by Gene Fowler
Southern California bootmaker Pascal Davayat grew up in the rural Auvergne region of France, fascinated with cowboy boots and all things Wild West. “I lived on a solid diet of western movies and TV shows,” he says. Young Pascal dreamed of being a pirate or a cowboy, but yo-ho-ho-and-a-bottle-of-rum seemed unreachable, so he concentrated on the cowboy way. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was one of my favorites, and I told my mother I wanted to be as dirty as Tuco Ramirez, the Mexican bandit. He was my spirit animal.”
Born in 1968, the year of France’s cultural revolution, Davayat explains the French entertainment industry was different when he was a kid. “The old Westerns were very cheap, so a lot of them were on TV, dubbed in French. And they were mostly already old and in black and white.”
But it wasn’t the celluloid dream of the Great American West that drew
Pascal Davayat to the streets of Tinseltown in 1989. It was music. A bass player, he made a pilgrimage to the City of Angels to study at the world-renowned Musicians Institute. While the quest did not result in Pascal forging a musical career, some 20 years later he met and began making cowboy boots for his childhood (and now adulthood) bass-playing idol. And they call L.A. the Land of Make Believe?
But before becoming a bootmaker, in the early 1990s he worked in a series of boot stores. His mother had been a seamstress back in France and he’d learned to sew as a teenager, making a few wallets and other leather items. At one L. A. boot shop, he was recruited to make custom belts. “For four years, morning to night in a boot store, I made belts.” Pascal says he can be “sweet-talked into making a belt today,” but the whole time he was making belts he really wanted to be making boots. And by 1996, he could no longer defer his boot making dream.
For the latter half of the 1990s, he deployed his artistic skills in a day job as a tattoo artist. He made boots at night and on the weekends, normally running on four hours of sleep. “I am basically self-taught,” he says. “Back then an apprentice, as far as I could tell, would sweep the floor for a year and perhaps learn to skive. But because I already knew how to sew, I had kind of a head start. So, I cut up the boots I’d been wearing and reverse-engineered them to learn how they were made.”
In 2000, Pascal made his first pilgrimage to the boot making mecca of Texas, where he sought out some top hands like Lee Miller at Texas Traditions in Austin. “He’s incredible, one of the greatest,” Davayat avows. “At the time, I was just ‘a guy who makes boots.’ But with the pointers he gave me, I improved.”
When Pascal returned to Texas in 2001, Miller told him, “Now you can call yourself a bootmaker.”
“We talked numbers,” Pascal recalls, “and he told me that my job was costing me money and I could make a better living as a full-time bootmaker.” So, he told his day-job boss to jump in the ocean—actually, the boss was a dear friend of 10 years—and set out on a pirate-ship-sailing, outlaw-bronc-riding course of a career in crafting distinctive, American-legacy footwear.
The Frenchman who grew up loving the cowboy boots he saw on TV Westerns also savors the tips and advice he got from bootmaker Tex Robin of Abilene, Texas. Another influence was the late Ray Jones of Lampasas, Texas. “I look at boots as protective footwear,” Pascal explains, “and Ray Jones made the toughest boots. So, I aspire for my boots to be as tough as Ray Jones boots and as sexy as Lee Miller and Tex Robin boots. Still another important influence for me has been my friend, the great Pablo Jass, who makes boots in Lampasas today.”
In 1999, around the time he began the transition to full-time bootmaker, Davayat met the customer who arguably became the most important of his career, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, fire-breathing frontman for the heavy metal band Motörhead. Pascal made Lemmy, the group’s bass player and singer, three or four boots a year for the next 15 years, until the musician’s death in 2015. “I think I hold the record for the most boots made for one person,” he muses.
The bootmaker had been a huge fan of Motörhead since first discovering the band’s earliest music at the age of nine in rural France. And with his pirate swagger and his take-no-prisoners, burn-the-candle-at-seven-ends lifestyle, Lemmy had been Pascal’s boyhood idol. “So, it was surreal when I got to meet him and work with him on so many cowboy boots. And it was even wilder that he turned out to be such a great guy.”
