Renny Smith hustles into his Western Skins clothing store every day with enthusiasm, usually wearing the very same clothes he sells to his customers. Smith opened Western Skins, 5054 W. Madison, in 2001. The store, celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, has found a niche in a community more accustomed to clothing stores selling sports jerseys and gym shoes rather than cowboy boots and leather chaps.
Smith’s uncle, a member of the Black Cowboy’s Association, inspired the idea for the store.
“He would always speak fondly about his love for the horseback-riding lifestyle,” Smith said of his uncle, who would also say that Western clothes “never go out of style.”
Though conventional wisdom might conclude that African Americans aren’t too keen on Western apparel, the style, Smith said, has roots in black culture. As early as the 19th century, black cowboys were among the frontier settlers in the old West. Black ranchers?”who were the original cowboys?”made a significant impact on American agriculture as well, said Smith.
Western Skins emphasizes all these points, while allowing patrons to purchase clothing at a relaxed pace.
The look of the old West
The dcor of the store could be described as rustic. With polished oak walls and a brick fireplace, it exudes the ambiance of a Western saloon, with wagon wheels dangling from above like ceiling fans. There’s also a poster of Bill Pickett, a black rancher and rodeo star of the late 1800s, hanging behind the counter, along with decorative belt buckles behind the display case, and deer horns directly above the fireplace.
The homburgs along the wall, mannequins dressed in jeans, chaps and ankle low skirts in the window, all very much reflect Smith, generally a conservative, church-going man. But he also has a another guilty pleasure: riding motorcycles?”without a helmet.
“Well, my girlfriend gets on me about that because she’s afraid for my safety,” said Smith. “I promised her I would get a slower motorcycle, but I just love speed.”
Smith said his clientele consists primarily of older African Americans residing on the West Side.
Some, he said, are admirers of cowboy boots or rimmed hats. Others, Smith said, are motorcycle enthusiasts looking for leather goods. Still others are “steppers” looking for unique boots that will distinguish them from the crowd. There are also the occasional high school seniors, male and female, looking for alligator skinned boots to wear to the prom.
“I design some of the clothes and also have vendors I work with statewide and overseas,” said Smith. “I can specially make certain clothes for customers as well. For example, if a customer has a pair of beige suede boots and wants a vest to match it, it can be made for the customer.”
Smith recalled one customer; a cowgirl (Smith refers to some of his customers as cowboys and cowgirls) who shortly after purchasing a pair of his boots had her foot impaled by a metal rod, and was rushed to the ER.
“Once there, the doctor wanted to cut the boot off to free her foot, but she protested, ‘These are brand new boots!’ She wiggled her foot to re-open the wound just so that the boot could be removed without harming it.”
But the rod ruined the boots anyway.
“Well, she was able to have them repaired,” said Smith. “I always thought it was so funny that she loved those boots so much she would face searing pain rather than discarding [them],” said Smith.
This rough-and-tumble nature is true of many existing ranchers who prefer the company of horses and cows in the country, Smith said. But there are those who love wearing the clothes yet remain unaware of the black cowboy experiences and contributions to society, Smith confessed.
“I would say many customers, especially younger ones who are not cowboys, are unfamiliar with the historical significance of them. I myself want to do more to promote the importance of knowing about the black cowboy movement that actually began even before slavery,” said Smith. “I wanted to include a cowboy tribute pictorial within the store to commemorate the many great ranchers, like Bill Pickett, so that people get the historical relevance as well as great boots.”
Before launching the store, Smith, a 1998 Hampton University grad, worked for six years as a computer technician with the Illinois Department of Human Rights after college. While working full-time there, he opened Western Skins.
“[It] required a great deal of time and energy as well,” Smith recalled, acknowledging the support received from his family.
“I was fortunate to have family members like my aunt and grandmother work in the shop when I was unavailable. They have always been very supportive of my goals,” Smith said.
He took a buy-out from the Human Rights Department two years ago when a division of the department he worked in faced a financial crunch. He used the extra time and money to devote himself full-time to the shop. Since then, Western Skins has prospered in Austin, and word has spread throughout the West Side.
Smith has shared his story with the likes of ABC-7 News, discussing the shop and reaching out to a larger clientele.
“Originally, it was 100 percent black because it was so expensive to advertise on television and radio,” Smith recalled. “However, I was eventually able to advertise in more of the surrounding media outlets, and it did have a positive impact on the face of my customer base.”
Now, the ratio is about 80 percent black, 15 percent white and 5 percent Hispanic, estimates Smith, who said in the next five years, he hopes to open other locations throughout the country.
“I wouldn’t mind opening a shop in, say, California because I love to travel,” said Smith. “It would give me great pleasure to be able to expand Western Skins to a variety of new vistas.”
For more information about Western Skins, call 773/378-0833 or visit www.westernskins.com.