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It makes sense that Montana is home to artisans who make huckleberry jam, weave horsehair belts and carve pinewood furniture.

These things have obvious cultural connections to such a wild and scenic place.

So it is no wonder that Missoula entrepreneur Cat Thordarson startles people when she tells them what she makes here in the heart of the Inland Northwest.

It’s a one-word jaw-dropper: bikinis.

Thordarson makes the itty-bitty kind, the full coverage kind – whatever clients want, because she makes all kinds, all sizes, including ones that are made-to-order and custom-fit.

Thordarson operates her MilkBaby Bikini swimwear design company from Cat’s Eye Design, her retail and production shop in downtown Missoula.

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Because Montana is filled with creative and enterprising people, her mission is to kick-start the state’s fashion industry, with Missoula being the epicenter of design and production.

Some may call her a dreamer, but Thordarson is well on her way to at least personal success.

Thanks to a bold decision to knock on the doors of the famed Time-Life Building in New York City recently, Thordarson’s MilkBaby designs will likely adorn the sexy models in the pages of Sports Illustrated’s next swimsuit edition.

“The editors really loved the designs I showed them and they were so encouraging,” Thordarson said. “What was supposed to be just a hand delivery of the bikinis turned into an hourlong job interview, and they really liked what they saw.

“It’s all pretty exciting.”

A Montanan by birth, a world traveler by choice and an apparel design graduate by training, at age 32 Thordarson is finally settling into a path she chose years ago.

When you don’t have any capital to start a design company, she said, it takes a while to amass a savings account and buy the necessary sewing equipment and fabrics to get started.

“After I graduated from Iowa State with a degree in apparel merchandise, design and production, I took every job possible so I could start my fashion line,” Thordarson said. “I’ve been slowly chipping away at my dream, working on designs and perfecting my product.”

“I’ve had a bikini business in my head for at least 10 years,” said the former competitive swimmer, lifeguard, swim instructor and beach bum. “Although I grew up in Helena, my family moved around a lot and I’ve lived in a lot of places over the years. I’m relocating from San Diego by way of Alaska, but I’ve lived in Maui, and studied fashion in New York and Belfast (Ireland).”

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The name of her company was inspired by her Southern California experience, where “milkbaby” is used to describe active, healthy, vibrant women – women who look like they drink their milk.

With each new place she lived, with each new environment, Thordarson’s bikini designs evolved and settled around one main theme, which is her business motto.

“Swimwear designed for Every Body – and that’s truly what we do,” she said. “All the styles are named for the fit model that inspired the suit.

“We make suits that not only fit all types of bodies, but flatter all types of bodies. My mission has been to create cutting-edge designs while empowering women of all shapes and sizes to feel confident enough to wear a bikini and proudly show off their natural curves.”

A small group of local designers helps Thordarson with her company and helps run Cat’s Eye Design, which also features handmade Montana clothing and accessories from artisans around the state.

The swimsuits are made in a production room in the basement of the Main Street shop, and sometimes they are sewn on a machine in the store’s front window.

As the swimwear company grows, Thordarson’s goal is to train interns to become future designers at the company.

Currently, the company is hustling to get orders out to specialty boutiques around the country and to beef up its stock.

“We are setting ourselves up to be ahead with orders, because if we make it into Sports Illustrated and our suits are photographed – and there’s a really good chance we will – we could get serious sales in the winter,” she said. “And we have to be set up for that.”

Editors at the famed magazine have been e-mailing the Missoula company and alerting them to the fact that shooting begins in July for the winter bathing suit edition.

Generally, the layouts evolve around a color theme, inspired by the location of the shoot, which has not yet been chosen.

“They will let us know what colors they need in the next couple of weeks,” Thordarson said. “I know they like the really bright colors, like the blue metallic suits we gave them.”

While she waits for the dream bikini call, Thordarson is moving ahead with all her other plans to encourage fashion design and production in Montana.

“No matter what does happen, the editors at the magazine have been incredibly helpful to us and they have given us some great business pointers,” she said. “It’s all good. It’s all really exciting and it’s all really surreal.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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