Before discovering cowboy boots à la Hollywood Riff Raff, Kilmister had worn English boots with a zipper. “But he loved all the ‘cool stuff on the tops’ of cowboy boots,” Pascal says. “That’s when he started wearing his pants tucked inside his boots. It kinda became one of his trademarks.” Working with the rock star was “fun and exciting.” But the bootmaker also recalled, “It could be hair-pulling at times. He was very set in his ways. He would send me drawings—he drew quite well—and say, ‘This is what I want.’ I would often have to explain to him that I couldn’t do what he’d drawn.”
Then Lemmy would say, “What do you mean?”
“It will fail within a month—there’s mechanical aspects of a boot that have to be considered.”
“You’re the bootmaker. You’ll figure it out.”
“Making his boots the way he wanted was often a challenge, but we became really tight friends,” Pascal recalls wistfully. “Motörhead music was like the soundtrack to my life.”
Though his workbench is parked in Newbury Park, about an hour outside L. A., these days a location in Greater La La Land has given Hollywood Riff Raff the opportunity to work with a variety of celebrities from the worlds of art, entertainment and sports. Chris Pontius and Wee Man, personalities on the masochist-stunt reality TV show Jackass wear Hollywood Riff Raffs. “Wee Man is a dwarf, but he’s also a professional skateboarder with really strong calves,” Pascal explains. “So, it was a challenge making boots for him, figuring out his weight distribution and accounting for the fact that his legs were not full size.”
Hollywood Riff Raff custom boot wearers also include actress Laura Dern (“a sweetheart”), director Sydney Pollack, actor John Ritter (“That was really cool because he was Tex Ritter’s son”), country singer Shooter Jennings, boxer Lance Whitaker, wrestler Triple H and wrestling promoter Vince McMahon. “I made Vince a pair with the WWE logo in a subtle black on black.”
Mickey Rourke wore a pair of Pascal’s boots in the 2003 movie Spun. “It was a pair I originally made for myself,” recalls Pascal. “Then somebody bought them off me and later had them for sale in a record store. Mickey
Rourke happened to see them. They fit him. And so, he bought them. Then he wore them to lunch with the film’s director. And the director said, ‘That’s exactly what your character would wear!’”
In the film, Rourke wore the boots with his pants tucked into them, providing an unobstructed view of Pascal’s unique mule ears. “Mule ears used to go down only to the sole,” he explains, “if that far. But I was the first to make them go all the way to the ground. I like to see them get a little ratty and beat up. Now other bootmakers are doing mule ears that way.”
Pascal covered the air bag in actor Michael Cimino’s car with cobra skin, but he usually sticks to calf and buffalo and—with exceptions such as some hippopotamus used for cactus inlays—doesn’t do much exotic leather. “Snake is too fragile and alligator is getting overpriced, so I like something more basic and reliable. I see leather more as a byproduct of the beef industry. Early man ate the meat and then realized, Hey! We can use this hide. Leather is the original form of recycling.”
Hollywood Riff Raff sources leather from “all over the place,” but Pascal cites C. Loy Leather of El Paso as his primary outlet for linings, tops and bottoms.
A meander through HRR’s Instagram page is a lot of fun. I’d never seen boots quite like the “tile boots” posted on July 25, 2018. “I made those for Jimmy Reed,” says Pascal. “He builds show-stopping swimming pools for the ultra-rich, and he’s passionate about tile and tile work. He gave me a book on the Malibu Tile Company, which used to be on the beach here, to go on. And he also likes mule ears!”
Skulls galore fill the boots, wallets and other leather creations on Pascal’s page. “When I first started tooling,” he explains, people seemed to mostly be doing oak leaves, acorns and flowers – I got lots of requests for skulls. Maybe it’s a rock-n-roll, biker thing. I’ve been told my skulls have unique qualities.” Pirate themes also abound. One pair sports the theme of 16 men with a treasure map on a dead man’s chest, attacked by a giant octopus with a bottle of rum and a yo-ho-ho.
