Strauss dreams big for 'Rodeo'

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— Just about any time Mary Jo Strauss boarded an airplane in the last five years she took the time to dream and plan for the day when she would take Rodeo Natural Skin Care products on the cowgirl circuit.

She let her imagination roam as she jotted down potential names for a line of skin care products and thought up creative ways to connect her products with the romantic image of the 19th century cowgirl.

Strauss, a longtime hair stylist both in New York and Steamboat Springs, confesses that she's no cowgirl. In fact, she's a little frightened of horses.

Just the same, she's on the verge of taking her line of skin care products and gifts, all beautifully packaged in a western motif, to retailers. Strauss has been counseled not to grow too rapidly, so she'll proceed at a fast walk at first, building up to a full gallop in the future.

"I've worked in the beauty business for 25 years, and I wanted to do something on my own," Strauss said. "I'm either going to make it, or I'm going to end up in a trailer with a lot of gifts for friends."

Strauss is the proprietor of the Gallery Hair Salon near the corner of Yampa and Twelfth streets in downtown Steamboat.

Although she's unfamiliar with the workings of a lariat, Strauss has always been drawn to the mythical American West and she realized that the cowgirl image represented a way to set her products apart from other lines in the crowded field. That isn't to say that Rodeo Natural Skin Care products are all sizzle and image; Strauss said she spent a great deal of time researching suppliers for all-natural products that are effective as well as attractive to the senses.

For a time, Strauss worked with a dermatologist who was also developing a line of skin care products. She represented the physician's line at trade shows, and along the way picked the brains of many experts in the industry. She came to understand that even though the quality of the products is foremost, they'll never reach customers if they aren't given a strong brand and marketed creatively.

Rodeo Natural Skin Care is what's called a private label in the industry Strauss does not manufacture moisturizer and skin creams, nor are most of her products made to her specifications. Instead, she has researched suppliers already turning out high quality lotions and body butters that she can add to her line.

Good examples are "Golden Garland Moisturizer with Tomato Extract" which employs kukui nut oil to guard skin against environmental damage. Harvest Pumpkin Scrub is a natural exfoliating scrub that employs pumpkin enzymes to gently dissolve dead skin. Next, apricot seed powder and walnut powder take over to brush away dead skin cells while polishing skin surfaces. In addition to all that, it has a great aroma.

Strauss originally became inspired to start a line of skin care products by her clients at the Gallery Hair Salon.

"They're natural, beautiful women," Strauss said. "They're not interested in the latest fads, they're down to earth.The dry Rocky Mountain climate not only is so drying to your hair, but everyone of us complains about dry, rough skin."

It's clear that Strauss derives a great deal of pleasure from tweaking and stylizing the packaging for her products. She found the artwork of a cowgirl galloping on horseback with a raised quirt while thumbing through a coffee table book. Next, she spent weeks tracking down the holder of the copyright so she could license the image for use on her labels.

She's taken packaging to another level, putting her aromatic oils and creams in cobalt blue bottles and fringed leather pouches that not only evoke the old West, but would be very difficult to toss out.

The blue bottles, reminiscent of antique glass unearthed from an old homestead cabin, are topped off with a hand-tied rawhide thong tipped with metal that is suggestive of the silver ornaments on the end of bolo string ties. Strauss discovered the fringed leather pouch that contains her "Cowgirl Trail Kit," At F.M. Light and Sons in downtown Steamboat. At Light's the pouch contains children's toys. Strauss contacted the manufacturer in Denver and arranged to have them made with the word "rodeo" written in looping lariat script.

A set of six silver-handled makeup brushes come rolled up in a fringed leather kit that has a silver clasp.

The most impressive piece Strauss has come up with is an elaborate cowhide-bound trunk designed to serve as an in-store point-of-purchase display. The "Wind River Heirloom Trunks" are made by Dan Gorton of Wind river Crafts in Saratoga, Wyo. Each one features custom metal fittings and hand-tooled leather trim. Gorton also designed an oval silver plate for Strauss that resembles a championship rodeo belt buckle.

Strauss has invested a significant amount of money in trunks, each one a little bit different from the next. Stuffed with straw-like excelsior, and with shelves built into the lid and a pair of pull-out drawers, they make the ultimate stage for Strauss to display her line. She's hoping that buyers for major retailers find the displays irresistible.

Strauss, who has formal training in fine art, said she's found a sympathetic collaborator in local commercial artist Jan Girard, who has an uncanny knack for executing Strauss' own vision in labels, boxes and hang tags for Rodeo Natural Skin Care.

Strauss said she received invaluable advice from Doug Kenyon of Two Rivers Gallery and Jacquie Lewis of the Australia Steamboat Connection as she brought her dream to the brink of reality. Kenyon is a veteran gallery owner specializing in western art. And Lewis is an international businesswoman whose importing business is based in Steamboat.

Lewis has encouraged Strauss to move forward, at the same time urging her not to attempt to grow too quickly, lest she fall on her face. Strauss has dreams of taking her skin care products to Germany and Japan, but for now, she's content with gradually introducing her product in carefully chosen stores that already have a strong connection to the American West. Strauss said she's also taking a great deal of satisfaction from doing more with her life, and she's comfortable with the financial exposure.

"Initially I made a goal not to spend more than $50,000 to start," Strauss said. "I just upped it to $75,000. But I'm willing to take that risk in order to start something.

"You just have to be consistent and you have to have your dream."

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