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Entering White Sulphur Springs is like entering any forlorn island of humanity in Montana’s vast expanse, which has led to its nickname “Big Sky Country.” The main street is dotted with bars, a café closed for winter, and several other unremarkable or abandoned storefronts. I am scanning this bleak commercial horizon for a coffee shop or similar place with a WIFI connection where I can hunker down for a few hours and work. My eyes are immediately drawn to a storefront that seems very out of place.
“Oh, that’s Red Ants Pants.” My mom tells me. The fact my mom has even heard of this place ignites my interest.
“They make women’s work pants and they put on a huge music festival out here every year. They’re really big.”
The bleakness of our drive calls to mind Yasgur’s farm, the desolate setting of the original Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 in rural New York. This mental picture is confirmed 10 minutes later when I walk into the store and see the posters of the previous two years’ festivals: Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, The Wailin’ Jennys, and many more acts oscillating between notable and never-heard-of. Clearly this rural business is on to something.
Sarah Calhoun, the founder and owner of Red Ants Pants, can be a tough woman to track down. I have to wait a week before I can meet and interview her because she is out of town on a “Tour de Pants” promoting her line of clothing. When I finally do schedule an interview, she notes that she would prefer to do it fireside and with a glass of whiskey.
“Tell me you drink whiskey?” she writes in her email response.
Already I can tell that Sarah has brought her personality into the brand of Red Ants Pants, which I will learn is a factor that much of its success can be attributed to.
Sarah founded Red Ants Pants in 2006 after a long stint of dissatisfaction with the workpants market. Sarah grew up in Canada and Connecticut where her parents, who can both trace their families back to the Mayflower, had a llama farm and worked in the dairy industry. After college, she took a job as a guide for Outward Bound based in the Chesapeake area and led trips all over the Northeast. Outward Bound led to a stint with a trail crew as part of the Student Conservation Association in Tennessee, followed by work on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, leading an Apache Youth Corp in Arizona, then work in Southern California, then the Cascade mountain range… suffice to say that Sarah amassed years worth of seasoned dissatisfaction with having to wear men’s work pants. In 2004, she made her final shift to Bozeman, Montana grooming ski trails during the winter and peeling logs in the summer. During this entire period of various outdoor employment, she talked to various pants manufacturers – the Levis and the Carhartts – and asked them if they made a variety of pants for women that perhaps she had not come across.
Would they be interested in starting a line of women’s work pants?
In fact, one representative of the companies she spoke to encouraged her to start her own line of pants if she felt so passionately about the matter. Here was her competition telling her they would not compete and kicking her to get going. Like many visitors to StartupNation, she had a great idea but little experience to speak of in starting a business. In what she laughingly describes as the cliché of all clichés, she bought Starting a Business for Dummies and took refuge in a coffee shop to read it.
Many entrepreneurs who tell their story of how things got started cite an overwhelming amount of fortunate circumstance in addition to the other regular ingredients that build a successful business recipe. Sarah is no exception. As she sat in a coffee shop trying to become less of a “Dummy,” she struck up a conversation with another man in the shop who was interested in her book choice.
“A guy noticed the book and we got to talking and it turns out that for the past 20 years he had done production and design for Patagonia. He gave me loads of contacts and advice and he said ‘ Sarah, you’re on to something big here – you should move on this now.’”
That was the spark – she spent the next year working on design and studying business as much as possible.
“I was 25, super naive, didn’t know a thing about business. Did not want to be in business. I didn’t know a thing about the apparel industry but I was like ‘Shit, how hard can it be to start a business? I thought I was going to do like 100 pairs in my first month and then 200, then 300, and then 600 every month. It was probably not even half of that.”
Then, in 2005, Sarah made a move that is cause for criticism at first but has turned out to be an enormous part of her brand’s narrative: she moved from Bozeman, MT to White Sulphur Springs, MT – a rural outpost of bygone western romanticism. On the scale of Montana metropolises, Bozeman might be considered the most posh of the bunch. It is the headquarters of Montana State University – a commonly glossed-over higher education gem – has a booming arts and cultural scene, a thriving downtown area, a progressive municipal government, and even a tech and startup scene featuring a company (RightNow Technologies) bought out by Oracle. For her, Bozeman was too big. She stayed true to her aspirations and made her business work for her goals, not the other way around.
Small towns have other advantages too. Real estate tends to be cheaper and Sarah was able to purchase – not rent – a building on main street for less than what rent would have been in Bozeman. She rents out the apartment upstairs and thus has a supplemental source of income. Her location also gives her the opportunity to stand out for being a big fish in a small pond and attract people like me who drove through town and felt compelled to visit her store. Rather than be a competitor for limited consumer attention spans in a saturated city like Bozeman, she has a monopoly on curiosity in White Sulfur Springs.
The store is immediately inviting with Western homely charm: there is a wood burning stove, an enormous cat sunning himself on the wood floor, a coffee machine with freshly brewed stock, and posters and photographs of Red Ants Pants adorning the walls. The store’s identity straddles its 19th century history as a registered historic building (the former home of a saddle manufacturer) and a hip clothing merchant. Sarah greets me and shakes my left hand because her right one is in a cast from a recent basketball injury during her recent “Tour de Pants.”
“Tour de What?” I ask.
She hands me a cup of coffee and we sit at the table that is arranged comfortably in the middle of the shop floor. During this brief greeting, three women enter the store, ask about this year’s music festival, and browse the products on display – they have driven all the way from Great Falls, MT just to visit this place.
