Thanksgiving Day 1990 is when the dream started for Tom and Nancy Yoder. Tom, whom family and customers fondly call Yoder, recounted the grand opening of Kemo Sabe on its current website. “I remember getting to work early that morning. Early in those days for me meant before 5 a.m … Nancy, Gina [the couple’s then-13-year-old daughter], and I had stayed until late the night before, preparing for the mad rush that we would surely face the next day. But that’s one thing that didn’t go quite as planned … not a person walked into the store.”
Black Friday—the busiest shopping day of the year—was surely bound to go better. It didn’t.
“We pitched a shut-out,” wrote Yoder.
But the Basalt-based couple slowly and steadily kept at it, building their business enough to move from its Snowmass Village location to downtown Aspen in 1993. Over the years, they’ve developed a singular standard of customer service and grown into the authority on authentic western wear, slinging all of the “things that go along with bein’ a Cowboy*.” Outposts in Vail and Las Vegas have followed in Aspen’s footsteps and now, 27 years later, the Kemo Sabe crew better hold onto its hats because this holiday season is bound to be busier than ever.
They can thank Victoria’s Secret in part for that. The global lingerie company invaded Aspen this summer with an army of Angels for its 2017 holiday campaign, which will be unveiled later in November in conjunction with the infamous fashion show November 28.
Wendy Kunkle, Kemo Sabe’s “#1 Badass” (as her business card reads) was on set for a week's worth of photo shoots with the Victoria’s Secret creative team—award-winning director Michael Bay and photographer Russell James included—who raided the flagship store for hats, chaps, belts, and boots to amp up this year’s Americana theme. During production, she also helped wrangle a different breed of models—the Yoders' horses.
“Holy smokes … it’s a pretty crazy thing that our clothes and horses are going to be seen around the world!” says Kunkle.
Her official title is general manager and chief designer—the latter of which is her favorite hat to wear. When she’s not overseeing Kemo Sabe’s three retail locations, Kunkle forecasts trends, sets seasonal styles, and selects color palettes for Grit—the company’s own brand of handcrafted hats and other accessories, which launched in 2015 to celebrate the store's silver anniversary
“Everyone is loving hats right now. They've come back as a fashion statement,” she says. “But they’re also really just functional—always have been. I don’t ever not have a hat on. I need it for sun, I need it for rain, I need it for snow. It’s a part of me.”
Cowboy chic was seen on Fashion Week runways this year, too—perfect timing for Kemo Sabe to move into much roomier downtown digs that can fully immerse customers into the modern Cowboy lifestyle. In October, the gang relocated to a multi-level store (formerly Georgia Brown Home) that includes a full bar upstairs for private events and “the Penthouse”—a two-bedroom residence that comes with its own personal concierge (price upon request).
When you mosey into the new store you'll first notice the brick wall dotted entirely with Grit hats (from $525). I’ve long coveted such a perfect punctuation of personal style and finally pulled the trigger this fall as birthday present to myself. The icing on my cake? Getting to visit the closed-to-the-public Kemo Sabe Hat Ranch in Basalt for an exclusive look at how each lid gets customized. Leave it to Kemo Sabe to carry on the true Cowboy legacy through its own production line, which Yoder pieced together with help from his friends at the Stetson factory (he still stocks a full line of the heritage brand's own hats, too).
Kunkle developed the template for the modern dress Western style hat, which its milliner molds to order when shaping the body, smoothing the fur, sewing on ribbon, and adding final adornments. The result is a softer and more wearable Cowboy hat. “It's something that you would find in your grandpa’s closet," says Kunkle. "It’s what we think looks best and is most comfortable.”
Are Aspen’s resident Cowboys ready for Kemo Sabe’s next chapter? As Yoder would say, “Don't worry about biting off more than you can chew—your mouth's bigger than you think."
*Editor’s note: At Kemo Sabe, they always capitalize Cowboy. They say it’s because “if titles like President and Senator should be capitalized, then Cowboy darn well should be too.” We’ve honored this rule throughout this article.