Celeb-magnet store J.W. Cooper on the leading edge

From its humble beginnings as a Western clothing store in Miami, today's J.W. Cooper is a byword for quality and artisanship.

Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, and Pat Riley shop at his store.

Studio Seven Productions
Dubey & Schaldenbrand 18kt rose-gold chronograph, limited and numbered ($19,5000)

He's not J.W. Cooper. He's owner Todd Rauchwerger, and his story reads a little like the one about the kid who started in the mailroom and worked his way to CEO.

Just out of college, Rauchwerger took a $3-an-hour part-time job at a Miami Western store, J.W. Cooper, because he needed gas money for his black Camaro.

That was in 1980, at the height of the urban cowboy craze, and business was booming. Rauchwerger quickly proved himself an adept salesman, although he'd never sold Western wear — or anything, for that matter.

Within a week, Rauchwerger was promoted to full-time salesman, and in four years he had worked his way up to assistant manager, manager, and then partner.

Fourteen years later he bought the company. After that, he opened a second store in New York, at The Shops at Columbus Circle.

From those humble beginnings as a Western clothing store in Miami, today's J.W. Cooper is a byword for quality and artisanship — so much so that it was featured in the Robb Report.

Rauchwerger says the secret to his success is more about specializing in hard-to-find handmade items than purveying any certain style. The fact that some of the merchandise, such as boots and belt buckles, might be considered by some to be "Western" is secondary.

We talked to Rauchwerger about boots, belts, buckles, and wearing Americana.

Cowboys & Indians: Were you interested in the Western aesthetic as a kid?
Todd Rauchwerger: No, not really. I would enjoy riding horses if I went to summer camps, but I was never involved in Western stuff or fashion. But when I started working at J.W. Cooper, it clicked with me that it was a real fashion that was part of Americana. It was a fashion that stuck around. It wasn't black polka dots one year and purple stripes the next year. It has a continuing feel.

C&I: And you connected with it.
Rauchwerger: I started wearing it from Day 1. I really got hooked probably after two to three weeks. To this day, I have a Bohlin buckle whose style was in the 1927 catalog. Back then it was $16. I started collecting boots, too, but Hurricane Andrew came and wiped out 14 pairs in 1992.

Studio Seven Productions
J.W. Cooper's Bal Harbour, Florida, location

C&I: You've seen the evolution of Western styles and the in-one-day-out-the-next whims of the fashion industry?
Rauchwerger: Exactly. When I started, the Western look popped up with [the 1980 John Travolta film] Urban Cowboy — then it dropped and Western was out. In the late '80s Western was cool again, and rockers and models started wearing boots, jeans, and a T-shirt, and they pushed the rock-and-roll/Western feel, which was so different from Urban Cowboy. It was chic and cool and hip. All of a sudden vintage boots were in, and we packed the store with them. Boots were real popular, and then you couldn't sell them. Then they got popular again in the early '90s, and then the boot business calmed down in late '90s.

C&I: So what did you do?
Rauchwerger: I decided to concentrate on belts and buckles. I thought they could set me apart. In my view, most men don't wear a lot of jewelry. They might wear a fine watch or cuff links, but that's about it. Why not offer something to go with that Bulgari or Cartier watch?

C&I: How would you describe your store?
Rauchwerger: As a fashion boutique carrying the latest contemporary designs, but always going back to the American heritage of fine buckle making and other Americana themes. Ninety-eight percent of what's in my stores is from the U.S. — much of that from the Western industry, by some of the country's oldest and most respected silversmiths. A great deal of the other merchandise is made from small individual artists whose work blends in with the rest.

C&I: How about boots?
Rauchwerger: We carry Stallion Boots, which cost from $1,200 to $12,000 a pair. We'll custom make boots any way that people like them.

C&I: Such as?
Rauchwerger: We've inlaid boots with people's initials. We had a customer in New York who wanted the emblem of a Ferrari and 18kt gold put on his boots, and another who wanted red stingray boots, a matching belt, and a $6,500 buckle to go with it that's all hand-carved.

C&I: What do you like most about what you do?
Rauchwerger: The coolest thing for me is finding unique items that my customers will say "wow" over, like the 3-foot-high piece of turquoise worth over half a million dollars that's a carved American eagle with eight famous Indian chiefs by John Winston. I love the thrill of finding something, putting it in my stores, and having people come in and be amazed.

Info: J.W. Cooper stores are located at Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour, Florida, 305-861-4180. Find them online at www.jwcooper.com.