For many in West Texas, the 2015 oil downturn led to mothballed rigs, slashed spending, and lost jobs. But for former Amarillo resident Lizzy Chesnut, it led to something much more desirable: a brand-new fashion footwear business.
Chesnut is the owner and creator of City Boots (cityboots.com), which describes itself as “an online contemporary western boot line.” Selling handmade cowboy boots – as opposed to the factory-produced boots available on the packed shelves in western-wear stores – Chesnut connects with her customers online, at private trunk shows, and at pop-up events from San Angelo to Fort Worth to Steamboat Springs, Colo. She designs her own boots, then oversees their production at a fourth-generation, family-owned factory in Léon, Mexico, an international hub for leather production and shoe-making.
A graduate of Tascosa High School, Chesnut didn’t set out to become a boot maven. But looking back, her current career seems like the natural endpoint for her interests and passions. “Both of my parents are from smaller, western-influenced towns,” she says. Her father, Jeff, works in the oil industry and grew up in Dalhart. Her mother, Denise, hails from San Angelo. “They both had a western influence. I don’t know if it’s from them, but I’ve always been drawn to western fashion. They are both boot collectors and my granddad was a boot collector. It’s kind of a family habit.”
Chesnut grew up collecting boots herself, though she describes her personal habit as “more of an addiction” than anything else. Over the years, she became particularly drawn to colorful vintage footwear. “I would wear my boots everywhere, and people would ask me where I got them,” she says. Her answer wasn’t always a simple one: She scoured places like eBay or Etsy for the vintage looks, which simply weren’t available at the usual western stores. “I decided if people were going to ask me for advice about where to buy boots, they could buy them from me.”
At the time, Chesnut was working in the oil and gas industry. A finance major at Southern Methodist University, she moved to Houston after graduation, having taken a position with an oil field service company there. Before long, she moved back to Dallas to work for an exploration company. Around that time, she began experimenting with designing and selling her own boots.
“I started doing it as a hobby,” she says. “I would call around to different bootmakers. I knew the price and quality that I wanted, and tried to find who could give me those.” It was a challenging process. A one-of-a-kind, fully customized boot might start around $1,500. While those represented the highest quality of fit and fashion, Chesnut thought that price would limit her potential market. But at the same time, she wanted something superior to the quality and design of the $150 boots available at retailers like Cavender’s Western Wear. She was looking for a sweet spot that would let her produce high-end boots at a quantity that allowed her to sell them below custom prices – or, in her words, “the quality of a custom boot with the convenience of a shelf-bought boot.”
Eventually, a footwear convention in Mexico connected her to a fourth-generation bootmaking family in Léon. They had been in the business for 90 years and met Chesnut’s specifications on style, fit and price point. She placed her first order, working with the manufacturer to choose everything from the type of leather to the type of toe, heel and stitching.
“When boots are handmade, you get so much more attention to detail,” she explains. “The leather is picked by hand, which is something you don’t get much of with the machine-manufactured boot. It’s a more comfortable construction.”
Once the boots were ready, she started selling her first design on Facebook.
Then the price of oil plummeted in 2015. Before long, the economic downturn forced Chesnut’s Dallas employer to lay her off. “It’s been a little over a year now,” she says. “That’s when I decided that everything was perfect timing and I gave it a go.”
City Boots was born and Chesnut, who still lives in Dallas, committed to it full time. She expanded her inventory to fill out her catalog with a selection of women’s styles she named the Amarillo Collection. Notably, each boot in the collection is named for a street in Amarillo. Her first four styles were named after the streets she used most as a teenager: Soncy, Coulter, Western and Georgia. The next four styles were named after streets important to her parents: Milam (their first home), Bowie (where they lived when Lizzy was born), Julian (the street where she grew up) and Hayden (where they currently live). Boots in the women’s Amarillo collection retail for $650.
Chesnut maintains full design control over each style. “Mostly I pick what I would want to wear,” she says.
In addition to these, she has recently introduced a line of wedding boots for brides as well as a men’s collection, and Chesnut intends to roll out more styles named after cities. “Amarillo, Dallas, and Houston are all the cities I’ve lived in. Eventually I’d love to have a New York collection or an L.A. or Tokyo [collection],” she says. “My goal is to have the cowboy boot be more of a staple in everyday life.” She points toward the current trend of women wearing English riding boots. “They are really popular even with people who have never been on a horse in their life.”
She dreams of the day when fashionable women in New York are wearing her boots, which she describes as a “traditional cowboy boot with fun pops of color you can’t buy off the shelf.” When that day comes, “Soncy” won’t just be a familiar term for residents of west Amarillo.
Until then, she’ll continue to meet with customers online and in-person, especially those who invite Chesnut into their homes for “boot parties” in Dallas, Fort Worth, and across the Southwest. Every time she does, she spreads a little of this city’s western heritage – not to mention its municipal geography – far beyond Coulter or Hayden streets.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.