An Idea with Sticking Power

Duct tape as a fashion accessory? Yes, seriously -- and for entrepreneur David Pippenger and his wife, a booming business, too

By Sarah Lacy

During a long, 1,500-mile drive home from their son's college campus, David Pippenger and his wife were talking duct tape. Not for plumbing, furniture repair, or even the rare heating-duct patch. No, they were discussing fashion accessories. Turns out Pippenger's son, Jonathan, was sporting a duct-tape wallet his cousin had made for him for Christmas.

That wallet was causing a stir at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, where Jonathan had just returned for the spring 2002 semester. But as novel as it was, the wallet was also sticky, a bit stinky, and not exactly flawlessly made. But with more than a whiff of entrepreneurial spirit, Pippenger wondered, "If we could make a better duct-tape wallet, could it sell?"

Turns out, the answer is yes, very much so. While it's hard to imagine the fashionistas of Paris and Milan clambering for duct-tape accessories, Pippenger's duct-tape dreams have happily turned into a thriving business. Ducti, the company that grew out of those late-night musings, will mark its third year in 2005, and Pippenger, who is also a writer and producer for independent films and commercials, thinks the business is entering its best holiday season yet. He hopes Ducti will sell more than 100,000 of its fashion novelties, double the sales of a year ago and equal to the previous three quarters combined.

STICKING POINTS.

  Ducti's story goes to show that behind just about any mundane household item you might care to mention, a new business may be ready to be discovered. Ducti's accessories range from the slim, silver Barhopper wallet, which clips onto a belt loop and goes for $12, to the $65 Timebomb duct-tape watch. Pippenger sells them online at www.ducti.com, in catalogs like ThinkGeek, in retail chains like Spencers Gifts, and through small boutiques around the country. In all, 3,000 retail outlets sell his products.

Duct-tape fashion isn't exactly new. In trendy boutiques in cities like San Francisco, local artists sell lots of things made with the ubiquitous tape, which is famous for sticking to everything. But mass producing the novelty items is, so to speak, a bit novel.

Problem is the stuff isn't all that easy to work with. In early versions, the 49-year-old Pippenger discovered glue oozed out of the sides of wallets, the finished product wasn't all that sturdy, and it smelled like, well, duct tape. But Pippenger was unbowed. He spent months making calls to bemused duct-tape manufacturers, finally reaching someone at Tyco Adhesives (TYC ), in Norwood, Mass. Tyco execs listened, were confused, but after seeing the prototypes agreed. Two months later, Tyco's research and development department had a design for sturdier, more fashion-friendly tape.

With better tape in hand, Pippenger was off and running. Other issues came up, of course. Tape-friendly manufacturing equipment had to be built, for example. He found a man in Black Forest, Colo., who specialized in reconditioning printing presses from the 1960s. The tape was stuck to itself and fed through the machine, which had been changed to make die-cuts instead of printing words.

BUNNY-HUTCH BLAST.

  The one thing that never seemed to be a problem was customer demand. The product always gets a reaction, Pippenger says, remembering his first trade show in Manhattan, where he and wife Joy assembled wallets by hand in their hotel the night before. "One of our biggest problems was people would walk off with them, and we had to make more," he says.

After reading an article about Ducti in The Wall Street Journal, watchmaker Kevin Costonis, president of Time Flies, a small watch-design and manufacturing company, called Pippenger with the watch idea. So far, they've sold more than 2,000 since the model's debut in November of last year. Costonis, who lives in the Los Angeles area, wore an early prototype to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles just before the product launch. It was a hit with the Hugh Hefner set. He boasts that partygoers were trying to buy it off his wrist -- even though, at that point, it didn't actually tell time.

Despite the quirky nature of his business, Pippenger doesn't see his outfit as a garage operation. He's already outsourced manufacturing to China, which he says will make increase profitability. Last October, Ducti graduated from the Pippengers' kitchen table and garage into a 5,000-square-foot warehouse near the couple's home in Aurora, Colo. Since it's a private company, Pippenger declines to disclose financial details.

IN THE PINK.

  He scoffs at the notion that his duct duds are a fad. He thinks they can have the staying power of Barbie, rather than the short-lived hoopla of a Cabbage Patch Doll. Nonetheless, it will be tough holding on to the tastes of fickle, fashion-conscious youth who buy these sorts of things. "Young customers have the least patience and the least loyalty and the greatest capacity for finding new products," says Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a Miami-based retail-strategy firm.

Pippenger is coy about what's next. Certainly, he isn't done with duct tape -- after all, this is a guy who reupholstered the inside of his Hummer H-2 with his specially made tape. Costonis says they're in the early stages of working on a ladies' Ducti watch, which may be made out of pink tape, the company's first foray out of the traditional dull silver hue.

Pippenger also is experimenting with making fashion accessories out of other novel substances, but he declines to get specific. It's hard to say where he'll go next. Here's an idea: There's always old lawn chairs. They just might have the makings of a dandy high-fashion purse.

Lacy is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in the Silicon Valley bureau