How R.M. Williams Built A 90-Year-Old Legacy Brand

By Georgina Safe
R.M. Williams' clothing offerings. Photo / Supplied

Kosta Petrakis bought his first pair of R.M. Williams boots 24 years ago.

“They were suede with leather soles and leather insoles,” he says. “After wearing them for a while they moulded to my feet completely and felt just like a pair of slippers. But if you ever buy suede boots, my advice is don’t ride a motorcycle because they won’t last forever. I shouldn’t have been wearing them on the bike.”

Today Kosta is wearing a pair of black leather R.M. Williams he’s had for 20 years, which is almost as long as his career with the South Australian bootmaker.

After 26 years in the Adelaide factory that he joined in 1996, Kosta is manager of the craft department at the company that sold a record 250,000 pairs during the 2020-2021 financial year to customers from around the globe.

These have included Bill Clinton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Dawn Fraser, Daniel Craig, Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman and many more for the company that is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

Business has grown significantly since Reginald Murray Williams (1908-2003) handcrafted his first pair of boots under the guidance of stockman Michael Smith, better known as Dollar Mick, at Italowie Gorge in the northern Flinders Ranges.

After moving to Adelaide, he founded a company in 1932 to make footwear suited to the harsh conditions of the Australian bush. To this day, each boot is crafted with a minimum of 80 hand-held processes that ultimately transform a single piece of meticulously softened and shaped hide into one of the world’s most recognisable footwear styles.

“We start off with one piece of leather that is then blocked under extreme heat into the shape of a foot,” says Kosta. “That blocking is so important for how a boot will fit you, because there are no laces to tighten, so it’s crucial to get it right.”

While it’s the one-piece leather construction that sets R.M. Williams’ boots apart, Goodyear welting the strip of leather that runs along the perimeter of the boot’s outsole is also crucial to creating a durable boot that will last for decades.

The company will more than double its current levels of production in Australia over the next five years, adding up to 350 more people to the team in the Adelaide workshop. Photo / Supplied
The company will more than double its current levels of production in Australia over the next five years, adding up to 350 more people to the team in the Adelaide workshop. Photo / Supplied

“Most of our production is Goodyear welt where the sole is sewed on, but some of our soles are screwed on with machines originally made in 1910,” says Kosta.

Once constructed, each boot is once again cleaned, buffed, polished and finished to the highest standard before undergoing a final inspection to ensure they stand up to the ultimate test: the test of time.

The resultant elastic-sided boots are sturdy enough to stand up to the rigours of the Outback, but stylish enough to be worn by city slickers. The trek to international city centres began in earnest when R.M. Williams introduced a new strategy of “targeting the townies” around a decade ago.

“We cater for the man on the land with harder-wearing styles, but we also cater for the city person with the Comfort Craftsman and the Adelaide boot, which has become very popular with the ladies,” says Kosta.

The ultimate boots for town or country are the Signature Craftsman and the Bespoke styles, both of which are personally signed off by master craftsman Steve Moore before they are permitted to leave the factory.

The Signature Craftsman is made from veal calf leather, with super-fine stitching around the elastic and back seam, and three coats of lacquer to the sole, which is affixed with a brass plaque. The Bespoke offering allows customers to choose their own style, leather, colour, thread and elastic, then have a personal message inscribed on each boot.

“There are literally more made-to-order options than the total number of boots we’ve ever made,” says Kosta. “It’s also an opportunity for the craftspeople who’ve demonstrated some skill to really use it and be creative.”

Whichever boot you buy, the R.M. Williams repairs department is on hand to fix it, from something as basic as replacing heel rubber, or as complicated as undertaking a full re-last, which involves removing everything from the boot except the upper, then rebuilding it again from scratch.

“A lot of the boots we get in are passed down from generation to generation,” says Kosta. “We’ve had people getting their grandfather’s boots and asking for them to be resized. We can’t make them bigger, but if your grandfather was a size 10 and you’re a size nine, we can make them a size nine.”

