Tuff It Out
Just outside Litchfield, Minn., an hour or so west of Minneapolis, out where cornfields
dominate the landscape, there stands a little factory where a mini-revolution in Western wear is taking place.
It’s not exactly the kind of place where you’d expect Western wear to get all fashionable. But this spot is the home of Cowgirl Tuff and its founder, Lisa Bollin, a trend-conscious, tenacious, energetic entrepreneur whose hot-selling jeans, shirts, and other offerings are turning heads while turning the industry on its head.
Cowgirl Tuff has grown into a multi-million dollar business since its founding in 2003 supplying merchandise to 18 stores.
At various times during those early days, she and husband, Kirk, had felt that they were close to the brink. Those were the times when they “sold the horse trailer” to
stay afloat. The horse trailer has been sold three times.
But “persistence pays off,” as Bollin often says.
She muses on the fast-arriving signs of success. “It’s really different, seeing something like Kristy Lee Cook wearing your clothing on TV, on American Idol. It was a pinch-me moment. Or seeing them on Good Morning America, or on The Ellen Show, or on Jay Leno.”
She adds, “We have a country duo, an up-and-coming act called Bombshel, that is wearing them, too.”
Recent additions in staffing have meant that Bollin “can [continue to] be creative and keep designing and working on new stuff all the time.”
“I went to school for fashion merchandising and design, and then I worked in the retail industry for probably ten years,” she says. “So I know what it is like to sell and that is why I try to get my stuff to work together, so you can get multiple sales. It also helps that I barrel race and rodeo so I know the lifestyle and know what they are wearing.”
Her main barrel horse is named Birds Bonanza, a hard-running athlete that she picked up for $4,800, having sold five horses (but not the horse trailer) to get him. He can be ornery, and Bollin, who has had experience with ornery horses, says it was Bird that inspired her slogan for Cowgirl Tuff: “Even though you’ve been bucked,
kicked, bit, and stomped, never give up.”
This year he’s carried her to a couple of wins and “we’re doing really good.”
“He’s tough,” she says of the not youthful Bird. “He runs on hard ground. The tougher the ground is, the tougher he runs. He doesn’t stumble, doesn’t miss a beat.”
She found him at a Western Saddle Club event. A horse that had been on the racetrack, he was reduced to competing in gymkhanas. “But he can fly like a bird,”
says Bollin, who figured him to be a barrel horse with 1D (speed rating) potential—
in other words, top flight. “He’d never run a rodeo, jackpot, barrels, or anything before I got him,” she says.
Bollin, who holds a PRCA card, says she is trying to run more pro rodeos on her circuit, the Great Lakes. She has been riding since she was two.
The family business—it rests on land that Bollin’s dad once farmed—now employs a dozen, including National Sales Manager Jackie Dalchow, a key figure.
Bollin’s friend Laura Berg, a deputy sheriff whom Bollin got to know as a fellow competitor on the barrel racing circuit, says that Bollin “has been a competitive person
the entire time I have known her, but at the same time she is a very helpful person
outside the arena. If someone needs help with their horse, or whatnot, she
pitches in. And you don’t find that very often with very competitive people. She’s fun, too. Easy going. Easy to talk to, hang out with, spend time with.”
Berg calls Bollin “very artistic,” adding that “for years, when she had her business called ‘Designs by Lisa,’ she would paint pictures on women’s clothing by hand. She can draw very well, too.”
Todd Barden, director of marketing and communications for the National Reining Horse Association, has spent more than 20 years in the Western wholesale industry. He says he remembers Bollin from as far back as her first appearance at the Dallas Apparel Market, when she displayed her wares at a little 10-by-10 booth. “I’ve watched her business grow every year,” Barden says. “She has done so well and I am proud of her. She reminds me of the good, average American horsewoman. She is good people and everything she designs has that strong, everyday woman in mind. For
her, it’s all hard work and perseverance. What she is doing proves that anyone
can take an idea and a philosophy and with some hard work be successful.”
Kirk and Lisa have built a new house, but they won’t soon forget the days of selling off the horse trailer. “You have to get back on and keep trying and never give up,” Lisa says. It’s her mantra for the business and her message to her customers. “You can live in a trailer and still accomplish your dreams. It’s just a place where you lay your head. Never give up your dream.”