When you first walk into Rider Boot Shop on Broad Street, you’re hit by the smell of fresh leather. It’s not the usual leather you find floating off your Steve Madden boots from the sale rack, though. Here, you’ll find Chelsea boots, Oxfords, and sneakers made from South African Antelope (known as kudu), waxed horse flesh, ostrich, elk, stingray, and other unique high-quality leathers from tanneries in Italy and England.
Originally printed in RVA #30 FALL 2017, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
“We source from family-run factories who have been doing this for generations,” Jeff Rider detailed. You can find him daily in the storefront helping walk-ins and customers who have made the store a destination during their visit to Richmond. “We work hard to develop trust between our manufacturers and our customers.”
Jeff learned much of what he knows about shoes and the business of fashion from his father Ron Rider, who has been working in the shoe industry for decades. The father-son pair opened the Rider Boot Shop in November 2016, though the footwear brand’s story starts long before then.
A Lesson In Richmond Fashion History
“There’s an impression that Richmond isn’t a fashion town,” Ron remarked. “I think people have that all wrong.”
Franco’s Fine Clothier has been a quiet hub for Richmond’s fashionable men for years. The flagship store opened in the 1970s on Lakeside Avenue and specializes in custom suits and other men’s and women’s apparel. After a move from Baltimore, Ron became the buyer for men’s and women’s shoes. He traveled with founder and owner Franco Ambrogi to Italy to select leathers and meet manufacturers in person. Eventually, Franco and Ron began to develop and grow a wholesale shoe brand.
The brand grew a loyal following from Franco customers and more. The shoes were spotted on celebrity bloggers and on screen — from Russell Brand in Arthur to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby to characters in Boardwalk Empire.
“We’re really not about big names or brands, though,” Ron pointed out. “We specialize in helping customers find the right shoe they can wear for years and years.”
When Ambrogi decided to move away from the wholesale business, Ron and his wife Lisa Rider took the reigns. Over the next several years, Ron travelled the country to sell Rider Boots to various independent retailers and the brand grew. Eventually, Jeff encouraged Ron to move the shoes into a storefront.
“It’s all about making ourselves available for the people of Richmond to become familiar with us,” Jeff reasoned. “My dad has been standing by a product for 10 years and word of mouth is how it has grown and continues to grow.”
Hands on personal attention is one of the many ways Rider Boots stands out from the experience you might have at a department store today.
Getting The Right Fit
Ron actually spent many years as a sales associate in the shoe department of Nordstrom. He even wrote the fitting guide used in departments across the country. Today, he says, you won’t find a custom fitting experience at a department store. That’s where shops like Rider Boot come in.
“We can cripple someone if we do the wrong job,” Ron grimly stated. “We have a responsibility and we take it seriously. It’s worth the extra time and effort that we can spend with people.”
Jeff confirmed saying he’d rather someone walk out empty handed than with a pair of boots that didn’t fit. Jeff hopes to encourage the younger generation to avoid patterns of purchasing new shoes each season. He works to educate customers about investing in key wardrobe pieces from which to build personal style.
“Richmond’s sense of individuality and self-expression is a really cool thing,” Jeff continued. “People here want you to pay attention to what they’re wearing. Often, people will look to your shoes first. You should have a solid foundation.”
At Rider, it’s not just about the fit and the product, but also the environment. The storefront is located in the Arts District, within walking distance from a growing list of galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.
“Early on I knew this was the right place to open a storefront,” affirmed Jeff.
Depending on who greets you, you’re offered a fresh shot of espresso or a shot of Jameson. The atmosphere is warm and comfortable. Customers can try on shoes sitting atop benches from Georgetown Park and shop by the light of schoolhouse lamps sourced from Governor’s Antiques in Mechanicsville.
What’s In Store
You won’t see any big labels or graphics around Rider’s storefront. Instead, the purchase relies on a customized experience and product.
“Jeff’s generation doesn’t give a shit about the brand and its status,” Ron explained. “For the last 20 or 30 years, the baby boomers always fell for the Gucci logo and the aspirational ideas that went along with it. Those ways have fallen off.”
In the front of the long and narrow store, the walls are lined with rows of Chelsea Boots in a variety of styles and materials. They’re sitting alongside another popular Rider favorite, the Dundalk, which is a lace up boot that can be easily dressed up or down.
“We didn’t invent the Chelsea Boot,” Jeff remarked. “We take classics and put our twist on them.”
Rider also carries a collection of women’s shoes and boots. You won’t find heels, but instead more classic shapes that can be worn every day. The same philosophy applies: classics with a twist that can be worn day-to-night for years. “We don’t want you to buy them and then buy something new to replace them a year later,” Jeff said.
Some are from Rider’s own line including several styles of Chelsea boots, but others are sourced from outside of Rider so the family could begin to test and learn what women look for here in Richmond and online.
The storefront has allowed Rider to strengthen its ties to Richmond and has opened doors for local collaborations. In September, Rider released a custom boot design in partnership with Handy Ma’am Goods, a line of fashion for women who “get dirty” — coveralls, the “drapon,” and more. The brand, like Rider, also prioritizes quality over quantity and was a natural fit. The collaboration idea came over whiskey during an afternoon in the store.
“Bella [Weinstein] just came in one day,” Ron remembered. “We were talking about issues she’d come across for her customer and their needs.”
Ron thought of a men’s military boot design and suggested they blend it with the Chelsea Boot. They successfully launched the product during First Fridays. It will be the first of many collaborations, he said.
“We’ve been waiting for Richmond to welcome us,” Jeff said.
Well then, let RVA Magazine be the first in saying, “Welcome to Richmond, Rider family.”