Mark Thatcher reinvented an item of dress as old as civilization itself, the sandal, and succeeded in making his product the basis of a revolution in lifestyle.
Thatcher has always been a fan of the outdoors: after graduating from high school in Florida in the early 1970s, he even spent some time living as a nomad in the deserts of Israel. He then became an engineering student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, but found his greatest satisfaction in the summers, working as a river guide, or “boatman,” on the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. After earning his degree, Thatcher found a position with Cities Service (now Citgo Petroleum Corp.) in Houston, as an exploration geophysicist, analyzing rock samples for evidence of petroleum deposits. More adventurous outdoor exploration Thatcher had to delegate to his free time.
However, due to drastic cutbacks at Citgo in 1982, Thatcher was laid off. He decided to make his passion for the outdoors his profession. Looking around him, Thatcher saw the boom in hiking, camping, and outdoor sports---and in the increasingly high-tech equipment being sold to support them. Thatcher’s lengthy experience as a boatman had already shown him where he could make a contribution of his own.
Thatcher knew first-hand that there was no adequate footgear for travelling by river: tennis shoes got soaked right away and never dried, while thongs, or flip-flops, slid off the feet. What was needed was a secure version of the thong. Thatcher’s innovation was to build a secure nylon ankle strap as well as a standard thong strap onto a sturdy rubber sole: by the end of that same year (1982), Thatcher had created the first modern sport sandal, which he called the Teva® (“teh-vah,” not “tee-vah”), Hebrew for “nature.”
It is true that, as long ago as AD 500, the Anasazi people of northern Arizona used a roundly similar type of footgear; but the U.S. Patent Office confirmed to Thatcher that his modern design was unique. With a patent pending, Thatcher found a manufacturer, and began selling his “amphibious utility sandals” himself, travelling by car to outdoor equipment stores and directly to the rivers. Thatcher sold only 200 pairs of Tevas® in the first year; but after this initial lull came an avalanche of interest. Not only did boatmen want the shoes for practical reasons; it turned out that whole categories of young people, including athletes, college students and Deadheads, found Tevas® to be both comfortable and fashionable (“so ugly, they’re cute,” in the words of one fan).
At this point, Thatcher’s partner company tried to cut him out of the business. He formed a new agreement, with Deckers Outdoor Corporation; and in time, with their help, vindicated his exclusive rights to Tevas®, including patent #4,793,075 for the basic design (granted 1988) and a trademark for the brand name. Deckers Corp. remains the sole distributor of Thatcher’s sandals, which now come in 140 styles, featuring many additional innovations, and generate $56 million in sales per year.
Today, Mark Thatcher still helps design and wear test each new Teva® model personally---which is more a pleasure than a duty, since he remains as active an outdoorsman as ever. Moreover, Thatcher has become a culture hero of sorts, a crusader against gratuitously formal or uncomfortable clothing. His rallying cry: “Free your feet, and your mind will follow.”