Why Cowboy Style Will Always Have A Place In Menswear
On the range with Mr Jim Krantz, the photographer behind the unforgettable images that defined the American West
Moab, Utah, 2015. Photograph © Mr Jim Krantz, courtesy of Danziger Gallery, New York
A rider, heading off into the horizon, where the sun meets the hardscrabble land – right there is where “The West” begins, and in that moment, that image, begins all of our impossibly romantic imaginings about the tough, inscrutable American men who inhabit it. “That unbroken horizon line is just something that I’ve been wired to appreciate,” says Mr Jim Krantz, photographer of so much of that mythopoetic West. “Omaha, Nebraska, where I grew up, is far from cowboy country. But, the thing about Omaha,” as opposed to the urban canyons of Manhattan, or even the sprawl of his new hometown of Los Angeles, “is that I was familiar with seeing a horizon line.”
In 1992, Mr Krantz began photographing cowboys – real cowboys, he says, “never actors, never models” – in his campaigns for Marlboro and Coors, making images so iconic that they would later be appropriated by the artist Mr Richard Prince, silkscreened on to trucker jackets by Supreme and printed on furniture by Modernica. His pictures – whether for his commercial clients or for his great series The Way Of The West – crackle with drama. Here, lightning flashes over a purple mesa. There, rainbows pour down from a brooding sky about a man riding hard into a storm. And everywhere, horses writhe and prance in balletic activity.
“A landscape is a static thing,” Mr Krantz says, “and different types of elements – wind, dust – add atmosphere, but the energy exuded by the animal and the cowboy really intensifies the landscape. I always try to have atmosphere and action – conflict. And conflict makes emotion. Emotion creates beauty, and that really shows the strengths of these individuals, not only physically, but psychologically. That there’s work to be done, and they’ve got to protect their animals. There’s a lot at stake in these pictures.”
In nearly 30 years spent out on the range, as it were, exposed to the elements and the cowboy lifestyle, Mr Krantz has developed a profound respect for both. “And I will tell you,” he says, “these guys are completely connected to the environment. In so many ways, they’re very, very sensitive to the way the environment operates. And until you’re really around these people, you don’t realise the synchronicity between the man and the land, and the man and the animals, and the animals and the land, in a really beautiful, respectful balance.”
Caliente, Nevada, 2014. Photograph © Mr Jim Krantz, courtesy of Danziger Gallery, New York
Nowadays, nearly everything seems to be threatening that balance, but the cowboy ethic and style still somehow feel sort of eternal. Even in our age, when men’s clothing can have very little at all to do with function and the last traces of formality are finally fading away, the uniform and utilitarian patch-pocket Western shirts, with their V-shaped flaps and embroidered shoulders, remain the very core of Americana workwear, a connection to something elemental in our national style, whether in chambray, flannel or, indeed, as Mr Raf Simons has reimagined them at Calvin Klein 205W39NYC, in red and blue satin. And it doesn’t end there. Wide-brim cowboy hats are about as frequent a sight in hipster circles as in rodeos. Shearling trucker jackets have become the jacket of winter. Saint Laurent has made fringed suede acceptable once more. Italian luxury master Mr Brunello Cucinelli has made a raft of Western-inspired shirts. And some of the most capital-F fashion, from Mr Takahiro Miyashita in Japan, for example, is so heavily embroidered and rodeo-inspired it ought to come with a set of spurs. “So many things you see, from Saint Laurent to Tom Ford, are inspired by the West,” says Mr Krantz.
And why not? “Cowboys have style. They know that the cowboy image is kind of a vanishing breed, and it’s extremely attractive to a lot of people on the outside. And it is so stylish and cool-looking to see them do what they do, whether they’re breaking broncs or riding bulls, in the clothes that the fashion designers were inspired by. These guys know it and they exude it.”
Over the years, Mr Krantz has become an aficionado of cowboy cool, and their commitment to their look. “Everything’s about personal style with these guys,” he says. “A signature: the selection of hats you wear, the wild rag that you wear, the shirt, your chaps... There’s a consistency in the way people work, a practicality to the way people dress and present themselves. For a cowboy, everything you wear is very bespoke and over time, everything you have develops a patina, a story. Once everything’s worn in and it’s all working together, it’s almost like a uniform, and it’s pretty fantastic.” It is in contrast with the urban sprawl of his adopted home of Los Angeles, where status is communicated “by guys trying to get around in Bentleys or Lamborghinis or whatever”. A cowboy flexes his accomplishments right where it counts.
“Belt buckles can be an amazing symbol,” Mr Krantz says. “They’re always silver- and gold-inlaid and they’re massive. And some of these guys have been great bull riders, learning the lifestyle in the rodeo. And they wear a belt buckle they earned 15 years ago.”
But beyond the flash, Mr Krantz says, he has learned a good deal of life lessons out West, around the cowboys, while attempting to capture their lifestyle through the Sturm und Drang of the atmosphere and action they face – lessons he now applies in his own work. Whether shooting a rider on a ridgeline at sunset in Moab, Utah, when the weather suddenly takes a turn, or filming a car commercial in Los Angeles, when plans A, B and C all go up in flames, he says he’s found that “there’s never an excuse not to be able to get something done. Because when everything goes to shit, that’s when everything happens. A horse breaking away, a guy getting bucked off or lightning striking right now. I love that. Because you’re not even thinking. I don’t think a cowboy’s thinking. It’s just about doing.”