By Maria Surma Manka
Most clothing lines don’t have groupies, but most clothing lines don’t put the commitment and quality into every piece like Cowgirl Tuff.
“We name all of our jeans and some of our customers collect every one,” said Lisa Bollin, founder, CEO and director of design at the Cokato-based clothing company.
A long-time barrel racer who studied fashion in college, Bollin launched Cowgirl Tuff in 1999 after she grew frustrated with the options for women’s Western-style clothing. Stylish yet durable, Cowgirl Tuff began with Bollin designing and printing tops at her home and selling them at barrel racing events throughout the country. Five years later, her tops were in 18 stores.
Still, Bollin knew there was room to grow. “The Western jeans out there just didn’t have a good fit,” she said. “I asked my buyers about doing jeans and they discouraged me. So I did it anyway. Now it’s 85 percent of our business.”
Today, Cowgirl Tuff is sold online and in 1,500 stores in the United States as well as in Australia, Canada, Brazil, France and the United Kingdom. The market is primarily female barrel racers, rodeo riders, horseback riders and Western enthusiasts. We talked with Bollin to hear what keeps Cowgirl Tuff kicking.
- Growth Plan The company eventually had to move out of Bollin’s home. “We had 22 people working in our pole shed!” she laughed. “Cokato welcomed us and now we have 30,000 square feet to work in.” A gap loan from the Initiative Foundation helped bring the expansion to fruition.
- Production Process As director of design, Bollin sketches new designs over the course of a month and her team brings them to life. Once product samples arrive, a print and digital catalog photo shoot is arranged. It’s about a year from initial sketch to product in the store.
- Guys Too Cowgirl Tuff has expanded into men’s and children’s wear; Bollin’s daughter designs some of the men’s pieces and all of the children’s clothing. Fans include Brian Robison, former Minnesota Vikings’ defensive end, who wears the men’s jeans, and his wife, who is a barrel racer.
Minnesota Made Cowgirl Tuff has 45-50 employees throughout the United States. The Cokato headquarters houses marketing, product development, human resources, finance, customer service, online,
quality control and logistics.
Fan Base Cowgirl Tuff boasts some loyal customers, to put it mildly. A car accident victim begged the EMTs not to cut off her Cowgirl Tuffs. Another woman in a motorcycle accident went to the hospital with injuries, but her jeans didn’t have a scratch.
Not Just for Rodeos Cowgirl Tuff’s online business doubled in the last year and is working to attract non-Western wear customers with a Just Tuff lineof jeans. “Our Just Tuff Trouser jean has a more mainstream look and it’s the fastest selling product we have,” said Bollin. “We can’t keep up with demand.”
Paying it Forward The Tuff Foundation, which donates funds to a variety of causes, including therapeutic horse rescue programs and nonprofits that support the military and their families, is embodied in its “Never Give Up” motto. “The more I’m given, the more I want to give back and inspire others,” Bollin said. “What goes around comes around.” The company donates between $12,000 and $50,000 each year.
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