The Coyote Cowgirl brings Western storytelling to life through original apparel.
If you said, ‘they don’t make them like they used to,’ you might be talking about Sarah Jo Otto’s grandpa, the people of the rugged plains, hard work and an honest word - the true character of a cowboy of yesteryear. That sentiment is what started The Coyote Cowgirl, a Western brand built on the legacy of the Old West and honoring the life of a good man. We talked to Sarah Jo about how she built her business on the foundation of life on an Oklahoma buffalo ranch along with the wise teachings of family, turning the brand into a forerunner on the Western style scene.
Tell us about the brand – who do you make products for?
I started The Coyote Cowgirl when I was in my undergrad. My grandpa passed away in 2012, and he was one of those cowboys that he didn't have to tell you how cowboy he was. His handshake meant everything. He put God first in everything he did. He was just one of those guys that everyone loved, a real modern-day outlaw. I had a big void in my life after he passed. I was just kind of going through the motions, and I didn't want to let a legacy that I looked up to so much die. He was a legend to me. So I started The Coyote Cowgirl in his honor. I didn't really start it as a business per se, I started as a hobby, because I just wanted to keep his memory alive for myself, initially. I grew up on a buffalo ranch. We had close to 50 head every year, so I grew up in a different way in the Western world than most people did. So I wanted to incorporate buffalo in everything I do. That was the mindset behind getting started. My very first t-shirt, my grandpa, I was real sick, and he sent me flowers, and he called me, and he said ‘I hope you get to feeling better. Once you do, I'll take you to the saloon sis.’ So my very first shirt said ‘Take me to the saloon,’ because that was the last time I ever spoke to him before he passed. I remember my parents let me clean out one of their spare bedrooms, and it was the print shop. That was where we started. We were doing vinyl, you know, good old vinyl, back in the day. I remember I reached out to the Marble Gypsy [boutique], and I was like so cliche, ‘Hi I’m Sarah Jo. I’m with Coyote Cowgirl. I’m a t-shirt company which honors my grandpa,’ and she was like, ‘Wow, that's a story. You're selling a story. You’re a real brand,’ and she ordered so many shirts. My mom and dad and I jumped on the couches, and we cried. I just couldn't believe that I had gotten an order, and that this was going to maybe work out. My parents, when they would get home from work they'd help me with my job. I'd come home from college as much as I could, make sure to send [shirts] out. I guess word of mouth, [the brand philosophy] kind of took off that I was honoring my grandpa, and just trying to keep a legacy alive. More stores started reaching out to me. Another one of my first was Savannah Sevens, and another first was Gypsy Pearl Texas. They started to reach out, and I was like ‘oh my God mom and dad, this is a thing,’ and I just got so humbled. I couldn't imagine Grandpa’s smile in heaven. I just literally could not imagine how proud he would be, and so I got a team of artists and everything we do is hand-drawn, so it’s as original as it can get. A lot of our pictures that we use on our shirts, they're pictures of my grandpa in the 1940s on our ranch, pictures of my mom rodeoing back in her high school and college prime. So everything we do tells a story, and it just clicked and took off. People love the aspect of keeping a real cowboy alive, and the sayings on the shirts are things grandpa said or inspired by grandpa. They just really, really like what he was, and I can't take any credit for it. It's all for my grandpa and what he said and honoring him. Then Instagram just blew up over 50,000 followers in a few years, just by the grace of God, my grandpa having really cool sayings, but the brand really took off.
What is your brand philosophy?
I have a few goals every single day: first and foremost, honor God in everything I do. I want to keep a smile on God’s face, because he’s the one that gave me this platform. Secondly, honor my grandpa. In 2022, it'll be ten years since he's been gone, and some days it feels like yesterday. Some days I feel like I don't remember what his voice sounds like. So, as long as I'm keeping the legacy of the greatest cowboy I ever knew, the one that could walk up to buffalo, put his hand out, and they would be calm, the handiest cowboy around. If I can keep his legacy alive and his legend never dies, that makes me happy. My parents instilled a very hard work ethic in me, and as long as I know every day that I did the best I can, getting shirts out the fastest I can, being honest and true in my work, those are my main goals every day with what I do. No matter how big I would get or if things would take a turn, and I would get small, I would still honor God, and I would still try to keep my grandpa’s legacy alive and know that whatever season my business is in is exactly where it's supposed to be. I’ve had a lot of help from employees, models, artists and my sweet parents.
What is new and noteworthy from your latest product release/line?
We just got a warehouse, finally. I printed in my parents’ spare bedroom, I would leave college every Thursday and go back every Monday morning. I’d print in their spare bedroom, and then I moved to Amarillo, and I hired out printing for a while, because I was like ‘man, my mom and dad and I can't hack this,’ and I hired out printing to a printer in Iowa. I did that for about two years, and it got to where they were being a little slower. I wasn't a huge [customer] to them, and it was just getting slow. So two months ago I pulled the trigger and bought my own print machines. We are printing in-house now in Amarillo, Texas, and we just had our spring shoot this past weekend. It's so fun to see people like the models [saying] ‘Oh we love this one. We love this one.’ It just makes me think of how my grandpa used to say it and the memory that I had with him. Actually, we did the photo shoot on the old buffalo ranch on my grandpa's, and I was able to borrow the feed wagon he used to take out there to feed in, him and I, and I got to borrow that pickup for the shoot. Everything we do is just so much wrapped around my grandpa and honoring him. Every single photo I took with the old feed pickup, the sun was shining off the windshield. Sitting here makes me want to cry. I know he was there. I know he was present. I know that he is just beyond proud of the company that I've created for him.
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Have any products stood out as a retailer favorite/best seller?
One of our best sellers is the Grandpa Tee, the picture of my grandpa from the 1930s-40s on our ranch. It's just one of those staple pieces that you can layer or wear alone, whether you're dressing up for the rodeo or you're just going there to ride. It's probably one of my first releases, and in four years, it is still selling like it used to, so that makes me proud to see. The very first grandpa shirt I printed I had to take a couple minutes, because I cried watching it come off the press.
Are there any trends you’ve noticed in the market lately?
Punchy is the new Western, and that's one of our t-shirts. My dad's always said that, because being around buffalo is a pretty punchy industry. It’s not as ranchy. It’s real punchy, and punchy designs are what sells right now. There for a while it was kind of getting electric cowgirl, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, but I see it kind of wrapping back around to the punchy trend, which I like. That’s my thing.
Do you set up at major market events?
Yes, I have a showroom at the Dallas Market Center. I’m at the five big shows in Dallas every year.How do new retailers go about setting up an account?
My website is TheCoyoteCowgirl.net, and there’s a Wholesale Request Form on the website they can apply for, and then I review their account and send them wholesale acceptance and information for ordering online or they can shop us via Market, 14034 is my showroom.
After the ups and downs of 2020, do you feel buyer confidence is returning?
I mean this as humbly as possible, I never had a drop off in sales. I could tell a little bit that sales weren't as heavy as they were, but I was still busy 24/7. I never saw a huge drop or anything.
What is your advice to retailers looking to gain ground in 2021?
Anytime anyone asks me for advice I always say to pray hard and work harder. There are so many boutiques, so many businesses, that people feel like sometimes they can't do that, that there's too many already out there. If that's your passion, and you're praying about it, and you're working harder than you're praying, it's going to come to surface. If you pray big bold prayers, God gives you big bold answers. That's what I focus my business around, and that's what I would tell someone that wants to get into the industry.
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