© 2018 The Author(s). Materials can be made strong, but as such they are often brittle and prone to fracture when under stress. Inspired by the exceptionally strong and ductile structure of byssal threads found in certain mussels, we have designed and manufactured a multi-hierarchical steel, based on an inexpensive austenitic stainless steel, which defeats this "conflict" by possessing both superior strength and ductility. These excellent mechanical properties are realized by structurally introducing sandwich structures at both the macro- and nano-scales, the latter via an isometric, alternating, dual-phase crystal phases comprising nano-band austenite and nano-lamellar martensite, without change in chemical composition. Our experiments (transmission and scanning electron microscopy, electron back-scattered diffraction, nano-indentation and tensile tests) and micromechanics simulation results reveal a synergy of mechanisms underlying such exceptional properties. This synergy is key to the development of vastly superior mechanical properties, and may provide a unique strategy for the future development of new super strong and tough (damage-tolerant), lightweight and inexpensive structural materials.