I was looking for authentic cowboy boots; I didn’t expect to find so many of them quite so close to home. But then I hadn’t counted on finding a Western Man in Brussels, either.
François Chladiuk’s Western Shop grew out of a life’s passion for the Wild West. This collector of the “real McCoy” started with antique Winchesters 40 years ago, adding statues and saddles before a chance opportunity led to him acquiring 150 pieces that had languished in a basement for decades, including vibrant Indian headdresses, tunics, moccasins and jewellery. He suspected they were old, and placed adverts in magazines and tried to track down photos of the period. One day, while looking at a postcard, he realised he had a match. “I was shaking, I ran upstairs and compared it. And there it was!” From the few surviving photographs of the period, he discovered he owned clothing and artefacts that had belonged to the Little Elk and Little Moon families who had performed in the Wild West Shows for the Brussels World Fair in 1935. Since then Francois’s whole collection has been displayed at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Art and History, and pieces have been loaned to The Buffalo Bill museum in Golden, Colorado. A few pieces are currently on display in that same Brussels museum.
22 years ago François started his shop, still with his collection in mind, selling the “real hats, the real boots and the real shirts.” The brands featured are 120 or 130 years old, including Tony Lama, which last year celebrated its 100th anniversary. This place is about as far removed from a western superstore as you can imagine. Wooden floors, country music in the background and the inescapable smell of leather. Amongst the Stetsons, jewellery and shirts I ask him what he is most proud of. Unsurprisingly it is the inventory of 2500 pairs of cowboy boots, including the traditional or the colourful, amongst exotic skins such as shark, lizard, python, hippo or stingray. To keep the shop well-stocked, Francois flies to the States five times a year, taking in the Denver show in January and September, which has “everything”, and twice visiting Tulse, Oklohoma, for collectables from the “biggest gun show on earth”. Then it’s either the Cody show or the High Noon show in Phoenix for antiques. Distances and unloading aside, there is no “work” involved in running this shop. “At 38 I opened, and at 38 I stopped working!”
“Every ten or 12 years there is like a Western fashion wave coming all over the world. My friends say; ‘You must be lucky now, you must be happy! Now you’re making a lot of money.’ But it’s just not true”, he says. Those are the times of cheap imitations and dreamcatchers, not the “real McCoy”.
“Is it because my father was liberated by Americans that I became interested in the Wild West?” Perhaps there’s something to that, but after a childhood of playing Cowboys and Indians and his recent discovery of a Little Moon descendant in Wounded Knee, Francois’ enthusiasm shows no sign of waning. He has amassed memorabilia relating to the Wild West shows that took place in Belgium, and to the founder of those shows, Buffalo Bill. Can he bring himself to sell anything from his treasured collection? Once, he sold a 7ft by 6ft portrait of Buffalo Bill. “That’s enormous”, I say. It took six men to lift it, but that was not the main reason it had to go: François had moved to a house with lower ceilings, and, as he put it, “I didn’t want Buffalo Bill’s head – down there!”
Every Buffalo Bill and Wild West enthusiast should pay Brussels’ Western Man a visit. And I’ll be back for his boots.
79, Boulevard Adolphe Max
+32 (0)2 219 55 17
Open Monday to Saturday 9:30 – 18:30; Sundays 13:00 – 17:00