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Western wear innovator Jack B. dies

Second-generation Denver businessman 'Jack the Younger' helped bring Rockmount Ranch Wear's signature shirts to Hollywood.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- If there is a heart to the city of Denver, it is the Weil family. Two years ago, Mayor John Hickenlooper even named a street named after the patriarch, Jack A. Weil, who at 106 still heads to work every morning at Rockmount Ranch Wear, the company he founded in 1946.

But on Tues., Jan. 22, Denver and the Weils lost a favorite son and veteran Rockmount executive: Jack B. Weil, son of Jack A., passed away at age 79 from esophageal cancer.

Weil joined his father's company in the 1954, after graduating from Tulane University and serving in the Army. Once back in Denver, he never left the family business, which is credited with creating the snap-front Western shirt and popularizing the look.

"I always said snaps were safer for a rider on a horse," Jack A. told Cowboys & Indians magazine in June 2006. "If a buttonhole got caught on a bull's horn, a rider could get dragged. Not so with a snap shirt, which could come right off."

Practicality aside, Hollywood fell for the look and came calling on the company often --Ronald Reagan, James Garner, Elvis, Clark Gable have all worn Rockmount. Jack B. was responsible for the snap-downs John Travolta wore in his 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. And, of course, the now-famous shirts worn in Brokeback Mountain by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger (who also passed away on Jan. 22) were from Rockmount.

Six decades after Jack A. finally convinced New York City snap manufacturers to sell to him - they didn't share his vision and were hesitant to be suppliers - Rockmount Ranch Wear's home in downtown Denver is still a must-stop for every celebrity coming through town: The Killers, Vince Gill, David Bowie, John Fogerty and Dwight Yoakam have all made the pilgrimage.

The five-story building, which was erected in 1908, is packed floor to ceiling with clutter, clothes, bolo ties, belts and heaps of memorabilia, from a giant blow-up of Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Esquire in Rockmount attire to photos of local celebs showing off their Western duds.

In addition to his duties as vice president of Rockmount, Jack B. was an avid collector of modern art and an artist in his own right. Last month he had a solo show of his abstract paintings, Reflections on a Life Lived, at the Berkeley Park Art Gallery in north Denver.

"My father was a contrarian and a very eclectic personality," Jack B.'s son, Steve, told the Rocky Mountain News. "In the 1990s he was secretary of the Colorado Republican Party, but his art was influenced by people like Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock and (Joan) Miro. There was nothing straight and narrow about him."

Rockmount will continue to be led by Jack A., who is CEO, and Steve, a vice president in the family business.  To top of page

Fixing a family business: FSB's makeover squad visits a failing foundry.

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