It's funny how you can miss something that's been in front of your face the whole time.
For the better half of a century, R.M.Williams has been offering the kind of quality that saw its products (especially its boots) last people a lifetime, often passed down to the next generation. But few of us who lived within coo-ee of a major city stopped to consider the brand when it came to building our urban wardrobe.
Boy from the bush
Times have well and truly changed and now the bush outfitter is just as much the outfitter to the big smoke. Indeed, the brand, which dates right back to 1932, has reinvented itself as a must-have luxury label. Since being taken over in 2014 by L Catterton, the private equity arm of fashion goliath LVMH alongside IFM and private investment partner Hugh Jackman, R.M.Williams seems unstoppable.
The brand is now sold in 15 countries around the world with more than 900 stockists and 50 retail stores, including a swanky new boutique in Westfield London, and a flagship store in SOHO Manhattan designed by Mika Utzon, grandson of Sydney Opera House architect Jorn Utson.
A boot like no other
Much of the success has been driven by the elastic-sides riding boots that were first manufactured in Percy Street Prospect, South Australia, in 1934, by bushman and entrepreneur Reginald Murray Williams.
The 'Craftsman' boots are still manufactured in Adelaide. What sets them apart from other Chelsea boots on the market, is the one-piece leather construction, involving more than 80 hand-held processes. The simplicity of the design means it can work just as well with jeans as a suit.
You can spot the Craftsman on some fairly famous feet too, including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. Signature Craftsman (made from premium veal leather and retailing for $1000) are worn by former leaders, Bill Clinton and David Cameron.
A new luxury
Recently the company launched a new bespoke service, enabling clients to go online and select from 11 leathers and three sole types. The leathers include such decadent offerings as ostrich skin, crocodile and camel. Bespoke Craftsman start from $800, with the crocodile version a snappy $4000.
There's little doubt L Catterton's injection of funds has enabled R.M.Williams to transform the brand into a major fashion label on the world scene.
And it's not only the boots that are gaining attention. R.M.Williams clothing is also starting to make an impression in the city. "I'm seeing more and more of the shirts and knitwear on the streets," says fashion blogger and tailor, Miles Wharton. "The branding has done a complete 180-degree turn; it's become a little more fashion forward and starting to tap into that market of young professionals."
Could R.M.Williams' popularity herald a return of the Sloane Rangers? That British trend championed by Lady Diana Spencer (before she was the Princess of Wales), and characterised by equestrian wear – Drizabone jackets, johdpurs, Hermes scarves.
Some fashion watchers certainly have that opinion, with many believing Kate Middleton (the Duchess of Cambridge) is picking up where Diana left off.
Much of the credit for the upmarket direction of R.M.Williams must go to the talented head of design, Jeremy Hershan. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology graduate arrives home with an enviable CV after a decade in London that included a stint as senior formalwear designer with Dunhill, head designer with Aquascutum, and an assistant design role with Gieves & Hawkes.
Hershan's debut collection (Autumn/Winter 2017) with the 85-year-old brand has just been released and is being well received by both consumers and fashion critics.
"I was always a big fan of R.M.Williams," he said. "I've been wearing the boots for the best part of a decade. My first pair were inherited from my brother, and I bought my second pair in London. My personal preference is the Comfort Turnout with its round toe and finished in a rough-out suede tan leather, relating back to the saddlery."
Before even putting pen to paper, Hershan ploughed deep through the R.M.Williams extensive archives for inspiration. "My intention with the collection as a whole was to go back to the roots of the brand, looking for beautiful and relevant details to bring them to life for a contemporary consumer, while not forgetting the lifelong customers from the heartland."
Quality and utility
Careful attention was paid to cut and fabrication. An example of Hershan's expertise can be found in the Windsor Tweed Sports Coat, where the designer utilised a long-term relationship with a UK woollen mill to develop a signature herringbone tweed, suggestive of the Flinders Rangers landscape. "It's a piece that will appeal to our refined loyalist customer," says Hershan.
It could also be just at home teamed with a pair of jeans and a crisp white shirt in the inner-city.
One of Hershan's favourite pieces is the Classic Drover Belted Jacket; a waxed piece that is about as Sloane as you can get. "Yes, I can see why you would think that," says Hershan. "A lot of born and bred West Londeners are big fans of R.M.Williams."
Hershan has been careful not to mess too much with the signature half-placket Murphys Brigalow shirt, featuring military buttons. "It's part of the brand's DNA, and was cut as authentic workwear back in the day. Today's consumer craves authenticity and R.M.Williams has it in spades, we've never had to make it up."