Rhea Follett started her clothing business by making women’s Western pajamas in her garage. Now, she designs popular high-end show shirts for the Western performance industry.
CR. In the Western performance world, those initials could stand for anything – Carol Rose, Finis Welch’s Center Ranch or Chad Bushaw’s Crown Ranch, among others. When they are followed by “RanchWear,” however, their meaning becomes clear. They are the initials of Chandler Rhea, daughter of Rhea Follett, the founder and owner of CR RanchWear. It’s a brand commonly seen in show arenas, loping and warm-up pens, and training barns in Western disciplines.
“I needed a name for the shirts and my company, and my daughter’s name is Chandler Rhea – Rhea after me – and I’ve just always loved the name Chandler,” Follett said. “She rides horses and has been into horses pretty much all of her life. I just thought that I would name it CR – CR RanchWear.
“It’s really inspired by her; she kind of has my same taste,” she continued. “It’s a little preppy and can get a little eclectic at times.”
For the designer who grew up loving horses but had to settle for city life in Dallas, the company started her on a journey that led her to selling her clothing at the biggest Western events in the industry. Sharing her designs with riders across the globe was an added bonus and a dream come true.
It began in the bedroom
Follett has sewn since she was 11 years old. Among the first items she made were women’s cotton pajamas, an item she became passionate about as she developed her skills, and found fun and unique patterns while traveling from market to market in Texas. Some of her most popular designs were Western pajamas, and eventually the Houston Rodeo found her and invited her to be an exhibitor at its Livestock Show.
“One of my most popular designs was the ‘sexy cowboy’ pajamas. They had these studly cowboys on them with their shirts off and tight jeans,” Follett said. “What girl wouldn’t want to wear sexy cowboys to bed? I had a lot of fun with it. The Houston Rodeo invited me to come and be a vendor after they saw my designs at the Nut Cracker Market, where I used to go on an annual basis.”
As Follett was planning her first trip to the Rodeo, she realized she needed something besides pajamas to display for sale. Thus, she started making her vision of “really classy Western shirts” – shirts made from Italian cotton that had a vintage look.
“I wanted to present a neat and different look that would have a flattering fit for riders,” Follett said. “Well, the shirts sold out. People came by asking about them, and I didn’t have any shirts left!”
Soon, committee members of the Houston Rodeo reached out to Follett and asked her to make shirts for the following year. One of them, a cutter, told her she should start taking her clothing to cutting events. Follett began to do her research for her first cutting, something she had never before attended.
“I went to my first cutting horse show, and people walked by the booth. It was so funny,” Follett said. “I really went all out; I had every color in the world, and they had never seen anything like it. I don’t think they really knew what to do with it because what I had was so different.”
The customers that did stop by helped get CR RanchWear started, and she credits the company’s traction and success to them.
“They helped to sustain me until everybody started finding out about the shirts,” she said. “They worked with me; they helped me. I just love the cutting horse world. Like most Western riders, they’re nice, down-to-earth, honest, loyal people who want high-quality, made-in-America products and to support family businesses.”
As the company started growing in 2010, Follett began going to every cutting horse show she could find, and then broke into the reined cow horse discipline. She said those participants adopted her “as enthusiastically as the cutting horse riders did.”
“I think that what they liked was that it was a little bit different and it wasn’t your typical Western shirt with snaps down the front or that it wasn’t just a standard buttondown shirt with white buttons that don’t match the shirt,” Follett said. “I wanted something that looked great and made them feel good when they put it on, something that made them a part of the presentation when they’re showing.”
For years, Follett loaded up her trailer, drove to shows across the country, unloaded and set up her booth virtually by herself. She was on-call at all times, and her house, particularly her small backyard shed, looked like “the multisized menagerie of someone with a clinical addiction to button-down shirts,” she added with a laugh. For many years, she was the lead seamstress, customer service representative, accountant, laborer, marketer and contract negotiator for the business.
It’s all about the customer
As more and more people fell under the spell of CR RanchWear shirts, Follett stood behind her principles: keep her fabrics high quality, tailor the fit to riders specifically and never rest until the customer is happy.
