LIVIN’ A TEXAS LEGACY
by Gene Fowler
Most fine, custom cowboy bootmakers have at least a passing awareness of the artists and artisans who preceded them. But few live that legacy as fully as Zephan Parker, who hangs his bootmaking shingle in wide-open H-town, the frontier space-age megalopolis named for Sam Houston, one of the most maverick Texans who ever lived.
Zephan grew up in Sam’s town. “Cowboy culture, of course, was a big part of my childhood,” he says. “My mother’s father and her brothers were all noted horsemen. My own father’s world was the polar opposite—he played in an inner-city rock band. I grew up very interested in art, particularly word-and-letter-based art in the form of graffiti.” All these ingrained elements merged fortuitously in the art of bootmaking. “Each of the fundamentals I found in art—curves, symmetry, balance—they all apply in bootmaking.”
A move to small-town Texas sparked Zephan’s cowboy boot odyssey. “Some family friends owned a place that was great for hunting near Gatesville (just west of Waco), and a job opportunity came up with Gatesville’s public works department. That provided me an interesting edge and allowed me to engage more easily with local folks. Ordinarily, it can take years to get integrated into the community of a small town.”
Removal from the pell-mell glitz of the nation’s fourth largest city, allowed Zephan to “realize what this culture is about, comprehend it at its core.” Becoming a customer before he became a craftsman, he already had a custom pair of boots made by Houston’s Jose Lozano and at church in Gatesville, he received some cowboy boot grail from a man named Charles Williams.
Zephan’s fellow parishioner had been a customer of Ray Jones of Lampasas, but when he told Zephan about the Lampasas legend, Jones had been retired for more than 30 years. If Parker wanted a pair of Ray Jones-influenced boots made, Williams said, he should seek out the Jass brothers, John and Pablo, who were carrying on the Jones tradition in Lampasas.
So, he called Pablo, who said his waiting list was running about a year and a half. He then called John Jass, who said he could build a pair much faster. “Lampasas is only 42 miles from Gatesville,” says Zephan, “so I drove to see him on Friday afternoon. And when I got home from church that Sunday, he called and said the boots were ready. I’d put down a $300 deposit on the price of $1,100, and the next day I drove over to pick them up. And immediately when I pulled the boots on, I felt inspired. The boots got my attention. I asked him, ‘If I pay you, what will it cost me to build a pair like this with you guiding me?’ He agreed to train me if I bought another pair for $1,500.”
Zephan bought a 3115 Singer sewing machine for $500, began acquiring patterns and built a pair of boots from start to finish with John Jass’ guidance. “It opened doors in my mind,” he recalls. “I began to glimpse the possibility of bootmaking as a stable income. I saw that, in many ways, it was a dying art. But I wanted more than ever to become a real bootmaker.”
Next, Zephan called Eddie Kimmel of Comanche, Texas, one of the most beloved bootmakers in all the West. He studied with Eddie for two years, both in person and over the phone. “John Jass gave me the possibility,” Zephan says, “and Eddie Kimmel gave me the tools necessary to make it a reality. He was process oriented. We went from step one to step three hundred. It just clicked.”
Moving back to Houston, he decided to apprentice with Custom Boots by Morado. According to Tyler Beard’s The Art of the Boot, brothers and seventh-generation bootmakers James and David Morado, born in Los Angeles, put down roots in Houston in the late 1940s, after growing up in Mexico City. They worked for Frank’s Boot Shop, then Palace Boot Shop and then spent 30 years working with Model Boot Shop, before opening their own outfit. “I worked with James’ son, Jimmy Morado, for about a month and a half,” says Zephan, “and that’s where, for the first time, I really began to realize the history, the legacy of bootmaking. And I saw a lot of decorative boots being built.”
Parker says he was also “amazed by the unknown men who spent their lives in the background” at Morado’s. One, Ramon Torres, gave him “one of the greatest lessons,” encouraging the eager learner to “not use the finisher…use your knife! A bootmaker must learn how to use the knife!” Zephan says he can still hear Ramon cautioning, “Take it easy, Mr. Parker, careful…careful.”
Next, the young bootmaker went to see another Houston legend, Dave Wheeler. “But Dave said he wasn’t teaching anyone. He said, ‘Good luck, it’s too hard, do something else.’ I think he felt that I didn’t have enough skin in the game.” Then in 2015, a friend said, “Hey let’s open a shop.” But the friend backed out and when Zephan rented shop space the next morning, he became a sole proprietor by accident.
