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IU art history professor pioneers baby booties business

May 4, 2016

IU art history professor Michelle Facos, who has been traveling to Sweden for much of her adult life, said it’s hard to miss the moose presence there. But for Facos, the animal is much more than a common sight.

michelle facos

IU Bloomington art history professor Michelle Facos | PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHELLE FACOS

Moose leather is the key element in her high-end baby shoe business, MooseBooties. Until the 1990s, moose skin was deemed useless, Facos said. In fact, hunters just discarded it, because it was too stretchy to use as a leather. It wasn’t until Finnish tanners discovered a process that resisted stretching that the hide became a usable leather product.

Facos comes from a family of female entrepreneurs -- both her grandmother and her great-grandmother ran moving companies --so her natural reaction upon first seeing the moose leather for sale at a trade fair was, “I want to make something with that.”

“The leather was so soft that somehow I just thought ‘babies’ when I felt it,” she said.

She tried out the idea with her friends. Her step-daughter, Hanna Nordahl, constructed the first sample pair of baby booties from the moose leather. To test the product, Facos gave them to her friends as gifts. Soon, her friends’ friends wanted them, too. That was the sign that there was a market for the idea, Facos said.

Equipped with a prototype, Facos just needed a good business plan. She put it on the back burner while she spent time teaching in Shanghai during summer 2013. But on a whim, she presented her MooseBooties idea to her students on the last day of class.

About six months later, she got the response she was hoping for. One of the students from her class in Shanghai, Felix Backhaus, emailed about his interest in helping get the business idea on its feet. Backhaus, now a senior studying marketing at Georgetown University, had ideas that matched up well with Facos’ vision for MooseBooties. 

It was important for Facos that the product they create be sustainable. The moose leather is sourced from a small town in Finland, and the material is tested to ensure that it’s nontoxic and safe for small children. The fleece and leather ties were the biggest challenge, in terms of finding options that were ecological. They finally settled on leather ties from Germany and fleece from Poland. Women in a village in Poland hand-sew the final product.

moosebooties

After discovering moose leather at a trade fair, art history professor Michelle Facos knew the material would be perfectly suited for infant apparel. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHELLE FACOS

Managing her own business was a long time coming for Facos. As a young girl, she dreamed of opening her own restaurant but instead decided to go to college. For a short time, she also ran an e-commerce business, selling handicraft made by the Sami people of Scandinavia.

“I get inspired and fascinated by the world of commerce,” she said.

Balancing her business endeavors along with her day job as a professor in the School of Fine Arts can be challenging, but Facos said the two intertwine in the best way.

“Being an academic was the one thing that facilitated all of this,” Facos said. “I wouldn’t have gone to Shanghai and met Felix. I wouldn’t have gone on a faculty exchange to Warsaw, which is where I met a fellow able to put me in contact with a manufacturer. That all happened because of my work as an academic and the connections I’ve made through IU.” 

In addition to the baby booties, the website also features a line of sheepskins. Scandinavians most commonly use them to cushion their babies in strollers or cribs, but they also have household uses as chair cushions and rugs, Facos said. She also hopes to expand MooseBooties into the “big people” market, with plans for a women’s boot line. 

Facos' work aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including global engagement and building a more prosperous and innovative Indiana.

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