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Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…and any Texan worth his or her braggin’ rights has gotta own a pair of mighty fine cowboy boots. Ask any Lone Star State resident to name the Cadillac of boot brands and you’d most likely hear, “Well Lucchese, of course, pard’ner!”
Okay — so maybe they wouldn’t say pard’ner, but I’d hedge my bets on hearing Lucchese Brand Boots in any comment touting the claims of a finely made pair of western footwear, regardless of state of residence. The beginnings of this legendary western brand, however, contain a unique twist: the genius behind the product, Sam Lucchese, was an Italian immigrant from the shores of sunny Palermo.
Brothers Salvatore and Joseph Lucchese first set foot on Texas soil at the Port of Galveston in November 1882, having left behind family in Sicily to seek their fortune. Boot scootin’ their way up this hoped-for ladder of success, the brothers found work in a local shoe factory where they were able to apply the highly honed skills they’d learned under the tutelage of their father, Gaetano Lucchese, a revered shoemaker back home.
Fast forward to 1883 in San Antonio, Texas: “Sam” and Joseph set up shop as Lucchese Bros nearby the bustling Fort Sam Houston, cranking out military boots for the troops. They weren’t just any ol’ boot makers, though; these two had to offer a better product to compete with the multitude of producers in this epi-center of military and cowboy outfitters. Employing old-world cobbler ways, the boys offered a product of quality, fit, and craftsmanship: the foundation was set for the beginnings of a Texas empire.
As business grew…along with the bank account…Sam, who had taken lead of this company, began to spread his focus. The year 1912 brought his first major investment in the San Antonio community – the purchase of the Teatro Zaragoza, considered at that time to be the corazon (heart) of the Mexican-American entertainment world. Later, Sam premiered the Teatro Nacional, a social hotspot featuring some of the best Mexican entertainment to be had, much of it procured personally during his many trips to Mexico.
Something tells me that Sam found solace in his immersion with the Mexican culture and language of turn-of-the-century San Antonio. After all, the similarities to his Italian heritage were rife in shared passion for family, food, church, music, and simply celebrating life in the company of like-minded folks. And it was also very likely that the era brought the co-misery of segregation and discrimination to both the Mexican and Italian communities of South Texas.
But the Spanish speaking entertainment world was not the only angle to Sam’s theatre ownership: enter stage right his daughter, Josephine. Furthering this connection of old country to new, Josephine became an internationally acclaimed opera singer, known affectionately as
“The American Nightingale”. Ironically, she was somewhat of an anomaly at the time as any opera star worth their high C was expected to have studied extensively in Italy. She showed them by not only attaining international fame, but also playing leading lady to some of Italy’s most famous tenors. And no doubt she had on a pair of Lucchese boots under that La Traviata costume.
Upon Sam’s death in 1929, son Cosimo literally pulled himself up by the Lucchese boot straps, abandoning his own aspirations of running a separate company, and took over operations.
Riding the wave of his father’s success, Cosimo focused not only on the aspects of superior quality and fit, but was sharp enough to pick up on the new-fangled attraction to the personified Hollywood cowboy, furthering the popularity of the brand. Why, who wouldn’t want to jingle-jangle in a pair of those fancy stitched boots worn on the silver screen by the likes of Bob “Tex” Allen, Gene Autry, and Gabby Hayes? And let’s not forget the famous Italian cowboy of the era, Tex Willer. I can’t prove it, but I’d bet my silver spurs that he, too, rode off into the sunset donning a showy pair of Lucchese.
Cosimo’s reign ended in 1961 whereupon his death, son Sam, Jr. stepped in. A stint working at Acme Boots primed Sam for the fierce passion he would bring to Lucchese for the ultimate fit – “In making a pair of boots or shoes for a man, we have to be aware that our product is our foundation.”
And Sam was keenly aware, bringing techniques old and new, as well as modernized company concepts to support his zealous belief that the finest fitting boot be constructed with the finest quality materials and workmanship he could offer.
In a 1976 “Texas Monthly” article, Brad Cooper quotes Sam, Jr.: “But we’re not talking about hamburger leather. McDonald’s© dictates what a lot of boots are made of; the more hamburgers they sell, the more hamburger leather on the market. We make ours out of imported French or Italian calf – it’s like the difference between a baby’s skin and that of a 40-year-old man.” Well put, Sam…and I’ll never look at a Big Mac© in the same way again.
Only top grade leathers, all hand inspected, would do; hand-driven lemon wood pegs, in old world fashion, attached the hand stretched boot to the sole; not one, but two final inspections had to be complete before packaging – these were just part of the start-to- finish process. Sam, Jr.’s meticulous drive elevated a product already considered top quality to the ranks of gold standard for boots. And it might take a bit of gold to own a pair, but that didn’t seem to affect this wildly popular product.
As Lucchese brand became more mainstream, so, too, did the feet sliding into them. Not just for the successful rancher anymore, names such as John Wayne, Bing Crosby, James Garner, Johnny Cash, and Zsa Zsa Gabor began sporting custom Lucchese boots. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who took his boots seriously, was often photographed in his Lucchese. Business records reflect a letter from Sam, Jr. to LBJ attesting to this: “Major Wright called today about your boots, and I was able to keep the entire Military Forces from invading the place by being able to tell him that your boots were ready to be shipped in the morning.” Whew.
June 1970 brought the end of an era, of sorts. The Lucchese brand and quality standards continued…and continue to this day in El Paso, Texas…but Sam, Jr. made the decision to sell the company to the Blue Bell Corporation, parent company to Wrangler Jeans. I can’t help but let out a whimper regarding this, the final round-up for this familial heritage; wish I could have sat down with Sam and had a heart-to-heart, but alas…
Sam did stay on as president, however, until 1977 whereupon he went to work for the Tony Lama Boot Company. What??
That was the year of some shake-up in leadership in the Lama company, so who knows…maybe Sam saw a chance to get them on the right track. Or maybe he was bored. Or maybe he had a vendetta…??? That’s one elusive answer that remains in the tight grip of the fist of time.
Even though the end of the 70’s saw disco fade and Sam, Jr. laid to rest in his boots, the Lucchese name continued/continues to prosper. Besides the El Paso headquarters and shop, there are six national showrooms/retail locations. You’d probably win if we played a guessing game on where to place the map stick pins; it’s not too hard to speculate that Nashville, Santa Fe, Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio are befitting hosts for a nice, shiny showroom of western finery.
Frank Tijerina, manager of the San Antonio store located less than 5 miles from where Sal and Joseph first set up shop, was kind enough to visit with me briefly. Even though he was unable say much due to needing to refer me to his higher ups, his enthusiasm for Lucchese was strongly evident. At the time of this writing, I was unable to obtain direct access to corporate folks to get a bit more of an inside feel for the company, but it’s pretty obvious they employ kindred hearts and minds. The Lucchese website (www.lucchese.com) also offers up some great personal interest stories on their home-base employees.
The popularity and supreme fit of the iconic western Lucchese brand truly does live on, thanks to the aspirations of a couple of fellows from Palermo. Just ask the likes of Kate Moss, Willie Nelson, Jamie Foxx, Kacey Musgraves (who has her own line of Lucchese), Dwight Yoakam, Taylor Swift, Julia Roberts…or my neighbor…and you’ll most likely hear the accolades of a boot said to fit like no other. Whether it’s a pair of luxurious custom “Classics”, “Lucchese 2000” mid-lines, or the more moderately priced “Lucchese Since 1883”, it’s a boot fit to brag on as you proudly smile and swing your foot over… that coffee shop ottoman, pard’ner.