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Comparing a Manolo Blahnik stiletto to a Liberty cowboy boot is like comparing apples to oranges; which is to say, they actually share more in common than people think. Both are exceptionally crafted, both cost an arm and a leg and both are beloved by celebrities.
But in many ways, a Liberty boot is more exciting than a Blahnik. There's only so much surface area on a stiletto. Meanwhile, Liberty founder Tony Benattar designs hand-tooled boots that are covered in pin-up girls, skulls and "satanic stitching."
One hundred pairs are currently on display at the Cameron House, the gritty Queen Street West live music hangout in Toronto where Benattar also plays upright bass and guitar with the house band, the Cameron Family Singers (he also plays with the Rattlesnake Choir).
The show, Pop Goes the Cowboy, which also includes paintings by Toronto artist Shay Hahn, presents the boots as much more than footwear. Suspended from the ceiling and mounted on the wall, they are objets d'art that reference fashion, pop culture and personality with kick.
Benattar, a youthful 50-year-old in black jeans, T-shirt and sunglasses, comes from the rock, rather than the rodeo, world. "I'm making real cowboy boots, but I'm not in any way changing who I am. I play music, I like to rock. The images that you see on these boots come from my heart," he says.
His connection to the boots goes back to the eighties, when he ditched his job as a landscaper and headed to Mexico. Liberty Boot Co., formed in 1993, has a factory in the Mexican shoemaking hub of Leone, where the boots are made and hand-tooled.
Fans of Benattar's footwear include Ralph Lauren and Sin City director Robert Rodriguez, whose custom pair took eight months to produce. Three generations of female entertainers - Liz Taylor, Madonna and Taylor Swift - are also proud wearers (of the Killaz, Twiggy and Love and Peace styles, respectively).
Prices range from $600 (U.S.) to $18,000. And he never gives them away. "Make them pay; that's my best marketing strategy," he says. "When [celebrities] spend $1,000 on boots, they'll realize these are the best boots in the world and they'll wear them and talk about them. Give them the boots for free, I guarantee their brother gets them."
Last month, Benattar tied the knot for the second time. The death of his first wife from cancer acted as a catalyst for his most daring designs. "I stopped censoring myself," he says. "That's when the skulls showed up - the whole mortality message. It was in my life and my face every day and I would put the boots on and they would empower me."
Even though the wedding took place on a beach in Anguilla, Benattar insisted on wearing his boots. Does he ever sport anything else? "Hell, no!" he answers emphatically. It's hard to imagine stilettos eliciting the same reaction.