(Editor’s note: The following article featuring UIU senior accounting major Clay Lieb and senior conservation management major Jake Dale is posted with permission of the Fayette County Newspapers and news/feature writer Jack Swanson.)
Hey North Face look out, Patagonia don’t blink, Orvis watch your back! The Driftless Area Guide Service is about to hit town.
The brainchild of two Upper Iowa University students, the new business will open its doors in Fayette on Sept. 1. It’s Fayette’s newest “pop up” business taking advantage of the city’s offer for short-term low-rate rental rates for the open office area in the City Hall building.
Its actual address is 9 S. Main St. The young entrepreneurs Clay Lieb and Jake Dale are currently working feverishly getting the store ready to open.
“Driftless Area Guide Co. is dedicated to bringing you quality wear that is made to explore. Whether you’re fishing a meandering trout stream, hiking a scenic river bluff, or just walking through your neighborhood park, our gear will inspire you to find your adventure.”
That’s the mantra that the originators are basing their new venture on. They offer clothing items such as t-shirts and hats, koozies, stickers and other gear items, all emblazoned with original label artwork, that Clay and Jake designed themselves.
They also offer seasonal guided trout fishing and backpacking trips throughout the “driftless” region. The driftless is the area that the glacier forgot, leaving the landscape rugged and uneven, with lots of hills and creeks. It stretches from southeastern Minnesota, to southwestern Wisconsin, to northeast and Mideast Iowa and even into northwestern Illinois.
While the new business is merchandise based, Jake and Dale always want the “driftless” to be the heart of it and in the heart of their customers.
“We are an outdoor clothing company focused on uniting those who appreciate the very land we live on. Preserving our beautiful land is a priority to us and we aim to ensure everyone works together to respect what’s left of it,” the two said.
The business was actually started about a year ago. The two UIU seniors were introduced to one another while both playing on the baseball team. Clay is originally from Pearl City, a town in the driftless in northwest Illinois. Jake is from Hastings, Minn., just above where the driftless starts.
“We both do a lot of outdoors stuff. Last few years we fished and hunted together. At first we just started joking around about doing something like this,” Clay explained.
“Yeah we were like ‘maybe we could be a mini Patagonia. Make some good stuff but make it affordable too,” Jake added.
Clay is majoring in business and Jake, in conservation, so they find themselves covering the spectrum when it comes to the new business.
The first thing they did was to go out and find suppliers.
“We’ve changed suppliers a couple times but we always try to keep them as close as possible. We’re getting our shirts done in Lansing and our hats are sewn together in southwest Illinois,” Clay pointed out.
“All our designs are in house using computers. We get a picture in our head and run with it. Hopefully we come up with something cool,” Jake joined in.
Last summer they started traveling on an outdoors show tour and sold their merchandise at seven shows that were all located in the driftless area. Now they have items in four stores in each state of the driftless.
“Eventually we would like to supply for even for stores,” Clay said.
Graduating this year, the pair don’t have any definite plans for what comes after their three-month stint at City Hall.
“We will re-evaluate the situation. We’ll see where we’re at. For 10 months it’s been a success. Maybe we’ll see something happen. So far it’s been self-sustaining,” Clay said.
“So far we’ve enjoyed it a lot. I think we’ll definitely keep doing it in one way or another,” Jake added.
Last spring the two wrote to Fayette Mayor Andrew Wenthe, asking him if they could rent the space at a discounted rental fee.
“He was excited to get someone in it,” Clay exclaimed, saying the Mayor pointed out it would be a great way to showcase the available space.
Even without their own storefront, the pair were shipping out hats, shirts and other items every week out of their dorm room. Some of the items went as far away as Canada, Alaska and Washington.
“We found ourselves going down to Dollar General on a regular basis to scrounge through their cardboard for shipping boxes,” Jake said.
Inspired by the driftless region, the two say they hope to help organize river and natural area clean ups and want to start programs where part of people’s purchases can be donated conservation groups.
“These are projects for down the line when we are more established,” Clay said.
The business major didn’t even go to a bank or try for a grant to get things going.
“We started this with our own personal investment and ran with that. So far we haven’t had to put in any money after the initial investment,” Clay said proudly.
They said they are always “scheming” for new designs. They hope to be adding long-sleeve tees and hoodies to the apparel line in the near future.
“We are always coming up with something different. When we come to a consensus that it’s something we like, and we see it sitting in front of us for awhile, we pretty much know if it’s going to be good,” Jake said.
They also hope once the doors open, the store will not only be a place to sell but a place where visitors can come and “hang out”, talk about the driftless, tie a few flies at the fly tying station and share their thoughts about the business.
“We want to be an information system about the driftless itself. It’s unique, there’s not a lot of places like it,” Dale said.
“Made To Explore” is the catch phrase that the Driftless Company has adopted for a logo of sorts; “Never Stop Exploring” is North Face’s. Both companies claim to be focused on providing quality goods. Both companies are involved in the environment and promote it through their merchandise. One company has worldwide recognition and is at the top of the outdoor apparel field. One company is about to make a giant step in getting itself known to a wider fan base. For one company its vision is fixed on the stars. For the other company, it has to look backward and face the competition, and maybe one day will have to say, “Who are these guys?”