The Tony Lama Company began operation in 1912 as a small shoe-repair shop on East Overland Street in El Paso. Tony Lama, Sr., a native of Syracuse, New York, was born of immigrant parents in 1887, orphaned at age eleven, and raised by an uncle who apprenticed him to a shoemaker. Lama served as a cobbler with the United States Army and was stationed in 1910 at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he served under Gen. John J. Pershing in the Sixth United States Infantry. In 1912 Lama left the army and opened a shoe-repair shop, where he continued to do business with the military. That year he and one assistant also made twenty pairs of boots for sale. Lama married Esther Hernández in 1917. They had six children, all of whom became active participants in the company. As the horse soldier disappeared, army trade dwindled, but by this time Lama had the reputation for being a quality bootmaker. He turned his attention exclusively to the production of the western style boot popular with local ranchers, and by 1933 Lama's factory was turning out forty pairs of boots daily. A shortage of leather goods during World War II curtailed the business temporarily, but as supplies again became available business boomed. Lama's business became a corporation in 1946. In 1948, when Tony Lama presented a pair of custom-made boots to President Harry S. Truman, he began a custom of offering a pair of boots to each president.
By the early 1950s the Lama Company became known as an innovator in the boot-making industry. It introduced such changes as lower heels and rounded toes that made the boot adaptable for walking as well as riding. The company also offered stylish colors, decorative stitching, and exotic leathers such as shark, lizard, alligator, boa, turtle, anteater, elephant, camel, goat, eel, and ostrich. In 1989 exotics accounted for forty-five percent of the company's annual sales. In 1967 the Lama plant was moved to 1137 Tony Lama Street, and by 1976 the company offered sixty-five standard models as well as custom boots. The plant employed 780 people who daily produced 3,100 pairs of boots, which were sold in more than 4,500 retail outlets in the United States and foreign countries. On the average fifty people are involved in the production of a single pair of boots, twenty of these as inspectors who maintain high quality. From 1967 to 1970 Lama workers were represented by a labor union, but the union contract was rejected when it came up for renewal. In 1970 a Leather Products Division was started in Fort Worth with five people in operations. By 1976 this division employed 120 workers, who turned out such products as belts, buckles, wallets, and organizers. The Leather Products Division moved to El Paso in August 1983. Tony Lama became a publicly owned corporation in 1971; stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Tony Lama, Sr., died in January of 1974 and Tony Lama, Jr., who had been part of the company since 1956, succeeded his father as president. When his older brother Joseph (Bert), then chairman of the board, died in March 1977, Tony, Jr., became board chairman. In the early 1980s clothing designer Ralph Lauren and such movies as Electric Horseman and Urban Cowboy popularized cowboy boots and western wear, and the company reaped the benefits. Sales for the first half of 1981 were $46 million, close to the total earnings for all of 1979. A $3 million, 80,000-square-foot plant was opened to increase production. The subsequent decline of the fad, along with an economic recession, caused the boom to end. Subsidiaries of the company have included Creations, formed by Judy Lama, Tony Lama, Jr.'s, wife, in 1986. It produced a line of leather handbags that Mrs. Lama designed, but the project did not last. The New Heyer Company was established in 1987 when Lama purchased the holdings of the Heyer Company, maker of Larry Mahan Boots. This company no longer operates. El Paso Leather Components was established in 1987 by the purchase of Coulson of Texas, manufacturer of heels and leather components. The Tony Lama Trading Company began selling and importing high-quality men's and women's shoes in 1988 but soon ceased this operation. In 1990 Lama had two plants in El Paso, which employed more than 900 workers and produced 2,200 pairs of boots daily. Louis R. Lama was company president, and Tony Lama, Jr., was chairman of the board and chief executive officer. In August 1990 the Tony Lama Company, Incorporated, was merged with Justin Industries, another boot-making company. The agreement made Tony Lama a wholly owned subsidiary of Justin, but Tony Lama continued to operate under independent management.
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El Paso Herald Post, March 29, 1977, February 13, 1985, February 14, August 22, 1990. El Paso Times, January 11, 1974, March 28, 1976. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Tony Lama Company,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 30, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
July 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
December 28, 2020