Innovation: Better Footware Through Perseverance

Outside magazine, September 1996

Innovation: Better Footware Through Perseverance

Obstacles be damned. Molly Strong finally brings her toasty, grippy boots to her style-impaired public
By Michael Parrish

"Life for the small inventor is nothing less than brutal,'' says Molly Strong with the weary defiance that has seen her through a seven-year struggle to bring her brainchild to the public. "But I never quit." Indeed, as her cult-status footwear, the Yeti, finally goes mass-market this month, it seems that this is the one point on which Strong's many supporters and enemies would agree. And it is also the reason that life for those of us who slip and slide through the elements--and who are willing to brave a few snickers from our more conventionally stylish friends--may soon improve dramatically.

Strong's vision for a surefooted world was born in 1989, when the skier, carpenter, and sometime teacher floundered on the ice in front of her Bigfork, Montana, home. Flat on her backside, she saw that her dog was still comfortably gamboling over the tundra, and she swore to come up with a warmer, better-tractioned boot based in part on the underside of an animal's paw. The result, an often garish-looking custom-made mukluk, soon became a favorite among sled-dog racers, ice fishermen, Arctic photographers, and others who slog through frozen wastes. NBC and CNN both ran features on Strong's design, a lightweight concoction of fleece and industrial felt, and even at prices of up to $800 a pair, Strong's tiny company was soon flooded with orders.

But to put her business on more solid footing, so to speak, Strong needed to bring her boot to a wider audience. In 1992 she began seeking a partner, hoping to forge a deal with a manufacturer that could mass-produce her design. Talks with the few U.S. bootmakers that could handle the job ended without agreement, primarily because of Strong's demand that she retain design control. Then, in early 1994, Strong learned that Deckers Outdoor Corporation, a California manufacturer to which she had shown her boot, had come out with a suspiciously similar product. Strong's attorney sent letters of protest, to which Deckers responded with a lawsuit--since dismissed--to settle claims over the design. Strong then sued Deckers, alleging that the company (whose officials declined to comment for this article) misappropriated her trade secrets. As that case heads toward a Montana courtroom, Strong now finds herself $250,000 in debt, mostly from legal fees.

The case has made Strong something of a folk hero in a part of the country that prides itself on self-reliance. Her cause has even been adopted by Montana Senator Max Baucus, who arranged for Strong to offer her patent-law-reform proposals to a congressional committee last fall. "Inventors get ripped off all the time,'' says Strong, making no attempt to hide her disdain for corporate America. "We make the significant breakthroughs, and yet we're also the most vulnerable."

Whether or not Strong's legal crusade succeeds, her goal of mass-producing her mukluk has finally been realized. Thanks to a deal with a new manufacturer, the Bigfork Boot Company, the Yeti will now be sold by mail order (800-244-3675) for $125 per pair--much to the delight of its devotees. "It may not look like the classic modern hiking boot,'' says wildlife filmmaker Peter Drowne, the proud owner of four custom-made pairs, without a hint of irony. "But as soon as you try a pair, you'll never go back to your old ones."

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