In the small leather goods store of Chico Basin Ranch, a major fashion brand is being built | Way of life
The land and everything in it attracts all the attention.
The majestic views of pastures and meadows and populations of wild animals, and the hard-working, old-fashioned way of life here, are often what brings photographers and journalists and animal lovers and artists and horsemen advanced and future ranchers and wanderers at Chico Basin Ranch, the 87,000-acre working cattle ranch 35 miles southeast of Colorado Springs.
Being outside here makes you feel small. Everyone around you feels really great.
It has always diverted, naturally, from the little things that go on in the small leather goods on the ranch. Maybe someone was fixing a breeder’s harness or bridle. Or make a present for a little girl. Chat over a beer after a long week. Little by little, it became a kind of social heart of the ranch.
Yet for years everyone at the ranch thought about leather goods so casually that they didn’t consider its potential to legitimately help the business.
This business is the multi-faceted, family-owned ranching operation called Ranchlands, which owns and operates beef operations in the western United States.
It was founded by Duke Phillips, or Big Duke as he is also known, who was born on a ranch in Mexico and has been in the business ever since. By the time he and his family moved to the Chico Basin Ranch in 1999, Phillips had collected tools for leatherworking by learning the need to be able to repair his own equipment.
He also used his skills for fun, making sculpted leather handbags to give to his three daughters. They looked like the kind of saddlebags ranchers could use to carry supplies for a day’s riding. As her daughters wore them like any other handbag, friends started asking how they could get one.
This is how Ranchlands Mercantile, the name for leather goods, was born. But it has always sort of been the backdrop to everything that happens in the business. Along with its conservation and education efforts, Ranchlands also operates a hospitality arm that organizes unique stays for guests around the world.
Over the past couple of years, however, things have picked up speed for Ranchlands Mercantile thanks to the younger generation of the family. Big Duke’s daughter, Tess Leach, 35, part owner and director of business development at Ranchlands, has teamed up with sister-in-law Madi Phillips, 29, to take small leather goods to the next level.
A glance at the store’s website, where they do the majority of sales, shows a sophisticated brand with products you would expect to find in a stylish store in a big city.
Stylish products include items inspired by animal husbandry, such as knife cases, saddlebags and cowboy hats. There are also belts, bracelets, dog leashes, koozies and notebooks. As Leach puts it, these are “fashion items that are just as comfortable in New York as they are on a ranch.”
Vogue, the fashion magazine, used a similar description in a 2019 article on Ranchlands Mercantile, further testimony to the store’s growth.
There are also the 15,000 followers on Instagram. They have experienced a peak in growth since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Sales have increased as have their manufacturing workforce, which now stands at six. They have invested more energy in all aspects of the business, especially social media marketing.
âWe started to push things in a more intentional way,â Leach said. “He took on a whole new life.”
The physical store has remained the same. The ramshackle ranch building doesn’t look like a growing fashion brand. There is a good chance that the trip to the store on a dirt road will include stopping for horses and crushing horse droppings.
There aren’t many signs that you have arrived at Ranchlands Mercantile. A small sign hanging above the door is barely readable as the white paint indicating “Leather Shop” has faded over the years. The red paint on the outside has also faded.
It is not a place where customers come to browse. It is a place of work, as evidenced by the tools arranged on the walls and the products in progress.
Across the room, passing by the dog Lola, this is where they keep the stool.
In case you could forget, this is ranch life. And it’s a chosen life and fiercely loved by Leach and Phillips and their families who all live in the Chico Basin with other staff. For Leach, she knew she wanted to stay in the family business without being a traditional breeder. This led to his current role.
Phillips, who grew up in Illinois with a love for horseback riding, first appeared as a seasonal worker.
âIt was so much deeper than ‘Come ride in a nice place’,â she said.
She chose to join the ranch instead of going to vet school. Part of the reason is that she fell in love with the mission and the heart of Ranchlands. She also fell in love with Duke the Fourth, the son of the founder of Ranchland, to whom she is married. She is pregnant with the next Duke.
She has played an important role in the growth of leather goods, where she and a team of all-female artisans spend their days in a trade as traditional as breeding itself.
âIt’s part of the culture of the old ranches to have their own leather shops,â Leach said. âWe didn’t always think of it as something that could really help. “
They have an anecdote on hand to make this point.
While Phillips mastered leatherwork, she made herself a simple knotted bracelet. She wore it for two years before she and Leach thought they should start making them in the store and selling them. The bracelets, priced at $ 35, are now one of their most popular items. They get ideas directly from the breeders and what they wear. Some bags, says Phillips, are just a step or two away from being saddle-ready.
The popularity of everything shows that Ranchland Mercantile has something that every brand wants: a good, authentic story.
âThe fact that we didn’t create it to make money makes it easier to make money, if that makes sense,â Leach said. âPeople resonate with what we do and why. “
And the store is making some much-needed extra money, she said.
It’s not just history that sells. The quality is unmatched. They confidently say these products will last a lifetime, if not longer. The leather itself does not come from their ranch; most of it comes from Horween Leather in Chicago, which is the oldest family-owned tannery in the country. The makers of the store turn this leather into items that have the potential to be lasting family heirlooms.
A few steps from the store is its shipping department: a shipping container with no air conditioning and only enough room for one or two employees at a time and boxes of return product.
Looking around, Leach talks about the little details that make these hats and bags unique in any other store. She also mentions that she has been thinking about how to meet the demand. This will not include moving the leather goods off the ranch.
âIt wouldn’t make sense,â she said. “This is who we are.”