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Clothing business flourishes in Gore Bay

Kathy Antonio attracts an international fan base with her cozy, made-in-Canada apparel
The Canada-themed line (right) at My Ol' Blues has been popular amongst owner Kathy Antonio's clients, but she is always coming up with new designs, including repurposing a scarf as a shirt (left).

On the morning of June 3, when Kathy Antonio should have been loading up her truck to transport her product to the Manitoulin Trade Fair in Little Current, she was instead hunched over her sewing machine, putting the final stitches in a homemade banner.

Exhibited alongside displays of her hand-made clothing — comprised of recycled fabrics — the banner brandished the motto by which she's operated her company, My Ol' Blues, since 1993: “refreshing, recycled, repurposed and renewed.”

“I could have got a banner made, but no, I have to zigzag it so it looks like what my business represents,” laughed Antonio, who was named an Influential Woman by Northern Ontario Business in 2005.

“The whole thing is about recycling and reusing and the fact that we have local people here doing it.”

That combination has held large appeal for visitors to her Gore Bay store on Manitoulin Island, where Antonio and her staff of six manufacture a range of infant and baby clothing, pullovers and jackets, blankets, capes, scarves, beanies and mittens from materials like fleece and denim.

Her clothing has been worn by the crew of the Bluenose II, sold at retail stores across the country, and presented to the Royal Family of Jordan.

The warm, fleece pullovers would be ideal for cold tours around the skating rink, but that's about as much as her current job has in common with her former role as figure skating coach.

Trained at Seneca College, Antonio taught figure skating for 17 years, and earlier worked alongside her father painting signs at his sign company. Self-employment gives her the confidence to try new ideas, she said.

Antonio conceded her made-in-Canada model is somewhat of a rarity these days as manufacturing jobs are lost to offshore production, but she aims to stay aware of industry trends and evolves her business model accordingly.

A 2009 initiative to support a Manitoulin Relay for Life team was so successful she's trying it again with the U.S. Women's Curling Association and an organization that raises funds for families of Canadian troops.

The groups sell products made by Antonio, getting a percentage of the sales for their cause. The formula doesn't eat into Antonio's bottom line, but still allows her to contribute in a meaningful way, while extending her retail business to all four seasons.

Her focus has switched from wholesale to retail, which gives Antonio more time to design new lines and please in-store customers, many of whom visit Manitoulin specifically to shop at her store.

“The way our economy is fluctuating so much lately, focusing on smaller, quicker turnarounds, short runs of things, is probably better than investing a lot of time or money into larger runs,” she said.

“Instead of putting out huge designs for two years and crossing my fingers, if I do short things that I'm only going to run for six months then the market that we're in, the economic times, can handle that.”

Her goal for 2011 is to set up a website, a lack of which she knows has been limiting. Recognizing that an increased web presence will draw even more fans to her work, Antonio said she's already receiving calls from around the world, inquiring about her products.

“People put websites up but customers don't know who they are,” she said. “I'm already an established business. People are looking for me. It's only going to be a bonus to have it there.”

Though she didn't plan on a career in manufacturing, Antonio said she'd still take the same path, with one exception: she'd get an education in business. It's something she believes would have helped her iron out the bugs early on.

Helming the Manitoulin Branding Association, the organization that endorses products made on the Island, has been a big help in promoting both her business and others like it. Visitors especially are drawn to genuine made-on-Manitoulin items that carry the branding logo.

It provides some stability during tough economic times in which many small business owners find it easier to fold than employ creative solutions to keep going.

“Sometimes the obstacles are what challenge you and make you think outside the box,” Antonio said. “Because if you don't, you become stagnant and your doors are closed.”