“Our goal at CR RanchWear is to think about the customer and what they need,” she said. “What I found that people liked about the shirts was, number one – the fit. These riders are athletic. They have beautiful figures, both the men and the women. They could never find anything that made them feel beautiful or allowed them to move naturally as they ride. We tried to keep the shirts where they fit the shape of an athlete; just like the horses are athletes, the riders are athletes as well. Then – the fabric. They wanted something that felt wonderful and moved naturally.”
Another tenet Follett follows is CR RanchWear’s “Handmade in Texas” slogan and ideology.
“I will only make CR show shirts in the USA,” she said. “We used to have a huge garment industry here in Dallas, and when everybody started getting stuff from China and Japan, the industry here really dried up. I just thought that it was such a shame because you send things over there and you lose quality.
“We obsess about every detail, from dense stitch count to double sewing the buttons right side up,” Follett continued. “CR seamstresses are paid a fair living wage, and as a result, [they] really take ownership over their work. They love when we show them feedback from customers about how well the shirts are made!”
Every piece of a CR RanchWear shirt is handmade. Follett starts by picking out the fabric, and while she has fabrics that come from different sources, her favorite is Italian cotton. Follett designs custom “CR Exclusive” weaves from Italy, which tend to be a fan favorite among riders. Passionate about fabrics, Follett loves poring over hundreds of samples and brainstorming the perfect fabric and contrast.
For some shirts, Follett adds a little something extra with Swarovski crystals as an accent. She prefers a subtler flash to the bling seen in some Western disciplines, and the CR RanchWear Classic Cut shirts sport a crystal “V” on the cuffs, yokes and collars.
Follett stands by her product 100 percent. She tries to go beyond the call of duty to ensure her customers are satisfied, which might include sending her son, Hunter, on a two-hour drive – each direction – late at night to deliver a shirt to a customer after a UPS driver failed to bring it the night before a show. It makes for some long days and nights, but the end goal – making the customer “feel like a million dollars” – keeps her going.
Now that she has been in business for about eight years, Follett is watching her company expand into other disciplines. She recently entered the reining and barrel racing worlds, and she’s starting to see more of her shirts in the Western pleasure and ranch riding show pens.
“There’s a market for us getting into some of the other disciplines, as well as into other countries,” she said. “We’re already in Australia, we’re in Switzerland, and we have other countries that want to carry our products, so we’re just growing in a lot of different areas. We still want to keep that home-feel of Texas, and everything that we do here is made in Texas because this is our home and this is where we started.”
While Follett loves riding horses, her business takes up most of her time. Though her craft is outside the saddle, she’s just happy to be involved with the industry.
“I’ve loved horses since I was a child, and I should have been born in the country,” she said. “I just was not part of that lucky club, and I would have given anything to have been a part of that group. If this is the only way that I ever get to be a part of the group, then thank you, God, because I am so blessed.”
As more people have joined the CR RanchWear team, Follett has seen industry trends rise and fall. Through it all, she has remained true to her natural talent in creating and combining designs, no matter how zany or wacky they get.
“People are starting to wear some of my more funky designs and fabrics. It makes me feel so good knowing that people embrace my vision and believe, ‘I can match this with my horse, and I can make a statement about who I am,’” she said.
As self-described “artsy-fartsy” and “not the business person,” Follett has been grateful to have Hunter, and his wife, Amanda, come on board to run the business side of the company. Her online sales are taking off thanks to them, resulting in the addition of sales reps around the country. Together, the team tries hard to make the company the best it can be. Follett’s husband, Jim, also supports her endeavors, and she said without his undying belief in her products, she probably would have given up long ago.
Other people from the industry have also approached her about her company, including cutter Judson Baker, a high fashion photographer. He photographs her products for advertisements, and she said those images have also helped put CR RanchWear on the map.
“I really got lucky because I found a group of people that really wanted what I could make,” Follett said. “We love what we do. We love talking to people and finding out what makes them tick and what they’re looking for. We love trying to find what the customer wants and what they feel will make them look best on their horse. We at CR can’t do much for the horse other than put a pretty blanket on them, but we want that person to feel like a million dollars when they ride out and do their job.
“I think, honestly, when you feel good and you know you look good, you ride better, you perform better and you show better,” she added. “It gives you confidence, and the horse knows it when you’re on your game and doing a good job. Our goal is to get you to that point where you look and feel like a winner.”
This article was originally published in the September 1, 2018, issue of QHN.