It’s a typical day at Rocketbuster headquarters, in the historic Union Plaza District of downtown El Paso. Three men sit at a cutting table, meticulously hand-tooling unfinished leather; nearby, another employee, who happens to be a trained architect and a graffiti artist, stains a future boot shaft with an intricate pattern; yet another employee shows a group of Japanese tourists around. At the center of the action is Rocketbuster’s owner, Nevena Christi. A California native who studied fine art in Paris, Christi was living in New York and working for fashion designer Nicole Miller when she first visited El Paso, in 1994, to commission several pairs of boots for one of Miller’s fashion shows from Rocketbuster’s then owner, Marty Snortum. The two instantly bonded over their passion for all things vintage, and soon they fell in love. In 1997 Christi moved across the country to be with Snortum—and to take over Rocketbuster. “Marty was working full-time as a photographer and running Rocketbuster on the side,” she explains. “I put all my energy, and my whole savings, into the company.” Since then, she has created outrageous, one-of-a-kind designs for thousands of customers, including celebrities like Taylor Swift and Ethan Hawke. “As an artist, I don’t want to make the same thing twice,” Christi says. “And the people who buy our boots are fun, exciting, artistic, and never dull.”
Q&A With Nevena Christi
Is it true that your husband traded his car for Rocketbuster Boots in 1989?
Yes! Marty was out at a bar one night, and he ran into this German guy he knew who had moved to El Paso to start a boot company. The guy was making plain brown cowboy boots and sending them overseas, but it wasn’t really working out for him. He had named his company Rocketbuster Boots after his classic Oldsmobile Rocket Eighty-Eight, and he had always loved Marty’s 1953 Cadillac hearse. After a few drinks, they traded Rocketbuster Boots for the hearse.
Was it a difficult decision to leave your big fashion job in New York and move to El Paso?
When I arrived here, in 1997, it felt like a scene from Green Acres, where the fancy lady from the big city moves to the sticks. In New York, I had a fun lifestyle where I was making a lot of money, going to parties and restaurants. But then I fell in love and none of that mattered.
All the boots start with your sketches. What have been some of your most elaborate designs?
I am always surprised by what people come up with. We did a pair of boots for a spinal surgeon that featured a spine drawing from an anatomy book, a pair with a map of Texas routing out all the places a customer lived throughout his life, a pair for a woman who wanted to memorialize all her mother’s favorite things. We are up for anything.
You also take all the measurements for people who come in to order boots. How detailed is this process?
I actually invented my own form for tracing feet for boot measurements. Our boots are not just a size 8. We measure calf size and how high up the leg the calf is, the ball of the foot, the arch. We build a wooden or plastic last to match each customer’s foot and build boots from those highly customized lasts.
What is the best part of your job?
I am really just trying to save the world of cowboy boots one day at a time. I want people to appreciate things that are historically American and handmade, and cowboy boots are just as American as baseball and apple pie. In the busy world we live in, with landfills full of plastic, our boots hold their value. We are making something that no one will throw away, beat to hell or not.
For more information, go to rocketbuster.com.