Like all great men, R.M. Williams was many things: a humble bushman, accomplished equestrian, seasoned raconteur and father to 10 children. But above all, R.M., as he was known to Australians, was a national hero, namesake to the company he founded in the ’30s, famous for its iconic one-piece leather chelsea boot. When he died in 2003, at the age of 95, thousands gathered at his state funeral, organized by the Australian government. The acting Prime Minister at the time, John Anderson, said this: “He epitomized our national character, even though many Australians who walk in his boots have never ridden a stock horse or watched the sun come up over the Gammon Ranges.”
The brand originated in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. In 1932, R.M., feeling the effects of the Great Depression, built a small factory behind his father’s house and began fashioning one-piece leather boots for ranchers and cattlemen in the Australian outback. “They were unique,” says Matt Francis, who, more than 80 years later, steers merchandizing and design for R.M. Williams. Most chelsea boots, by comparison, are cut from two pieces of leather, which are then stitched beneath the elastic band. “With a one-piece, there’s no seaming that can get damaged in the bush. If you look at Western cowboy boots, all the seams are a little higher, it’s away from the stirrup.” In other words, there’s less that can go wrong.
“With a one-piece, there’s no seaming that can get damaged in the bush. If you look at Western cowboy boots, all the seams are a little higher, it’s away from the stirrup.”
Though production has since moved to a bigger factory in Adelaide, the iconic boots are still made the same way: individual pieces of leather shaped by hand around a last. “You have these big, strong Australian guys in the factory pulling the leather and stitching it around the back,” says Francis. “Each pair is uniquely put down the line. We don’t make batches of different sizes.” For a large factory that employees more than 200 employees — many that have worked there their entire lives — just 700 pairs are manufactured every week.
Photos courtesy R.M. Williams
Today, customers of R.M. Williams are divided between city and country, says Francis. “You have the guys on the farms who wear the boot in day-to-day work, but you also have the city guys who want them for their best dress.” He compares the brand to Red Wing — a company of similar blue-collar beginnings that has managed to maneuver its way into the general lifestyle market. “As we expand globally, it’s the urban customer who drives a lot of the style influences,” he says. Later this year, executives at R.M. Williams plan to open a boutique in Soho, New York, with hopes that the handsome and sturdy boots, with their superb fit and rich backstory, will win the hearts of a greater audience.
“Everyone in Australia’s got some sort of personal connection to the brand,” says Francis. “It would be hard to find someone here that doesn’t know about R.M. Williams. When you go into our resoling room in Adelaide, it’s like a unique time capsule of different peoples’ boots. They’ve been given it by their father, they’ve worn it for 20 years, gotten married in them. That’s what R.M. Williams stood for. Making a great-fitting one-piece leather boot that would last for a lifetime.”