One Longhorn Is Putting an Eco-Friendly Spin on the Texas Cowboy Boot

Will Roman dresses like an Austin cowboy. Walking into The Driskill bar, he blends right into the downtown Austin hotel’s Western aesthetic with his black cowboy hat, black button-down Western shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and black jeans. To complete the look, he’s got on a pair of black cowboy boots—with leather that looks worn but cared for, and a thin red stripe lining the heel—designed especially by him.   

“Ten-year-old me is doing backflips right now,” he says. “Making boots is one of those things you dream about doing as a kid.”  

It’s early in December, marking a month since the launch of his new business, Chisos, a line of handcrafted leather cowboy boots. The company’s “Chief Texan” put his own twist on the traditional footwear by producing them with environmental sustainability in mind; he uses responsibly sourced leather, and aims to donate at least 1 percent of top-line revenue every year to Texas land conservation projects such as the nonprofits Big Bend Conservancy and Hill Country Conservancy. He says he has also developed an innovative design that makes the shoes comfortable to boot. 

Sitting in the Driskill, the 33-year-old native Texan takes off a boot to demonstrate what makes them distinct. I’m surprised when he tells me they are relatively new. While the heel and toe are seemingly in perfect condition, the leather looks broken in. “That’s because of the way we treat our leathers,” he says, grinning.   

When Roman looked into what it would take to manufacture cowboy boots, he was shocked to learn that quality leathers are often harvested from calves, whose hides only suffice for maybe one pair of boots. He decided he didn’t want to be a part of that industry.   

Instead, Chisos takes the leather from retired dairy cows headed for meat processing, which can yield up to five pairs of boots. “There’s no demand for new animals,” he says. “We’re a byproduct.” That means the leather is more tough and durable than a calf’s hide. Because of this, Roman and his team created a proprietary tanning process—one that he did not want to disclose—to ensure the boots would be soft and wouldn’t need breaking in.  

There is something about putting on a pair of boots that makes Roman feel uniquely, well, Texan. “It’s like when you’re pulling them on, you’re putting on a uniform,” he says. “There is this idea of pride and place that comes with it.”  

But his decision to launch Chisos—named after the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend area of West Texas—was something of a whim. After graduating from UT with a radio-television-film degree in 2009, the native Austinite moved back and forth between his hometown and San Francisco, working for tech companies. In 2015, he decided he’d had enough. “Tech is so ephemeral,” Roman says. “I wanted something more tangible.” 

He sold his belongings, bought a ’90s Toyota 4Runner, and road-tripped down to Mexico for three and a half months. He spent his time exploring the jungle in Palenque and visited cities like Guanajuato and San Miguel, where he says he learned to appreciate the craftsmanship of the people he met. Shortly after his return, he decided he wanted to craft something of his own. So in January of 2019, Roman started to piece together what he would need to launch the brand. With the help of friends and his second-in-command Kate Doering, formerly chief of staff of a technology company in San Francisco, Chisos was ready to go in less than a year. “It has been an all-out sprint,” he says.  

Available only online, the boots are simple. They come in two designs, offered both in men’s and women’s sizes. The brown boots are etched with Roman’s geometric interpretation of the petroglyphs carved inside one of the entrances to Big Bend outside of Terlignua. The other design, in black, features the outline of the Chisos Mountains. “There’s something simply enchanting when you’re out there,” Roman says. “What better place to be inspired?”  

Compared to most boots that are equipped with a thin, leather insole, Chisos boots come with a removable insole made of leather, two layers of semi-organic polymer, and an impact-dissipating gel and are built to reduce pressure on your heels. And at nearly $500 a pair, Chisos lands somewhere between what you would pay for a pair of Ariats and a pair of Luchesses.  

It is too early to say if the company will be around for the long haul. Who knows if generations of Texas cowboys and cowgirls will be won over by the idea of sustainable footwear? But following a sold-out launch party at Parlor & Yard in Austin—which raised $7,000 for the Hill Country Conservancy—Roman is feeling good. He says Chisos has received orders from people all around Texas, and a surprising amount from outside the state, too. For now, Chisos is around only as long as the boots keep selling, so he is going to focus on spreading the word.   

“I want this to be the business I run for the rest of my life,” he says. “This is about my own family’s well-being and it’s about giving back to the state of Texas—the people and place that has given so much to me.” 

Photos courtesy of Chisos Boots


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