by Eric Wallace
Enter Rider Boot Shop in the emerging fashion district of Richmond’s Jackson Ward and you find an unpretentious space that’s all about the footwear. Lining the walls of the long, narrow showroom is a single wooden shelf displaying the company’s handmade boots. Restored hardwood floors, wooden benches, and the aroma of French and Italian leather create a warm but minimalist atmosphere.
For lovers of fine footwear, Rider provides a true experience. Offerings this year have included the Larsen Derby Boot, with finely napped and vegetable-dyed reverse Italian calfskin, for $400. The Byrd Single Monkstrap, at $375, a plain-toe derby with grainy, traditionally stamped calfskin that exudes an understated grandeur that will surely turn heads. And for women, the Lucy Chelsea with creamy leather lining, leather sole, and soft-napped, water-repellent suede dyed to a rich, dark indigo, for $375.
“I discovered the Rider brand a few years back and the first thing I said was, ‘Stunning,’ ” says Justin FitzPatrick, owner and lead designer for London-based J. FitzPatrick Footwear. “I bought a pair of mid-height jodhpur boots, which have this lovely, undisturbed profile – like a blank canvas from toe to top of boot. Nothing has a sharp angle, it’s all fluid. That, to me, spells lovely.”
The shop feels as if you’ve wandered into a relic from the early 20th century. Far from accidental, the ambience is the product of careful deliberation.
“We designed the space to minimize distractions and allow our boots to speak for themselves,” says owner Ron Rider, 51. “We wanted the store to feel like something from the golden era of the haberdashery, when a retailer’s reputation depended on the craftsmanship of the products he was selling and his ability to establish positive relationships with his customers.”
Rider, a second-generation, 30-year veteran of the shoe business, says this goal is what motivated him to establish the Rider Boot Co. brand in 2007.
“I’d watched the industry change to the point where you walked into the shoe department of a Nordstrom and would be hard-pressed to find someone to help you,” he says. “And if you did find someone, chances are, they wouldn’t give a damn about the shoes they were selling you, much less know how to properly fit you for them.”
Rider, who for 15 years managed the shoe department in one of the most reputable menswear stores in the state, Franco’s Fine Clothier, says the problems extended beyond the stores to the brands themselves. Having adopted an ideology of mass production, they had become increasingly willing to sacrifice quality and uniqueness in favor of turning a profit.
“I’d long since realized the American brands were little more than big-budget marketing companies,” Rider says. “They were all subcontracting with the same shoe factories, and most of what they made was produced on a mass scale. If you were buying for a retail space, you’d go to a convention in New York and have to take whatever the brand was putting out.”
That meant Rider was stuck carrying the same, often inferior, shoes as everyone else. Soles were glued instead of stitched; the leather wasn’t top-quality; arch support was lacking; toe boxes were not works of art hand-crafted by cobblers who cared. The footwear was as impersonal as the machines that produced it.
Then he had an epiphany. Since he couldn’t buy the kind of singular, high-end shoes he wanted from other companies, why not design and produce his own line of footwear?
If he was successful, Rider could sell the brand in Franco’s. With owner Franco Ambrogi’s endorsement, it would take off. Rider pitched the idea to Ambrogi and soon embarked on a research mission to Italy, exploring the viability of creating a brand of his own.
“The possibilities were apparent, like, immediately,” he says with a laugh. “I’d been to American factories, and this was completely different. In Italy, you didn’t have to order 12,000 shoes to get something made. They looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you want.’ They were willing to work on a completely made-to-order basis.”
Rider got the green light from Ambrogi and promptly went to work designing a line of shoes from scratch. The work was hard, and all-consuming. He was not a designer and there were no templates waiting for a new logo.
Luckily, having been in the business for so long, Rider had compiled a list of complaints, suggestions and ideas. Using that list, he sourced different fabrics, components and leathers, and worked closely with shoemakers to create templates. Within a year, he had sold the first pair of shoes bearing his name.
“It’s hard to express just how exciting that was for me,” he says.
“On the one hand, it was such a relief to be carrying and selling a product I believed in so strongly. On the other, this was hugely unexpected. It was a real-life dream-come-true scenario.”
At first, Rider crafted products to suit the needs of the Franco’s storefront – mostly loafers, oxfords and the like. However, anticipating a boom, he shifted his focus toward boots.
“I felt the brands weren’t paying enough attention to that market,” Rider says. “They’d put out a couple of generic options and that was it. They really weren’t taking it seriously.”
By 2011, Rider had developed a core line of Italian-made men’s and women’s boots. He went into business for himself, selling them online. Initially, he operated out of a home office and rented a nearby storage shed to house inventory.
“It was terrifying, going out on my own. For a while, it was really just putting one foot before the other,” he says. “But I believed in the product, and, with every pair of boots we sold, word traveled a little more. People found out about what we were doing, got excited, and told their friends.”
Within five years, the business had grown to the point where it could sustain a storefront location. Enlisting his wife, Lisa, and eldest son, Jeff, as managers, Rider cut the red ribbon on his 1,900-square-foot Rider Boot Shop in November of 2016. The store has earned a reputation for over-the-top customer service and salesmanship.
“When I was going into the shoe business, my father would tell me that the store was the brand, that people have to be able to trust the integrity of the retailer,” Rider says. “I like to think of us as the embodiment of that philosophy. Our biggest goal is to build relationships with customers and provide them with old-world-style premium service, and quality boutique footwear they can take pride in wearing.”