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A group of law enforcement officers (LEO/LEOs)

From LEO to CEO: how Modern Icon got its start

My grandparents taught me valuable skills, and their generation still inspires me. I love their stories of how they persevered through unimaginable hardships and still were able to build America into a world superpower. In the military or as a LEO, if I couldn’t find gear that I liked or that functioned the way I needed, I would modify gear or make custom equipment for myself. It was a hobby during my time as a backpacking guide, climbing instructor, and law enforcement officer (LEO). 


One night heading into roll call, I saw the poor quality of the lead the K9 handler assigned to our platoon was using. I asked him, “If I could make a better lead, would you use it?” He said yes, so I went to the local outfitter shop and bought mil-spec tubular webbing. I spent all night designing a new lead using a home sewing machine.

Inspired by years of experience and detailed insight into climbing-gear construction, I designed a lead that integrated unique elements no one in the industry had thought of at the time, such as reinforced bar tacks for added strength and clip-in points so you could use the lead in multiple configurations with the simple addition of a carabiner. 

Lee Vartanian, as a LEO, posing with a K9 wearing early Modern Icon gear


When I gave the lead to the handler, he loved it and showed it to his training group. Next thing you knew, I bought all the webbing I could find and spent my free time sewing leads for all the handlers in our area.

I kept designing gear based on feedback and the demands of the job I was familiar with as a LEO. Next, I innovated the Rapid Deployment Lead, a compact lead that quickly unfolds to a 17″ short leash. Then, I designed a soft collar with the ISC Klick-Lock Buckle, which significantly reduces opportunities for accidental unclipping.

As word spread and orders increased, I quickly outgrew my home sewing machine and bought my first used industrial machine from a jean shop in town. 

Two police officers posing next to a cake that says "Good luck, Lee!"
Lee and a colleague celebrating his last day as a LEO


I felt that no one was making gear worthy of the sacrifice these K9s and their handlers were willing to make in the line of duty. I wanted to have time to design and manufacture purpose-built gear with no limitations on the quality of materials or the complexity of the design. I kept designing new products, and the orders kept coming in.

Eventually, I came to a crossroads: either give Modern Icon a full-time go or reduce it all to a hobby. I asked myself, “Am I of better service as a single LEO on the street or as a manufacturer of products that serve potentially every officer and K9?”

Taking a chance on Modern Icon served the greater good that my grandparents always modeled for me. So, I resigned and gave Modern Icon my undivided attention.

Lee and Josh, Modern Icon’s founders, when they were LEOs and partners


The more people got their hands on my products, the more they shared with others. Soon, I had to hire my first full-time employee. We outgrew my basement and moved into an old textile mill close to home. My old beat partner, Josh, approached me because he saw the potential of Modern Icon and wanted to be a part of it. I brought him on as my business partner to run operations so I could focus on design and manufacturing.

Together with the help of our growing team, we turned Modern Icon into what it is today. We’re proud of our small business and stand by our convictions of making the best gear with the best materials — right here in the U.S. 

We see those who quietly and selflessly serve and protect our communities as the icons we honor today. We honor them by creating overbuilt gear that we believe helps them overcome the challenges they face each day as they put their lives on the line in the service and protection of their communities.


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Lee tells the story of how his grandparents’ generation heavily influenced him to go into the military, become a LEO, and ultimately start Modern Icon.
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