"They have broad universal appeal because you can wear them in pretty much any environment.” Photo / Supplied
"They have broad universal appeal because you can wear them in pretty much any environment.” Photo / Supplied

The boots will be showcased in the How Do Your Wear Yours campaign as part of R.M. Williams’ 90th-anniversary celebrations, which also include the release of limited-edition products including sweatshirts, T-shirts, belts and boots.

Aimed at courting a younger demographic and growing the brand’s female customer base, the campaign is one of a number of strategies being employed by CEO Paul Grosmann, who was appointed last year, to take R.M. Williams through the next 90 years as well.

“Ninety years is an incredible milestone, but now we have a huge responsibility to ensure that journey continues for another 90 years,” says Paul, who joined the company after it was acquired by Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s Australian investment company Tattarang for $190 million in 2020.

Australia’s richest couple has said publicly they want to bring all production back to Australia, and over 75 per cent of product is now manufactured onshore, up from 60 per cent three years ago.

“R.M. Williams is a remarkable brand, but there was an additional appeal of taking the job under the new ownership of the Forrests and Tattarang,” says Paul. “They have long-term ambitions and want to truly invest and grow the brand in the right way.”

The company will more than double its current levels of production in Australia over the next five years, adding up to 350 more people to the team in the Adelaide workshop.

“There’s a huge commitment to increasing production capacity and expanding the workshop,” says Paul, who is also focused on growing the brand’s ready-to-wear sales. “I would love to see apparel account for a greater share of the business,” says Paul.

In order to do this, he will look to the same brand values that have made the boots so coveted the company is currently unable to keep up with demand.

“R.M. Williams has established a reputation and a point of differentiation with a product that is crafted to endure and is the antithesis of fast fashion,” says Paul. “There is also the nature of the design of the boots themselves. If you think of the spectrum of product out there, from really rugged and functional on one end to refined luxury fashion versions on the other end, they sit right in the centre. They have broad universal appeal because you can wear them in pretty much any environment.”

R.M. Williams pursued a more fashion-focused approach when it came to apparel under previous owners L Catterton, a private-equity firm backed by luxury goods company LVMH Group. Clothing and accessories referenced fashion trends, but Paul is now intent on making those categories as timeless and functional as the boots.

“Historically we’ve tried many different extensions of apparel and accessories, but we now want to choose a few areas of focus, like five-pocket jeans, shirting and outerwear, and bring to them that same level of quality that we have in the boots. We won’t be chasing trends, we’ll be creating classic pieces that can stand the test of time and proudly sit alongside the boots.”

The shift is already apparent in From the Ground Up, the new autumn/winter campaign inspired by a family gathering at a homestead in Australia’s Snowy River region before embarking on a trek at Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s tallest mountain.

R.M. Williams' From the Ground Up campaign. Photo / Supplied
R.M. Williams' From the Ground Up campaign. Photo / Supplied

From the Ground Up refers to beginning with the R.M. Williams boot, then crafting a design narrative that blends utility and style across womenswear, menswear and accessories.

Workwear-inspired jackets and coats, shirting, fleeces, denim and moleskin trousers are at the core of the men’s offering, while women can select from sumptuous shearling coats and jackets, lambskin leather trousers, denim skirts and easy bow neck blouses and midi dresses in a rust, mustard, khaki and tobacco palette inspired by the Australian landscape.

Leather goods have burnished finishes, and run from a new, higher cowboy boot style and women’s saddle bags with embossed branding on the front flap to classic duffle bags, belts and briefcases.

The other collection R.M. Williams was working on was for the Australian official delegates and athletes attending the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, in July.

Viva had a sneak peek of some of the pieces when touring the Adelaide workshop, but for Kosta it's business as usual.

“Whether it’s the Commonwealth Games or the bloke across the road, we’ll make what we make, it really doesn’t matter,” he says.

Kosta is proud of the fact that many among the company’s workers have been with R.M. Williams for decades doing just that, but he is no less focused on nurturing a new generation of younger artisans whose mission will be to ensure its future.

“It’s great to get young people in, then get them trained up and see what they can do six or 12 months down the track,” he says. “Once they understand what they are doing and why, you know that person’s really got it.”

This story was originally published in volume eight of Viva Magazine.

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