Rooted in the Western tradition of functional, durable denim, a Colorado designer is handcrafting jeans the old-fashioned way
By Ellen Ranta Olson | Photography by Stephen Smith
Ryan Martin is the first to admit that he has a terrible business model. As the sole owner, operator, designer and producer behind Berthoud, Colorado-based W.H. Ranch Dungarees, his made-to-order denim comes with a bit of a wait.
“It can take up to a year to get your jeans from me,” he says. “I make each pair myself and even drop them in the mailbox myself, which means I can only produce about 200 pairs every year.”
Martin’s method isn’t necessarily one of madness, though — it’s just how he thinks jeans should be made. A sixth-generation professional sewer originally from Salina, Kansas (first home of Lee jeans), Martin seemed almost predetermined to be the creator of denimwear. But these aren’t the overly embellished high-end jeans that had their moment in the early 2000s — Martin’s work harks back to a time when denim was more utilitarian than fashion-forward.
“I’ve been really heavily influenced by the Lee aesthetic. While Levi’s were made for the miners and Wrangler’s for the rodeo, Lee achieved a greater crossover and were worn by James Dean and cowboys alike,” Martin says. “The back pockets were set farther apart for more comfort in the saddle, they had a deeper Western yoke, a neat pocket shape and a pair of X-formation bar tacks in the place of rivets, which seems now just like a cool aesthetic choice, but was created to avoid scratching a leather saddle.”
It’s this kind of detailed denim knowledge that sets Martin and his work apart — and gives him the leeway to charge up to $700 for a pair of W.H. Ranch jeans.
“My poor business model is also why people are willing to pay that kind of money. They know I am making each pair with my own two hands,” he says. “I kind of equate it to the great boot-makers of the West, in that it is a generational trend that’s been passed down, and that is part of what people are paying for — the history and the knowledge, plus a bit of a romantic notion that I’m replicating the jeans that our grandfathers bought at the feed store.”