El Paso’s Boss Lady of Boots
“It all begins with the sketch,” says Nevena Christi.
That thread runs through her entire journey as a designer — from the determined doodling of her girlhood to the studio classrooms of the Sorbonne in Paris and New York’s Parsons School, to one of the buzziest fashion houses of the 1990s, to tracing-paper outlines of the human foot as a bootmaker in El Paso.
That last one might sound as if Christi’s journey took a wrong turn. But this is the bespoke world of Rocketbuster: Handmade, custom boots.
Christi made the colorful boots that are featured in Kissing Tree’s commercials, featuring a flame-inspired toe box, a wood-grain star and arrow motif and a dose of kicky brilliant turquoise.
As Rocketbuster’s proprietor — or Boss Lady, as she prefers to be called in the male-dominated profession of bootmaking – Christi works alongside a staff of nine who, like her, share an allegiance to traditional craft. They work at long wooden tables as they trace, cut, tool and paint the hides. Three months or more in the making, a pair of Rocketbusters — incised with exquisite decorative lines that call to mind filigree on sterling silver — may be considered a work of art.
“So you’ve got to wear them like one – step into the role,” says Christi. She sometimes likens Rocketbuster boots to big jewelry. “Entering a room or just walking down the street will never be the same,” she says.
Headquartered in a century-old warehouse that anchors El Paso’s historic Union Plaza, the shop is something of a tourist attraction. It looks like a scene from a hundred years ago.
Wares and Wearables
A California blonde, Christi was born with a creative spirit that would not sit still, along with a knack for drawing and a fascination with making stuff. Her mother encouraged her to follow her passion, and Christi’s first job was fun to write home about: She designed dinner plates and scarves for Tiffany & Company.
Then Christi leapt into New York’s downtown scene to design cocktail dresses for Nicole Miller. She and Miller bonded through days and many, many nights of fast sketching, preparing for runway shows, last-minute fittings, and fashion shoots. So when Miller decided to put cowboy boots in a 1994 runway show, she dispatched Christi to El Paso to find a bootmaker up to the task.
Christi discovered Rocketbuster, a modest operation whose founder, Marty Snortum, had bartered a Cadillac hearse to buy the shop, which he named for a beloved Oldsmobile Rocket 88. But he was also a commercial photographer, aching to return to his cameras full-time.
Back in New York, Christi couldn’t shake thoughts about Rocketbuster or El Paso. The shop seemed like a sleeping beauty, and Texas’ biggest border city felt to her like Los Angeles without the traffic. Nor could she stop thinking about Snortum. Three years later, Christi moved to El Paso, and she and Snortum married.
They share many loves – for the mountains, for El Paso’s new parks, for New York and for Los Angeles. Their mutual disdain for mass production and outsourcing equals their admiration for the handmade — and for the people who make the handmade.
They also share a love of things with previous lives, and we’re not just talking small antiques. Christi and Snortum live in an early 20th century movie theatre. And they collect vintage trailers. At last count, 11 of the shapely classics graced their property.
Next year marks Christi’s 20th as Boss Lady. It’s been a good two decades. Rocketbuster sells about 500 pairs of boots a year, at prices that range from $500 to $10,000. Her customers include folks whose footwear gets noticed on movie sets and in magazines and on red carpets: Taylor Swift, for example, and Ethan Hawke.
All in all, life has made her one happy Texas girl. “I can hit the road with a trailer any time I want,” she says. “I get to live in an old movie theatre. And I can make boots!”
- Life theme song: Dinah Washington’s “Destination Moon”
- Perfect vacation: Vintage trailer camping with friends.
- Night reading: “First Grave to the Right,” by Darynda Jones Charlie Davidson
- Texas brew of choice: Austin EastCiders’ Texas Honey Cider
- Fitness philosophy: Your trainer should be the “prettiest” person at the gym. And no make-up or fancy outfits allowed. Just work.
- A perfect dinner: Arugula salad, merlot and a huge bowl of popcorn
- Sunrise or sunset?: Later than sunset, actually. I’m a night owl.
- Inspiring landmark: Redwood National Forest
- Last wild thing seen: A vintage “Lobster Boy” Travel Trailer Driving on I-10
Photo credit: Chris Mumford (cover)
Photo credit: Dana Walden (insert)