A pair of giant custom chaps was made for a 6’8” cowboy. “It was a gift some San Diego Masons were giving to the Grand Master of the California Lodge. I also made him a matching apron. That’s one thing about gifts – you can’t measure the person ahead of time. He turned out to be only 6’6”, but he still liked the chaps.”
One customer requested a leather photo album cover to commemorate the 100th birthday of his grandfather, the late Hoyt Edward Byrd of Garland, Texas. “He’d been an airplane mechanic and had worked on the P-51 Mustang,” says Pascal. And back during Prohibition he had owned a combination gas station/honky-tonk/speakeasy. But his mind was still sharp when he hit the century mark, and his grandson told me that he really, really loved having his whole life collected in one book with a hand-tooled, one-of-a-kind cover.”
Pascal figures he’s made about 10 pairs of boots for Texas customers in the last couple of years. (Any readers getting a little tired of hearing about the largest state in the lower 48 might enjoy knowing that one of the bootmaker’s Instagram followers goes by the handle “Insufferable Texan.”) A lot of them have been “oil guys and even a few real cowboys who will call up and say they’re working a roundup in September, spending a week in the saddle and need some tough new boots.” A Texas saddle bronc rider requested a pair of boots without a shank. “I told him he wouldn’t be able to walk in ‘em without a shank and he said he only needed to wear them for eight seconds. Said by not having a shank in the boot his foot could crush down on the stirrup and grab ahold of it better.”
An Instagram post on September 12, 2018, shows off Pascal’s “Excalibur, the mother of all tool racks.” It was made by the bootmaker’s woodworking friend Bob Arnold, for whom Davayat had made a belt. “I hate making belts, but I like Bob more than I hate making belts. So, he wanted to make me something in return and he made this rack. Bob said, ‘I want to make something functional that will help you enjoy your work.’ It’s the perfect size, with three tiers and plenty of slots for tools.”
Pascal’s shop is in the garage of his home. “I’m in here constantly, seven days a week, and it’s really kind of a bloody mess. I want it to be functional, but not too functional. It’s like Newton’s law of motion, a body in motion stays in motion. I’m at my bench all day, so I put my sewing machine on the opposite side because it forces me to walk around and be mobile. It’s like Lee Miller. He sits on a ball when he works to keep his body strong and healthy.”
Working pretty much 24/7, Pascal says he hasn’t taken a vacation in a month of Sundays. “I’ll never travel the world,” he laments, “so I ask my customers to take photos of my boots—my kids—near landmarks when they’re out adventuring.” Thus, his Instagram sports pics of his beauties at the Eiffel Tower, London’s Tower Bridge, the Tom Mix Memorial and a road sign for the Tom Mix Wash, rock climbing in Switzerland, Roy Rogers’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Japanese pagoda, and on the streets of Vienna. His boots also find their way to pose at the gravesites of Waylon Jennings, singing cowboys Monte Hale and Gene Autry, and at the final resting place of Lemmy Kilmister.
The bootmaker himself visits Lemmy’s grave, at the Forest Lane Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills, each year on the rocker’s birthday. “I spoke at his funeral,” says Pascal. “And I was the one who placed the urn with his ashes into his grave. Every time I visit, I repeat a ritual he performed whenever we were together. He would light two cigarettes and give one to me. So, I light two and offer one to his spirit.”
What’s in a Name? Hollywood Riff Raff
“That’s a long and interesting story,” Pascal says when asked about the colorful name of his boot-making business. The short version is a twofer. In 1992, Davayat moved into a plush niche of L.A. called Studio City with two roommates. “We had guitars, amps and motorcycles, and you could read the neighbors’ faces when we moved in. Their expressions said, ‘Here comes the riff raff,’” he explains. “The neighbors actually nicknamed me ‘Riff Raff.’” Then, Pascal began dating a Pasadena gal and learned that the community in its early days had been full of orchards and people with “old money from back east.” So, when the film industry was born in Hollywood, Pasadena residents “looked down their noses at movie people and called them Hollywood Riff Raff.”