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Kemo Sabe is certainly not the only western-themed store in Aspen, Colo., but it may be the best known, thanks to the influencer Alix Earle.

While vacationing in Aspen last month, Ms. Earle did some shopping for personalized hats at Kemo Sabe with a few friends. Soon after she stepped outside, she was accosted by a local who seemed skeptical of her new look.

“So we all just made hats at Kemo Sabe, because we’re trying to get into the Aspen western spirit,” Ms. Earle said in a TikTok video recorded moments after her shopping excursion. “And this girl comes up to us and she’s like: ‘I like your Aspen costume.’”

“We got humbled real quick,” Ms. Earle added, drawing out the word “real” to underscore her point.

The video, which has received nearly 4 million views, sparked an online debate about the difference between authenticity and cosplay. Some commenters also discussed the cost of Kemo Sabe’s hats, which range in price from $350 to several thousands of dollars.

Founded in 1990 by Tom and Nancy Yoder, the boutique-meets-bar — which also hawks belts, boots and other western-wear items — has since expanded to six locations, including Vail, Colo., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Park City, Utah.

In 2020, the Yoders sold the store to Wendy Kunkle, a zoologist from Ohio who had moved to Aspen and worked her way up the Kemo Sabe corporate ladder, and her brother, Bobby. A month later, the pandemic hit the United States.

The Kunkles were able to keep the store afloat with the help of vendors who fronted them products to sell on the promise that they would be paid back. Their bet paid off. With Europe closed to travel, customers “flooded our stores, so when we opened the onslaught of human beings that hit the mountain towns was unbelievable,” Ms. Kunkle said in a video interview.

Business has continued to boom with the help of celebrities and influencers. Ms. Kunkle and the brand’s vice president of marketing, Kate Valdmanis, noted that the endorsements have been entirely organic: Kemo Sabe does not pay celebrities or online influencers for product placement.

Ms. Earle, who traveled to the ski town with her boyfriend, the N.F.L. player Braxton Berrios, followed up her “Aspen costume” video with another TikTok post showing her and her friends making personalized hats at the store.

“She did that video on her own,” Ms. Kunkle said. “She paid for her hat. We didn’t promise her anything. She organically did that — which is crazy to me, because she is one of the top influencers in the world and she gets paid for everything.”

Ms. Kunkle doesn’t even really like social media.

“Social media is scary to me,” she said. “I don’t get it. I’m older, almost 54. So, to me, I didn’t grow up with it — I don’t understand it. So I’ve always been kind of the jerk in the room where they’re like, ‘Oh, an influencer, let’s give them a hat!’ I’m like, ‘No, no. If they don’t already believe in it, then why in the world would I pay someone to talk great about us?’”

“That’s not real,” Ms. Kunkle added, “and I want us to be real.”

Ever since Ms. Earle’s “Aspen costume” TikTok went viral, Ms. Kunkle’s son has been keeping track of the online conversation about Kemo Sabe. When he read her “all of the terrible things being said on TikTok,” the proprietor said she started crying.

“This is a real store,” Ms. Kunkle said. “Real people work here. We are hardworking locals, and they think we’re some big huge corporations that are backed by celebrities. But we don’t pay for celebrities. We don’t do any of that stuff. We never have.”

Ms. Valdmanis, the marketing director, seconded that view. “People have this perspective of Aspen — and it’s true to a certain extent — that we are like Rodeo Drive in the mountains,” she said. “But we were a mining town. We were cowboy first.”

The name of the store is another point of contention. “Kemo sabe” is the moniker given to the protagonist of “The Lone Ranger,” a long-running radio and television series that got its start in 1933, by his Native American sidekick, Tonto.

There are no conclusive accounts about the phrase’s origins and whether or not it is a term that descends from an actual Native American language. Whatever the case, it is certainly not what a white couple might be advised to name a store in the 21st century.

“People get mad at us about that, too,” Ms. Kunkle said.

The store’s name, chosen by Mr. Yoder more than three decades ago, does not seem to have affected its business, especially when it comes to the rich and famous. Loyal customers include Beyoncé, Shania Twain, the Kardashian-Jenner family, Rihanna, and Kevin Costner, who has a 160-acre vacation home in Aspen.

The store’s popularity increased when it served as the backdrop of the so-called “tequila-gate” episode of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” The 2022 episode featured Kyle Richards introducing the cast to Kemo Sabe and its “V.I.P. bar.” Over margaritas, the castmates Lisa Rinna and Kathy Hilton got into a fight over which tequila was better, Kendall Jenner’s 818 brand or Ms. Hilton’s Casa Del Sol.

“It was really fun to watch in person and it was very real, I will tell you,” Ms. Valdmanis said. “That was not scripted.” Ms. Kunkle declined to say which tequila is more popular with her customers, describing them as “very different” from each other. And now some “Real Housewives” fans go to the store to see where the “tequila-gate” fracas took place.

The rise of cowboy style has also made the hats into more of a fashion staple, especially among a certain cadre of well-paid, city-dwelling young people with social media accounts who flock to Aspen to ski and hit the bars.

A recent TikTok uploaded by the Austin-based content creator Hannah Chody showed upward of a dozen women — herself included — at the Aspen airport, each wearing a personalized cowboy hat from Kemo Sabe.

“Skipping Kemo Sabe would be criminal,” Ms. Chody, who purchased her own hat at the Park City location, captioned the post.

For Ms. Chody, the hat is a fun souvenir. “People get them just to have the experience of going and making them and crossing it off their bucket list,” she said, “especially if they’re visiting from New York, Chicago or L.A.”

And while the big-hat influencers may annoy certain TikTok commenters who find their style inauthentic, Ms. Kunkle says she embraces all kinds of customers.

“They want to feel the romance, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said. “And, really, it’s terrible when people are like ‘the Aspen costume.’ That is not what it is. It is people wanting a taste and a feel of the west. Why can’t everybody get that feeling without people making fun of it?”



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