“I started out doing repair and some custom work,” he continues. “I continued to pursue Dave Wheeler and when he saw that I was serious, he began to teach and counsel me. He’s retired now, but I still see him all the time.”
Having described John Jass’ instruction as “seeing the possibility” and Eddie Kimmel’s guidance as providing the “process and the necessary tools,” Zephan describes Dave Wheeler’s coaching as “the mounted chandelier in the dining room. He opened my eyes to finesse and showed me what a $7,000 pair of boots should look like. His work produced the most elegant boots I have seen.”
Today, Parker Boot Company operates in a renovated circa-1950s house in the stylish Houston Heights neighborhood, turning out two pairs of boots a week with a six-to-eight-month backlog. Three-quarters of those boots are American alligator and many of the gator hides are brought to the shop by boot customers who acquired them on hunts. Zephan speaks of the cowboy boot as a canvas. “It’s unique in that sense. With shoes, you’re limited in terms of expression. A cowboy boot can be simple on the foot and then explosive in terms of color and design on the uppers. Nothing else comes close to the upper of a Western boot.”
Still, Zephan’s own taste runs to a sleeker design. “What I like to build, what I think is the most dynamic, is a boot that’s uniform all the way up of exotic material. The alligator boot to me is the epitome of classy and clean.”
Like most custom bootmakers, Parker prefers to measure customers in person, but about 10 percent of his orders come in from all over the world with mail-in measurements. He sends out a mail-order kit with which a customer can trace their feet and provide measurements for three areas of the foot, plus the calf. But whether they’re in Europe or home in H-town, Zephan really gets to know them.
“I like to find out about a customer’s childhood,” he says. “If I’m not meeting them in person, I’ll ask them to send something they love. I like to find out how they wear footwear, whether they hunt or fish, whether they have monogrammed towels. Sometimes, I’ll ask for a picture of their closet.”
A scroll through Parker Boot Company’s Facebook and Instagram pages reveals the happy results of that information gathering. There are the cranberry pigskin boots worn by a bride that replicate the vinelike pattern and other elements of her wedding dress. “She said she’d grown up with boots and wanted to wear them for her special day,” says Zephan.
One pair features an American flag on one boot and a Puerto Rican flag on the other. They were ordered by the wife of a customer who became a friend, a Puerto Rican immigrant who rose through the ranks of the Houston Police Department to become the lead arson investigator. “They were relocating and she wanted something he could remember Texas by,” says Zephan. “The boots symbolize his life’s journey.”
A pair of boots made for the Swedish social media influencer Alladin Faily, sports a cowboy on a bucking bronc with the stylized initials AF. “He’s a menswear enthusiast who dresses in vintage western wear, but with modern twists.”
Asked to make a second pair for “a lady who has everything,” Zephan asked her husband what she likes. He replied that she loves to garden –her first pair was adorned with roses—and especially loves to plant watermelons. So, the tops of her second pair look like juicy melons on a hot summer day. “She works in the garden in them—she even dances in them.”
“Zephan Parker made me think about boots in a way I had never considered,” commented an Instagram follower using the handle @tx_bbq_and_boots, whose Parker boots feature prickly pear, arrows, animal prints and a happy grab-bag of other references. “It’s the ability to tell a story and hand down a piece of functional art to my family. Every detail of the boot and every crease that comes along the way will tell the story of my life…The elephant is like butter!”
Zephan’s daughter, Emma, who handles topstitching and skives and cuts, received special praise from @tx_bbq_and_boots. “Emma did an awesome job! She will be the next Lisa Sorrell!” Wife Cathleen helps run the business and the couple’s four younger children often lend a hand as well.
A photograph of yellowed paper documents, patterns from the Palace Boot Company of Houston, which was in business from 1919 to 2005, further reflects Zephan’s respect for tradition and history. In its heyday, Palace made boots for Paul Newman, John Wayne and Marlon Brando, as well as scores of coastal prairie cowboys and ranchers. After it closed, Zephan asked owner Steve Xydis if he could have some mementos of the shop. “I’ve built some boots from those antique patterns,” says Zephan.
The greatest tribute to that tradition and history, of course, is the boots. Like the pair Zephan posted on July 29th, that features Ray Jones’ unique stitch pattern. “The Jass brothers carry the legacy of Ray Jones and I’m the only apprentice from the Jass brothers. They passed to me the Ray Jones toe-bug stitch and topstitch pattern. I’m very proud of those boots. I never met Mr. Jones, but my history goes back to him. I continue his style and lineage. It’s where I come from.”
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