Sarah throws her pants into her airstream trailer and drives around the country throwing pants parties on what she calls the “Tour de Pants.” She has modified the airstream bathroom to serve as a fitting room and searches for that critical engagement experience with her customers. From her point of view, she is more interested to hear the stories of potential buyers than to repeat the same monologue about her outfit and its origins.
“Have a beer, get to know folks, sell some pants, pack up and roll on to the next town.”
Her very first Tour de Pants (pre-airstream) took place in New England. She did not even have enough pants to sell – she just packed enough stock to let people try them on – but the concept took off. Now she has done tours along the California coast, upper Midwest, Rocky Mountain region, a bunch in the Northwest and her most recent trip to Texas, which was the debut appearance of the pants wagon in the far south. She even has official whiskey and beer sponsors.
At this point, we start talking about the pants themselves. Sarah asks me to try a pair on. Absolutely. I emerge from the dressing room and make a quick runway prance across the store to try out the feel. The pants are certainly heavy duty and feel like a serious pant designed for a woman who wants to do serious work. The variety I have tried on is the straight leg form for women who have slimmer hips. The original version is designed with a slim waist and more room in the hip section to better accommodate the female figure, something lacking in traditional work pants. What Sarah and other women she has encountered do is buy pants too large at the waist in order for them to fit the hips.
“When you try to squeeze curvy women into square pants, there are a number of problems that result. Worst of which is probably the ‘plumber’s crack.'”
All the pants have a double-layered knee that goes all the way up to the pockets rather than stopping halfway up like with Carhartts. When I asked her if she uses the same fabric that Carhartt uses, she responds with “Hell no!” Just as it should be. She bemoans the fact that she could not find any suitable cotton fabrics made in the US “even though we invented the cotton gin.” She settled on a fabric made in India.
“Everytime I bought a pair of Carhartts, they would start to wear away right above the ending of the double layering, so we made sure it went all the way to the top like it should.”
The crotch of the pants is also like nothing I have ever seen. Instead of the inseams of the legs meeting in the middle, there is a diamond patch designed to reinforce this place where a lot of the tension of pants with the traditional design gets focused. Every had a pair of pants develop a hole in the crotch? That’s why. A patch of fabric better distributes the intersecting stress than a bulky seam.
Sarah developed these pants and their designs from the ground up. With the help of her mentor from Patagonia and a few other designers, she made heaps of sketches and prototypes until she settled on the current design. To test the fabric, she would count the number of swipes she had to take with sandpaper before she weakened it. No fancy science here, just a practical pant designed with intention and meant to hold up to the beatings that clothing take in a place like Montana. This is business savvy at its finest. Instead of going after a perceived market need or diverting resources to quality tests with more expensive name power, like the tests Patagonia conducts, Sarah kept it basic. She focused on pleasing her most stringent quality control agent and healing the pain points of her most discerning customer: herself.
Finishing with the store and the pants, we walk out the rear of the building and hop in her Chevy truck for a drive out to the site of her annual music festival. Down a dirt road past landscape that only a trained eye can use for a reference point, Sarah stops the truck at a seemingly random point in the road. We get out and her dog runs ahead as she and I continue to chat. She gestures to the right at an empty field that, if I were to return in July, would be filled with tents, cars, and campers. We walk further down the road and she points toward a gently sloping field slightly uphill from the campsite. This is where they build the stage and the fence in front of me is where people enter the venue. I point out a nearby cattle chute and sorting area and joke that, if lines ever got out of control, they could file people in like cattle and make it part of the gimmick. She laughs, but not at the notion that lines might get out of control. In the festivals’ first year, 2011, 6,000 people showed up – less than 2,500 people live in White Sulphur Springs. Last year that figure increased to 8,800 and this year 10,500 people made the trek to this normally forlorn field.
What Sarah has built out of a town in the Old West – in the same town that F. Scott Fitzgerald visited during the formative summer before his Junior year at Princeton – is nothing short of astonishing. Yet, my astonishment started to dim the more I talked to her and the more I learned about Red Ants Pants. Not because of any shortcomings on the part of Sarah or her business, but because I started to realize that my preconceived notion about rural being a hindrance to business innovation was just that, a notion. A falsehood conditioned by the modern belief that good business only happens in cities.
Red Ants Pants is the perfect example of a purpose-driven enterprise directed by the dreams of its founder and using its surroundings to its advantage. Plenty of open space? Great, let’s throw a summer concert series. Rural location with little foot traffic? No problem, throw the company in an airstream and hit the road. Sarah makes sure that whatever she does with Red Ants Pants, she is driven by the right motives and not just to make a quick buck. It is for this reason that she does not have any distribution agreements in place with retailers, despite numerous lucrative offers from the top brands in the industry. She likes shaking her customers hand and ensuring that, when her customers experience Red Ants Pants, it is on her terms.
We end the interview in her apartment that is actually the rear section of the building where her store is located. Sarah sets out a few glasses and proceeds to walk me through her favorite local whiskeys while we listen to Kid Rock. When we finally sit down in front of the fire and fulfill her promise for the interview’s final setting, we are sipping whiskey sodas and talking about her future travel plans and what she wants to do when she gets the cast off of her right arm (answer: chop some much needed firewood).
When you buy Red Ants Pants, this is what you are buying. You are buying a piece of western culture.
“It has become so much more than a pair of pants to our customers.”
No argument here.