Katy Hover-Smoot was only a month into running her Tahoe-based company—a women’s clothing brand of mountain biking and skiing base layers then called Buttermilk Apparel—when a letter arrived informing her she was violating a trademark. It was September 2016, and the note was from Aspen Skiing Company, which owns Buttermilk Ski Area and all the trademarks associated with the brand name Buttermilk.
“The letter was very kind and said, ‘We’re very excited for your new business. But please stop using our trademark,’” Hover-Smoot, 35, says. “I was totally the one in charge of checking out copyrights, and I completely whiffed. It was a classic learning experience.”
Luckily, the brand’s first collection of clothes—a couple mountain bike shorts and jerseys—had been designed with just the mountain-inspired logo and no company name sewn on, so the clothes could still be sold. Hover-Smoot dumped Buttermilk, adopted her second-favorite name choice, Wild Rye, after the native grass that grows at high elevations in the Sierra Nevada, then revamped the marketing strategy. “It was a $7,000 mistake,” Hover-Smoot says. “When you’re a month old, an unexpected mistake of that size feels really painful.”
Hover-Smoot didn’t go to business school or spend years working in outdoor industry product design before launching her own company. Instead, she got a PhD in art history at the University of California, Berkeley. She planned on becoming an art history professor. But in 2011, equipped with a PhD at age 28, Hover-Smoot realized her job options—moving away from the mountains to teach at a college in the Midwest—didn’t align with her love of skiing and mountain biking. “So I started looking for jobs in the outdoor industry,” she says.
She interviewed at a lot of places—The North Face, CamelBak, Mountain Hardwear—but with little real experience outside of academia, nobody hired her. Eventually, though, Hover-Smoot landed a gig as the personal assistant to Mike Sinyard, CEO and founder of Specialized Bicycles, based south of San Jose, California. She spent about a year picking up his afternoon espresso and scheduling his meetings before transitioning to a role managing special projects. In 2013, she figured out a way to move to Tahoe full-time and continue working remotely for Specialized.
It was then that Hover-Smoot began dreaming of launching her own brand as a way to solve a dilemma she was encountering firsthand as a woman who mountain bikes: “The big issue was that nothing fit. Women who are on their bikes a lot have thighs and asses—you don’t want to be going uphill in tight shorts. You need lighter, more durable fabric and something that moves with you,” Hover-Smoot says. Then there was style. Women’s mountain bike clothes generally fell into one of two categories: basic black or loud colors and prints. “I wanted something in the middle,” she says.
Hover-Smoot brought on a friend, Cassie Abel, who had just left a job at Smith Optics to launch her own PR agency, to serve as her partner. “Katy reached out and was like, ‘I’m looking for PR and marketing support, but I have zero budget,’” Abel, 35, remembers. “I was so excited about what she was doing that I asked her, ‘Do you want a partner instead?’” Abel earned equity in the company and now owns about 18 percent.
In fall 2016, their first shipment of clothes arrived four months late—the chamois had the elastic waist sewn inside out and all the shorts were one size too large. Then, of course, there was the name-change incident. But since those hiccups, things have gone relatively smoothly. Wild Rye doubled, then tripled orders year over year in the past two years. Their bestselling Freel Shorts, which come in pineapple, cactus, or brontosaurus prints, have nearly sold out. Wild Rye is now sold in about 30 retail shops around the United States, including two REI stores. But Hover-Smoot isn’t paying herself a salary just yet—she teaches a couple art history classes at a Tahoe community college to pay the bills.
Last winter, Wild Rye’s first winter line debuted—merino wool base layers with a roomier fit. “So much long underwear these days feel like sausage casings,” Hover-Smoot says. “You don’t want to take your puffy off at the bar because your base layer is showing everything.”
Hover-Smoot says they’re making technical soft goods, but they’re not trying to compete with the industry’s ultra high-tech brands. “If you’re going up Everest, I’m not going to say pack Wild Rye. I’d say go to Arc’teryx. For us, our target customer is the recreational outdoor woman,” she says.
So who is Wild Rye’s competition? For starters, it’s Shredly—a brightly colored women’s mountain bike apparel line that started in Carbondale, Colorado, in 2012. “I didn’t feel like we had direct competition until Wild Rye came on,” says Ashley Rankin, founder of Shredly. “Now everyone sees women’s apparel as a viable market, and they’re trying to address what women actually want, instead of just the boring black short that’s always been offered. But I think having that competition benefits everyone. It’s disrupted the market.”
Ask Hover-Smoot who she views as competition and she’ll say Shredly for sure, but also brands that haven’t even launched yet. “At the end of the day, any of the big brands can do what we do here, but they can’t be small, independent brands. Women in particular are looking for something different,” she says.