Published January 4, 2024

Steve Christo fell in love with cowboy boots at a young age. He wore them often as a kid, but his “adult feet,” as he put it, proved to be too flat and wide for factory-made boots.

“So I went, I don’t know, 50 years or so without boots,” Christo said with a chuckle.

Now, Christo is one of only a handful of boot makers on the East coast of the United States. He operates Perrin Creek Custom Boots out of a barn on his property in Gloucester County, Virginia, which he built with his son Ivan using logs hewn from his own trees. Most makers are in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, where cowboy boots are more often worn as practical work attire than as a fashion statement.

An outdoor photo of Steve Christo's handmade barn in Gloucester.
Perrin Creek Custom Boots was built from wood harvested from trees on Steve Christo’s Gloucester property.

To manufacture a custom pair of boots, Christo first takes more than two dozen measurements of the customer’s feet. Next, he creates a model of the customer’s foot in dense plastic and leather, called a last. (“The last comes first” is a common bootmaker turn of phrase.) After discussing design choices with the customer, Christo forms the leather around the last to ensure a snug fit in the final product. It can take him up to 200 hours to make one pair of boots.

Christo learned how to make boots from Mike Carnes and Carl Chappell in Saint Jo, Texas. His teachers were typical — old cowboys who had transitioned into less physically demanding jobs making boots.

“Those guys would start out cowboyin’, you know, being out on the range until they got too old and then they’d go make boots, because after the age of 35 or 40 being on a horse 16 hours a day starts to hurt.”

“Form follows function, and that happens to look great.”

Steve Christo, Owner of Perrin Creek Custom Boots
Colorful custom boots adorned with the Virgin Mary.
Colorful custom boots adorned with the Virgin Mary.

Charles Hyer, a shoemaker who moved to Kansas from Germany in the late 1800s, is credited with originating cowboy boots in America. As the legend goes, he received a request for new boots from a Colorado-born cowboy, who wanted longer heels and pointed toes that accommodated his stirrups. An early pair of Hyer boots featured colorful overlays of a Jayhawk and stitched wheat stems.

“A lot of cowboys did rodeos on the weekend. So, they wanted to stand out,” Christo said. “They’d get really fancy boots, tuck their pants inside, and ride the rodeo. Those are my favorite.”

Years after embarking on his boot-making journey, Christo found out he had unwittingly been carrying forward a generations-long family tradition. His great uncle was a boot maker in Cyprus, specializing in traditional Cypriot hobnail boots, or those made with metal nails instead of the small wooden pegs traditionally found in cowboy boots. On a visit back to his home country, one of Christo’s relatives handed him an heirloom shoe hammer and told him he could have it.

“When I hold it, it’s just like holding the history and lineage, you know?” Christo said. “It also turns out my dad’s brother-in-law participated in a traditional, English-style shoe apprenticeship before he came over here, and I never knew that. I mean, in the 65 years I knew him — not a word about it.”

Christo is highly sought after thanks to his colorful and intricate inlays and overlays. He even caught the eye of First Lady Suzanne Youngkin, who commissioned him to make a pair of boots for her husband’s inauguration in 2022. The boots feature eight stars, representing the Virginians who went on to become President, and the number 74, signifying Glenn Youngkin being Virginia’s 74th Governor.

Many boots today reflect the buyer’s preferences, who influence everything from the elaborate designs overlaid on the shaft to the stitches holding it all together.

“There’s a reason for everything on a boot,” Steve said. “Form follows function, and that happens to look great.”