R.M. BOOTS ARE WORN BY DROVERS AS WELL AS DIGNITARIES. NEARLY EVERY PRIME MINISTER HAS GIVEN APAIR TO THEIR FOREIGN EQUIVALENT ANDEVEN THE BRITISH ROYALS ARE FANS.
The brand’s dominant product line has been updated, now comprising almost 30 core boot styles – including this year’s release of a men’s laceup, the ‘Rickaby’. Sitting back in an oversized leather chair, taking in a sip of water and the unparalleled views, Vuppalapati says there are no plans to increase offshore production to align with the increased targets. Instead, he’s keen to revitalise the local operation and lure new talent to meet the expanded forecasts. “Our craftsmanship was invented here and we want to be sure to strengthen that capability when more and more [businesses] are shutting down... Salisbury and the Adelaide workshop are fundamental to our success, and I can’t see how we can achieve our global ambitions if we don’t have that strong grounding here, in this part of the world. So, we have to have growth and we have to be able to supply that. And we’ll do whatever it takes to engage the right people and continue to ensure we invest in building the capabilities [of what] that plant can do.”
The story of R.M. Williams (few used his full name) reads rather simply. Born in South Australia in 1908, he packed a swag and took off for the outback, aged 15. He worked as a labourer, stockman and camel handler, covering vast distances as part of overland expedition parties surveying swathes of desert. He engaged with local Aboriginal communities and learnt to live off the land. Then, in 1931, a chance meeting with a local stockman by the name of ‘Dollar Mick’ saw RM introduced to working with leather. Mick wanted RM to shape a pair of boots, so they adopted elasticated sides and RM’S unique approach of using a single piece of leather that was then stitched at the back. The boots found a firm regional following – and so, during the height of the Great Depression, RM took out an ad in a regional paper offering elasticated, made-to-measure boots for 20 shillings. Interestingly, Vuppalapati highlights that same ‘bespoke’ ability as key to engaging the US market – especially the feet of the wealthy and white-collared types in and around Soho. “We can manufacture them in Adelaide and have them turned around in four to eight weeks – and no one else in the world does that.” Today, a classic R.M. Williams boot will set you back nearly $500 (and up to $1000) and can be seen on everyone from drovers to international dignitaries. Nearly every former Australian Prime Minister has handed a pair to an international equivalent while British royals William and Kate are also said to be fans. Then there’s the new crowd, the hipsters who’ve ‘found’ the brand after eyeing them off in niche fashion editorials that have been growing in visibility the past 12 months. Elsewhere, 2016 has seen the brand engage new Australian connections, signing on to provide boots to Qantas pilots while also becoming the official bootmaker to the Wallabies rugby union team. It then secured the backing of one Hugh Jackman – a long-time fan who last December became a private investor in the company. Vuppalapati won’t detail that association – “he believes in the story as an investor and we love that relationship, but we also want to respect that privacy” – but he’s happy to talk up the relationship with acclaimed Danish/australian artist Mika Utzon Popov. The grandson of Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon, the 45-year-old will unveil several striking sculptural pieces to hang in the New York store. “As soon as I got the question [about wanting to collaborate] I was in,” says Utzon Popov. “Because they have this story and this heritage and it seems part of the culture... Seeing the craftsmanship at the factory was incredible and, from my perspective, that was an easy transition to work with them;
[it’s] about craft and how we marry those things together in an abstract expression.” That expression will come together as six concrete panels, each inspired by a unique part of the Australian landscape. “My main inspiration is always nature, primarily about light and the way it moves across the world in which we live. Landscape is not a fixed image – it’s about moving through it, because you don’t come back with an image, you come back with a series of movements and they’re generally informed by light; it’s how we perceive scale and distance.” The as-yet-unnamed pieces – four panels to line the wall of the retail space with another two to sit in the window – are an amalgamation of various Australian regions. “There’s a little bit of the [NSW region of] Hawkesbury, there’s a little bit of the sand dunes from up near [NSW midnorth coast town of] Hawks Nest and some mountain ranges from the [NSW] Southern Highlands. It’s sort of trying to amalgamate those into one without being too distinct or too specific – given the diversity of where people come from in Australia, I’m hoping they’ll be able to pick out elements that remind them of home or where they are. “And what I like about leather is that things get better with age and with marks, and the thing with concrete is that every time someone runs their hands across it, it leaves something. So, 10 years from now, that sculpture will look very different – it will age and have a different patina to it, able to age the same way stories are worn across the surface [of rocks].” The pieces accentuate the position RM is eyeing off – a brand of rugged elegance that delivers luxury elements, even if, as Vuppalapati says, “our nails are dirty,” from toiling to maintain the sense of tradition. “For me, the richness of this brand is that it can be worn by people in the outback, on the farm, it can be worn in the boardrooms. It’s something that’s so unique and that draws customers to the core of what this company is all about, and also reflects what Australia is all about,” says Vuppalapati. “There is a ruggedness in the narrative and this brand reflects that – you can wear RMS on the weekend and you can wear them in the evening, with a beautiful tuxedo. That’s why we believe that what we have to offer is not just about the product, it’s about the essence of what this country is about – that rugged elegance, ease of style, confidence about who we are and confidence in what we can do. If you look at most brands that have operated in the space of time we have, they can’t compare to our heritage of more than 80 years, and [the fact it still] resonates today. When people talk about R.M. Williams, they talk passionately. The respect and love, the personal ownership and the pride that people have for this brand is a great, great strength – I think others, who’ve come from different parts of the world managing other brands, would die to have that sense of consumer ownership.” R.M. Williams opens its New York flagship on September 3; 152 Spring St, Soho; rmwilliams.com.au
FROM LEFT: A YOUNG RM, OUT IN THE ELEMENTS AND FIRMLY IN HIS ELEMENT; LATER IN LIFE, AFTER BUILDING AN OUTBACK EMPIRE AND ICONIC BRAND.
CLOCKWISE, FROM BELOW: FINAL DESIGNS OF THE NEW YORK FLAGSHIP STORE; ARTWORK FROM FAMED ARTIST AND SCULPTOR UTZON POPOV.