Established in Aspen in 1990, Kemo Sabe was the new store on the block when "the block" was already a world-class luxury shopping destination.
Original owners Tom and Nancy Yoder managed to thrive in that competitive market by focusing on quality, customization and a heart-felt dedication to the values of a traditional cowboy culture. The luxury western wear retailer now has Kemo Sabe locations in Aspen, Vail, Las Vegas, Jackson, Wyo., and Park City, Utah.
Wendy Kunkle, owner and president of Kemo Sabe, answers questions from Highlands Ranch City Lifestyle on her history with Kemo Sabe, being fearless in the business world and the absolute importance of the customer experience.
Highlands Ranch City Lifestyle: The original owners, Tom and Nancy, created a culture of exceptional customer service and the highest-quality inventory. Is there anything that has been especially important for you to continue that they started?
Wendy Kunkle: Absolutely! Tom and Nancy Yoder established a culture centered around honesty, integrity, and putting customers and staff first. Those values are the lifeblood of Kemo Sabe, and it's been of utmost importance for me to continue that legacy. We always prioritize exceptional customer service, never compromising on the quality of our products, and ensuring that we treat everyone involved with respect and fairness.
HRCL: Please provide a summary of your background with Kemo Sabe.
Wendy: I was lucky enough to land a job at Kemo Sabe in 2005. I went from sales to manager to general manager to president and learned business 101 quite quickly. I have done everything from scrubbing the toilets to finding new Kemo Sabe locations. The beauty of Kemo Sabe is that we want to teach everyone anything they want to learn. And there’s a lot!
CL: When did you know the transition to owner was going to be your path forward?
Wendy: The realization struck me in 2017 when the company's owner decided to sell it. During the interviews with potential buyers, I was asked how I would improve the company. It was in that moment that I had to envision my own path forward with Kemo Sabe. This forced me to think creatively and come up with ideas to make the company even better.
As I shared my vision, I became determined to make it a reality. Two years later, in 2019, I begged my brother, Bobby to act against potential equity firms that would certainly kill the heart and soul of Kemo Sabe. We put together a bid, and thankfully, ours emerged as the highest and most committed offer.
HRCL: Do you have a background in fashion, or are you bringing more of a business operations focus?
Wendy: My focus leans heavily toward the day-to-day craziness of Kemo Sabe. Anything to do with the sales floor, I’m involved. I've always been a dreamer with a flair for creativity, and that's where my strengths lie. I enjoy envisioning new possibilities and change and then working relentlessly to bring those ideas to life. Bobby complements my skills by handling the financial aspects, and Andrew, our third partner, is the brilliant mastermind behind the business and production operations. Together, we make a formidable team that covers all aspects of Kemo Sabe's success.
HRCL: I love that you're described as a "badass" and fearless. I interpret that as your unwavering sense of right and wrong, which reflects in how you treat customers and the quality of the apparel at Kemo Sabe. Is that accurate?
Wendy: The term "badass" is something I wear with pride because it signifies my fearlessness and determination. I've always been someone who pushes boundaries and refuses to be confined by conventional thinking. If someone challenges me or doubts what I can achieve, it only fuels my fire to prove them wrong.
I believe in doing what's right for the business and our customers, and that has been the cornerstone of Kemo Sabe's culture from its inception. I carry a money clip daily that has #1 Bad Ass on one side and FIGJAM on the other (F@#$ I’m Good, Just Ask Me). Confidence has never been an issue for me.
HRCL: Kemo Sabe represents a Western culture, what does that mean to you?
Wendy: To me, Kemo Sabe represents the romance and fantasy of the cowboy lifestyle—the charm of a bygone era where handshakes were binding, life was simpler, and people cherished a genuine connection to nature and each other.
We aim to recreate that atmosphere at Kemo Sabe, where customers can feel at ease, be themselves, and have a good time. We embrace the spirit of the cowboy—a symbol of freedom, fearlessness, and the pursuit of a life filled with adventure.
HRCL: For readers not familiar with the artistry of a custom cowboy hat, can you describe Kemo Sabe's process?
Wendy: At Kemo Sabe, we take a unique approach to custom cowboy hats. It's a fun process where we encourage our customers to let loose, have fun, and take part in the design journey. We offer ideas and assistance, but ultimately, we want our customers to feel like they are the designers and that their hat is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Not only can customers craft exquisite custom hats, but they can also bring to life their very own custom-made buckles and boots and be a part of the design process from start to finish.
If it resides within the realm of imagination, then rest assured, our skilled artisans stand ready to transform it into a creation that speaks volumes about its wearer. If you can dream it, we can design it!
To shop online or store information, visit KemoSabe.com.
"Tom and Nancy Yoder established a culture centered around honesty, integrity, and putting customers and staff first. Those values are the lifeblood of Kemo Sabe, and it's been of utmost importance for me to continue that legacy."
"To me, Kemo Sabe represents the romance and fantasy of the cowboy lifestyle —the charm of a bygone era where handshakes were binding, life was simpler, and people cherished a genuine connection to nature and each other."