By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Michelle Durnin says she is a risk taker who is willing to “try anything”, an approach which has stood her in good stead as she launches a new women’s work clothing business online.
Tired of wearing overalls that made her feel “frumpy”, slid off her shoulders and didn’t fit women’s curves, Durnin is now working with pattern makers, manufacturers and brokers to create her own line of workwear called Durnin Farm and Ranch Wear.
“I never pictured myself as a business owner but as I saw more women in business, I decided to run with this idea and have discovered I do genuinely love being an entrepreneur,” says Durnin from her farmhouse kitchen in Huron County.
It has been a pleasant surprise. She remembers watching her father manage employees on the family farm near Ancaster and thought “that wasn’t for me.” She decided to pursue her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Guelph and embarked on a career as an agronomist in Haldimand County. When she moved to Huron County to marry Marshall Durnin, she took on the job of Precision Ag Specialist with Delta Power before returning to her agronomy roots and becoming an independent crop consultant. She provides crop advice to the Durnin family and also helps in the fields, when needed.
Durnin has grown up wearing overalls and work pants and believes it gives women confidence when they wear something warm that makes them “invincible against the mud.”
She admits to being a “notoriously cold person” and was never the one who could ride her horses in jeans to look cute. “I always rode in overalls,” she laughs. However, most of those overalls were designed for men and she felt frumpy and uncomfortable. Plus, the darn straps kept falling down!
“I am a colourful person and I like to show off my personality and I started to think how great it would be to have workwear that fit and was in different colours,” says Durnin. As she met more farm women via her work as an agronomist, she also realized there were many women who literally never left the farm. “Like me, they probably have lots of nice clothes in there that never get worn because they have no place to wear them.”
All the more reason, Durnin thought, to wear clothes at home that fit right and make a woman feel confident. Taking the idea and making it a business required confidence as well. Though she doesn’t believe in moaning about the lack of women in agricultural businesses, she does believe representation matters. As she did research into the possibility of running her own workwear business, she discovered online western boutiques run by women from their own homes. That fueled her courage to launch her own business.
Two years ago, she began looking for a manufacturer. Durnin actually started with the Amish community, hoping to find a skilled seamstress. She discovered the Amish are really quite busy and couldn’t find a taker. Then Durnin reached out to a relative who had worked in corporate apparel who provided a contact with a general contractor in the Toronto area who works as a liaison between designers and factories where the sewing gets done. The contractor also connected Durnin with a pattern maker.
“It took at least one year to finalize the pattern and source material,” remembers Durnin.
The pattern is key. To truly fit women, Durnin made some big changes from traditional men’s overalls. She pulled the bib up higher to cover and support women’s breasts. Next she designed a fitted waist and added seams in the legs to reduce bagginess and give the overalls a more tailored look. The strap buckles were designed so they wouldn’t come undone at inopportune times while the straps were made to be elastic so they could stretch. Instead of buttons at the sides, the overalls are fitted with zippers because “who has time for buttons?” she said. Finally, she designed smaller sizes to fit small women, while offering larger sizes as well, in both regular and long lengths.
Best of all, the overalls come in feminine colours including rose and grey, two-tone navy blue and two-tone grey.
This year’s design revamp includes a cell phone pocket and syringe holders in the chest pocket for farm women and veterinarians to have a handy place to store them while needling livestock.
Durnin’s manufacturer required a minimum order of 100 and she launched her new overalls in November of last year, just about selling out before Christmas. At $254 for an unlined pair and $287 for a lined pair, the overalls are an investment for a quality product.
As Durnin considers her business future, she admits that manufacturing in Canada is very, very expensive. She would like to have a combination of Canadian and overseas production to lower production costs. “It is nice to have some in-country production but at the end of the day, I want to ensure affordability as well,” said Durnin. She also plans to expand the line to include coveralls, themed t-shirts and a few key men’s pieces.
Plus, she hopes to expand the line into local retail stories. “There are still people who prefer in-person shopping experiences and, as you can see (speaking of where the farm is situated, far from town) I am really not in a central location.”
As Durnin considers what advice she could offer entrepreneurs, her first words are “try anything.” Before this, she was selling horse trailers from the United States into Canada, which provided the seed money for this venture.
“Do not be afraid of failing,” said Durnin. “I really don’t care what people think of me and I don’t worry if I fail. I think you learn so much from each experience that can be used for your next venture.”
Having said that, she admits any start-up takes a lot of capital and that most clothing businesses take five years to turn a profit. A self-professed risk taker, she used the funds from one side-hustle to fund this one, but knew she still had the farm and her agronomy business to rely on. “I wasn’t risking the farm.”
As she moves ahead with dreams and plans for her workwear business, Durnin imagines a career where she is able to have a 50/50 balance with both businesses as the seasonality of farm work works well with a home-based business. She loves her agronomy work but also finds real satisfaction in being in control of her own days and having the ability to create. “I feel fully responsible for my own success and failure and I feel that is a good type of pressure to have.” ◊