Memoirs and autobiographies are interesting reads because of the insight they give into the fundamental beginnings of people and companies we know and love. Today I would like to pull back the curtain and share more about the start of Modern Icon and how a full-time Police Officer spending his off time sewing in his basement, made an impact in the working-dog equipment industry.
First, an introduction: My name is Lee, founder and co-owner of Modern Icon. As a child I was always a little, “different”. While my friends were happy playing video games, I spent my free time taking things apart and putting them back together again at my father’s TV repair shop, teaching myself foraging skills in the woods by our house, and apprenticing as a black smith (on a hand-bellowed coal fired forge) at a living history exhibit on the weekends. I took my father on his first backpacking trip when I was a kid and instead of asking for a new Transformer for Christmas that year I asked for a raw deer hide and brain which I proceeded to flesh and tan using traditional Native American methods at my grandparent’s lake house. I believed I was born in the wrong time, and was drawn to my grandparents and great aunts and uncles who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.
My curiosity led me to asking them to teach me what they had learned out of necessity during those times, in hopes that those skills would not perish with them. I learned the art of hand sewing from my maternal grandmother. She had used those skills during the Great Depression. I learned more about sewing by hand and machine sewing from my paternal grandmother. She had survived life in Russia during WWII and became a Master Seamstress, sewing everything from leather furniture upholstery to wedding dresses. My great uncle told me stories of making do in the Great Depression and piloting a B17 during WWII. He taught me about the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and camp craft; much of which we today would consider survival skills, but to him they were just part of being a freedom loving American. My maternal grandfather taught me the most about how mechanical things work and how to think outside the box. It makes the most sense, actually, as we learned posthumously that he had worked for the CIA, the NSA, and was one of the Chief Engineers responsible for the development of the first photo reconnaissance satellite to orbit the earth. Even my paternal grandfather had an architectural and engineering firm that built some of the first multistory buildings in Dubai. All of that to say that I believe my personal oddity and propensity for design is due to my curiosity, early learning, as well as a genetic predisposition. Being enamored by all things America from the 1940’s and 50’s, I couldn’t help but have those qualities and values held by the Greatest Generation come through in the creation of Modern Icon, which can subsequently be found in the elements of each of my designs. We want to do our part to bring America back to the iconic status which the Greatest Generation held.
I wasn’t a totally strange kid growing up. I liked some normal things like rock climbing, which I got to do competitively and then professionally and still get to do today as a Climbing Specialist training specialized units in our military in the art of vertical access. My time as a Climbing Guide and love for sewing led me to learn “the ropes”—see what I did there—of climbing harnesses and equipment manufacturing, which has also had an influence on the products I’ve designed.
My love for my country led me to swear in to the Delayed Entry Program with the Marine Corps when I turned 17 and while I never had the opportunity to deploy, my experience at Parris Island and subsequent trainings only further fueled my passion for this nation. It’s why I am so passionate about keeping our manufacturing in the US despite increased demands. The gear we used in the Marine Corps was literal Vietnam era, which led me to make my own modifications to equipment. And when service rifles went from the traditional fixed stock models to the adjustable models we use today, everyone was trying to create new rifle slings to go with the new rifles. They were all incredibly complicated and restricting designs—so I just designed my own using an Alice Pack strap and some paracord. That design ended up coming back around and is in part responsible for Modern Icon’s existence.
Many years after Boot Camp I decided to become a Police Officer for the City of Greenville, SC. When they began issuing Patrol Rifles I was blown away by the subpar slings that were standard issue, so instead I went to my own design from years ago. The instructors at the range saw it and next thing I knew, I was sourcing materials and creating my first batch of products—which had nothing to do with canine equipment. A local gun shop started selling the slings and I had to learn how to increase production while I sewed during my time off in a room above the garage of our rental house. After graduating from the academy and completing my Field Training Officer program, I was assigned my first beat with my now business partner, Josh. Naturally we spent a lot of time together and grew to know each other very well—which included a lot about my new venture, Modern Icon. He was a great person to bounce ideas off of because he played devil’s advocate so well. I called him my “No” Man. Everyone else in business seemed to surround themselves with “Yes” Men, which never made any sense to me; I would rather have someone tell me if an idea sounded dumb and spare me the repercussions of bad decision.
Then it happened: the moment that would change the course of everything I was involved in at the time. I was on my way into night shift roll call and our platoon’s K9 officer was putting one of his leads on a rack in the back of his Tahoe. Loving gear and being naturally inquisitive, I took a look at the lead and saw how poorly constructed it was and how inferior its materials were. I thought, “Your dog, trained to detain someone with its teeth is being held back by that?”. Having basically the same materials for the slings I was making and already having ideas on design improvements, I asked the officer, “If I make you a better leash, would you use it?” He said, “Sure”. The next night I brought him a 6ft lead—and he said it was the best lead he had ever seen. In fact, it is the same design we still use today, double layer webbing, integrated clip-in points, no exposed terminal ends: all aspects inspired by my love for climbing and understanding of good design. Several of the area Police Departments trained together, so other handlers saw the new lead and pretty soon I was getting phone calls from K9 handlers asking if I could make them a lead… then collars… then harnesses. Eventually the canine gear far eclipsed any slings being sold.
Over the next few years I took my unapologetic approach to design and developed products with input from local handlers that met needs other companies hadn’t. I had them field tested in brutal conditions, for up to a year, before I would release a product for sale. I was sewing orders in the basement of our new home, in between shifts, worrying about keeping up with orders and generating enough money to pay for more materials and hardware. I was buying used machines and working every spare minute I had off duty to keep up with increased demands. As demand grew through literal word of mouth alone, I found myself at a crossroads: I could dial Modern Icon back to “hobby” status or I could give it a full time go. I knew that I would do more good by providing high-quality gear for all K9s and officers, rather than staying on as one officer so I tendered my resignation.
I signed up for the Reserve Officer Program to try and stay connected to my brothers and sisters in blue, and officially took Modern Icon full time. Pretty soon I was moving out of my basement and into an actual commercial work space and I hired my first employee. Then Josh called and said he wanted to have coffee. We sat down and he told me that he believed he could help me run Modern Icon and asked if I would take some time to consider bringing him on as my partner. Over the years Josh had been a great voice of reason and had offered more and more advise, I knew that he would be a great business partner. I told him that I didn’t need to think about it, the answer was yes. I had always wondered what it would be like to have Josh on in a full time capacity and now I would have my chance. That led Josh to make the same transition to tender his resignation from the Police Department and come on to Modern Icon full time, while also still working as a Reserve Officer. We both stayed Reserve Officers with the Greenville City PD for about a year, but the time commitment with a new business became too much and we eventually had to give that up as well.
Over time we have increased warehouse space multiple times, purchased more and more machines and increased our number of employees. Despite this, we still try and grow at a slow, methodical rate. You will see Josh and/or I at trade shows. Josh may still answer emails about sales and I am still our Chief Product Engineer, checking off on each product design. Our products are still designed using the same over-built, field tested, purpose driven mentality used since day one. That first lead that I made, manufactured on a small table top machine using webbing from REI, are still going strong to this day—a testament to the quality and construction. These days, we are able to leverage our partnerships, using different materials and manufacturing techniques to make even greater innovations in product designs.
Our story is still young and we are excited about the future, but we know that we would not have come this far without the support of our loyal followers who we consider family. So to the LEO K9 handler: as a veteran LEO owned company, we have your back; To the working dog handler: know every product has been street tested and proven; And to the general discerning customer: we appreciate your recognition of high-quality, handmade in the USA products. Thank you for your support of a small business!