopia,” and on Matthew McConaughey in “Killer Joe.”

Overall, sales in 2010 increased 24 percent, and the company is predicting similar success this year. To bolster its business, Tony Lama is building on its Americana heritage. It increased the number of products made in its U.S. factories by 40 percent last year. “The ‘Handcrafted in the USA’ label we place on our products is a major part of our brand’s objective,” said Mike Fuller, brand manager (above), noting that domestic manufacturing should continue to increase in 2011.

To commemorate its milestone, Tony Lama has introduced two U.S.-made collections: Centennial, which is embellished with the brand’s anniversary logo and retails for $250; and the Signature Series, classic looks with intricate stitching and hand-tooled details, retailing from $800 to $1,500. The company also is paying homage to its founder, Tony Lama Sr., with a one-of-a-kind pair of signature El Rey IV boots. Valued at $50,000 and detailed with gold and precious stones, the boots will be on display at Western specialty shops and brand events throughout the year.


1. The hookup with Lada Gaga seems unusual for your brand. Why did it appeal to you?
MF: The opportunity to work with an award-winning, record-breaking artist like Lady Gaga is very exciting. She brings an out-of-the-box fashion element to the mainstream scene, and the dichotomy of merging that new-age style with a 100-year-old boot company is pretty incredible.

2. Who are some other notable Tony Lama wearers these days?

MF: Arnold Schwarzenegger recently requested a custom-made pair that we’re designing now. Country music artists Brad Paisley and Aaron Watson, and champion professional rodeo cowboys Bobby Mote and J.W. Harris wear our brand. [In the past], U.S. presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George Bush [have all worn the brand].


3. As the Western trend comes and goes, how do you maintain a fashion following?
MF: The women’s fashion market is currently strong, although it’s challenging to retain [the consumers] after trends peak. To hold on to them, we focus on observing and capitalizing on these celebrities and fashion influencers, updating the product offerings frequently to keep the mix fresh and current, and selling product that appeals to non-core consumers through mainstream merchants.

4. Other than the U.S., where are Western boots popular?

MF: One of our strongest markets in Asia is Japan. [We’re] exporting more product there than to any European market. They want authentic, handcrafted-in-the-U.S. product.

5. How important is “made in the U.S.” for Western boots today?

MF: We feel it gives a substantial competitive advantage. [Last year], we launched the Americana collection, all handcrafted in the U.S. and set at a very competitive, value-oriented price point. We get constant feedback about how great it is to buy product handcrafted by our experts and made in the U.S. Our product that comes from overseas is [taking advantage of] the various manufacturing technologies, engineering needs and construction features we don’t provide here.

6. What original boot-making techniques are still used today?

MF: While we’re focused on incorporating modern technology, we’re committed to maintaining the authenticity and handcrafted approach our founder perfected. We incorporate methods used 100 years ago such as hand-lasting, hand-rolling and pegging the shank for an authentic three-quarter welt profile and bottom finish. The process is tremendous, with more than 130 steps from start to finish.

7. Has Tony Lama incorporated comfort elements into the boots?

MF: We provide innovative [approaches to] comfort and durability. Poron ProZorb cushioning provides breathability and moisture absorption, and a genuine spring steel shank allows greater weight support and stability.

8. Are Western and cowboy boot styles the same?
MF: There’s really no difference, [only in] the way they’re perceived. We use “Western” when communicating to our retailer audience for its broader market appeal. But we also know that “cowboy” holds a very strong meaning for our consumers. It all ties back to the heritage, history and cowboy way of life.


9. What is the key to properly fitting a Western boot?
MF: An important sign is the pop sound [you hear] when putting it on. It’s distinctive to anyone [who has] worn Western boots for a while. Other basic fitting principles include: Your instep needs to be snug, not tight; you should have some initial slippage in the heel, which subsides as you wear the boots over time; the widest part of your foot needs to meet at the widest part of the boot; and you should be able to wiggle your toes.

10. Where will the Western market be in the next decade?
MF: Comfort technology, [particularly] in footbeds, will continue to be a major attribute. The industry should also be cycling into another major fashion trend. Hopefully, for Tony Lama, the demand is further-reaching, with a stronger presence in major European markets including France, Italy and Germany, [where popular items] will include authentic, American-handcrafted brands. We’re also optimistic about a surge in demand in overseas markets such as Japan.

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