Husband-wife team starts cycling apparel company in Steamboat
Nothing comes easy when trying to grow a dream
April 23, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Karen Tremaine and Clint Ball hesitate when asked, but it doesn't mean they're unhappy.
They launched into the dream of building their own cycling apparel company three years ago and they never predicted how difficult that could be.
The best feeling in the world, Tremaine said, is seeing someone she doesn't know wearing and enjoying her clothing, and now they're getting to that point. In three years, their designs have gone from their heads to their drawing boards, their sewing machines to production facilities, their garage to shops. Now, finally, they're making it on to the backs of customers.
But if they could go back to the start — to three summers ago when Ball was freshly "retired" to Steamboat Springs from Denver and Tremaine, his newlywed wife, was making the decision to shelve her massage practice — would they?
Ask them and they hesitate.
The best of it
They started Cogma Bikewear with a simple idea as it relates to bike clothing.
"We want to spread the word that you don't have to wear what you think you have to wear," Tremaine said. "There are other options out there."
Those other options, in their eyes, include cycling dresses and skirts for women, plus tops that fit far better than your typical cycling jersey.
They've developed a few men's items, as well, short-sleeved button-ups (or snap-ups, as the case may be) that are meant to be as functional on the trail as at dinner afterward.
Three years of turning ideas into prototypes has changed the way they look at clothing. In one of the men's shirts, for instance, there's a pocket designed into the back. That's a staple of cycling jerseys, but the Cogma version is designed to hide the pocket. Its entrances are in the seams on the side of the shirt, then the openings zip up afterward so it looks like a regular button-up to all but the most eagle-eyed.
"I really like to ride in this kind of shirt," Ball said. "I always wished I could stash a raincoat in it somehow, but I didn't want a very visible pocket there. I thought about it and the wheels started turning."
Brainstorming ideas like that and figuring out how to implement them is the fun stuff.
Days spent designing the Cogma logo are fun, and even time spent deciding what goes onto the tags inside the shirts is fun. The women's articles come with a saying printed on each tag, "Everything but Orthodox."
The "care for" tags also show details, referring readers to flip to the back of the tag for special wearing instructions: "Ride hard, sweat, get dirty."
They're the small touches that Tremaine and Ball say signify their larger theme, that these are articles of clothing built by and for bikers. They're meant to be accessible, versatile and thoughtful.
It's not all fun.
The headaches come in waves and they overlap.
They're a very small company, but much of the textile manufacturing world is geared for large order.
The kind of production run Cogma was looking for was just a fraction of the size of what many of the Asian companies they investigated were willing to take on. Even if they could find a company to make their garments, they wouldn't immediately have been able to supply the right fabric to that company.
"We went around trying to find leftover technical fabric or just a warehouse that specializes in that kind of thing and it really doesn't exist," Ball said. "The industry is really geared toward the big clothing manufacturers."
They eventually found some answers to the fabric problems and now source some of those materials through mills in France and Italy.
One problem solved only creates another, however: Small bathes of specially produced fabrics from France and Italy are not exactly cheap.
Along the way, every switch in material required a redesign, and that's a taxing process of its own. They work with people based in San Francisco. A pattern maker there helps create a design for a seamstress to sew, and that finished product is shipped to Cogma World Headquarters in Steamboat.
Ball and Tremaine test the garment and no matter how good the seamstress is, there always are a few required revisions, so it's shipped back and the process is repeated until it's correct.
One small change to a design can mean months of perfecting.
"I enjoy spending the time on it, but the frustrations of getting something accomplished have been really hard," Ball said.
Then there are all the things that don't even involve the clothes, from setting up a website — an exercise in patience for Ball, highlighted two days of resizing photographs for the Web — to preparing all the proper tax licenses and paper work.
They've done it all without full-time jobs.
The price of chasing a dream, they've discovered, is high.
"We had some savings, but the toughest part is watching them dwindle," Tremaine said. "We're able to dedicate full-time to this, but we're using our savings."
The work has begun to pay off.
That started in January when a Federal Express truck rumbled to their door, laden down with boxes and boxes of products.
They soon sold their first piece of clothing, to a friend who paid in cash, including a single dollar bill suitable for framing.
Last weekend was as good as it's been. Cogma traveled to the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif., and set up a booth.
They travel for business in an old van, filling it with their two dogs, a small tent and all the merchandise they can squeeze in. On the way to California, they had to replace the van's alternator twice.
Afterward, during a stopover to check on production, they had to push-start the vehicle on San Francisco's famously hilly streets.
But at Sea Otter, they were stars. Journalists inquired. Customers ogled. Athletes bought. People raved.
"The most exciting thing is to see your product on someone who isn't your friend," Tremaine said. "We saw a guy who had bought a shirt a few days earlier and he was wearing it. It was like, 'Wow. He likes it!'"
If Cogma is going to take off, plenty of work remains. Tremaine and Ball will have merchandise in two Steamboat shops, Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare and Ski Haus, this summer.
They have expos lined up throughout the summer where they hope to spread the word of their products, and they have big plans to be at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas in September, so that next spring, bike and outdoors shops throughout the region can be unloading Cogma apparel.
So, back to that question. Would they do it all again?
They already invested twice as much time as they expected to go from "start" to "sale."
But they don't regret it.
"The thing is, I'm so proud of our products," Tremaine said. "It was really cool at Sea Otter, the reactions we would get. One woman looked in, she was so cute. She said, 'I just want to thank you because this is long overdue.'
“We got a lot of that. They know we're creating a movement for fun things."