The wondrous world of Wendy Henry starts to unfold when you reach the back door parking lot where her white Mercedes is stationed. The Albuquerque license plate spells the name ‘Wendy’. Simple. Like Cher. Or Madonna. She had been very agreeable and generous in her e-mails; she would lend us whatever we wanted for the shoot. And she would personally give us a tour of Back at the Ranch, the vintage and custom boot store she opened in Santa Fe twenty-five years ago. Still I have little as no expectations of this woman’s appearance and character. Until she sticks her skinny frame and blonde bob out the door of the office, faithful, smiling employees and dog Lola in unanimous tow. She’s wearing belted beige khaki and leather Ralph Lauren jeans, a faded denim shirt and chesnut alligator booties, a long pearl and suede necklace and turquoise jewelry. And the only thing I can think to say at that very awestruck moment is: “Do you have six more of those outfits?” and “When can I shoot you?”
And so I find myself buried deeper and cozier in Wendy’s world the very next day. Her (second) husband Cowden had kindly picked me up at the hotel and dropped me off at the house, an old adobe overlooking the Sangre De Cristo mountain range, and Colorado on a clear day. “Oh don’t worry!” Wendy cooes when I humbly thank the man for his trouble. “He loves it!” While Cowden retreats to his office, Wendy and I get to talking and dressing and it’s immediately clear that this meeting is not just in passing; it’s lasting. For starters she hands me a shopping bag with a pair of Back at the Ranch boots she knows I love. Because, according to Wendy, every man and woman should own a pair. “Cowboy boots are definitely a fashion statement,” she claims. “They are timeless and purely American. They never go out of style.” When Tom Ford came in the store last year he wanted one simple black pair, but by the time Wendy was done with him, he left with three, in all different colors.
Wendy will be turning 65 in June. Originally from Pennsylvania, she grew up in Hollywood, FL and opened her first store in Miami in 1972. It was called ‘Avant Garde Leotard’. In the early eighties she moved to New York and opened ‘Wendy Lane’, a women’s wear store on 78th and Broadway. When she visited a friend in Santa Fe in 1989 she stayed. “It was time to leave the hectic lifestyle of New York,” she remembers. “I needed wide open spaces, beautiful light, and clean air. I had always wanted to live out west.” She met Cowden at a block party. He lived just down the street from her. It was the first outing his friends managed to drag him to after his wife died, he told me in the car. Wendy pulled him out of his rut. “Yeah, she’s very special,” he said to me. “I just adore her.”
The thing is though: Wendy has always dressed like a Southwestern Ralph Lauren model, even when she lived in Florida. She defines her style as “classic, not really trendy”. Her staple pieces are “blue jeans, white T-shirts, cowboy boots, tooled leather belt with my gold and silver trophy buckle. A cognac croc tote by Anthony Luciano, Coreen Cordova one-of-a-kind charm necklaces and a Hermes scarf (thanks to Cowden who likes to buy them for me!) The other day I was trying to calculate how many pairs of jeans and white T-shirts I have bought in my life… The amount is scary!” She says her mother is her biggest inspiration. “She had wonderful taste. She was casual and had an understated elegance.” So basically, all Wendy had to do to fit in was adopt a Southern twang and learn how to say “Howdy”.
When it’s time to go, Wendy stuffs more of her things in my hands: a black turtleneck sweater, a coat she made from vintage blankets, a pair of her size 28 jeans and a belt for show. “You will be freezing in Taos tomorrow!!” she insists. “Where do you need to go now? Whole Foods?” she asks patiently. “Cowden will take you. He loves it!” I was thinking about sushi earlier but I realize that Santa Fe is sort of in the middle of the country and that take-out fish just can’t be as fresh. So maybe just the hotel. “Whatever you want,” agrees Wendy. “You’re family now.” She gives me the biggest hug and sees me off to the car. And in that instance, as I take my seat, I realize that just like her employees, who have worked for her for more than ten years, and the thousands of customers who have loyally ordered Back at the Ranch boots for years, and her husband who has not left her side for the past ten years, I have fallen hard and good for Wendy’s charms. She is ruthlessly funny, impossibly generous and the kind of youthful very few people can pull off. I walked into a world where friendship is instantly imperative and age is measured by authentic grace, not numbers. And if it were up to me, I’d never leave.