Innovative, creative and devoted are just a few of the adjectives that nominators used to describe handMADE Montana‘s Carol Lynn Lapotka, who was named Retailer of the Year by the state Department of Commerce during the recent Made in Montana Tradeshow in Helena.
The clothing designer and proprietor of the handMADE Montana store received dozens of accolades from artists, shoppers and community members who submitted her name for the honor. “It’s very heartwarming and touching,” she said, noting that the award typically goes to more conventional Made in Montana vendors.
“Carol Lynn’s work ethic, passion, technical expertise and attention to all makers/creatives is unparalleled,” wrote one nominator, who called her a “standout” in the business world. “She is a true one-of-a-kind and has done a monumental amount of work to raise the level of Made in Montana makers … Montana is lucky to have her and the artisans of Montana are truly lucky to work with her.”
“It’s small business owners like Carol Lynn at handMADE Montana who highlight the very best of Montana-made handcrafted goods while providing a supportive platform for local artisans,” said Montana Department of Commerce Director Scott Osterman in announcing the award.
Lapotka, who opened her store two years ago, is a veritable dervish – constantly spinning out new ideas, and more importantly, bringing many to fruition. In Montana’s arts community, she’s known for stitching together the popular MADE fairs, held in Bozeman Oct. 31, Helena Dec. 4-5, and Missoula Dec. 12. The largest and most successful artisan shows in the state fill giant spaces such as the Adams Center at the University of Montana with up to 200 vendors and throngs of shoppers.
Her store is novel too, showcasing the works of 65 Montana artists while giving the public an opportunity to see her and her crew at work in the fully visible production studio at the back of the shop. There, Lapotka crafts one-of-a-kind clothing and accessories for REcreate Designs, made from up-cycled scraps of fabric.
She pitched in at the onset of the pandemic to design and distribute masks to local first responders, and was commissioned last fall to create 5,000 more masks for the tourism bureau’s “Montana Aware” campaign. She’s back to work on her clothing line now, and recently introduced some denim designs, utilizing the oft-discarded fabric.
Her endeavors reflect her creative drive and entrepreneurial spirit. “I always see a gap in the marketplace,” she says. “It’s my hustler side – seeing opportunities that no one else is doing something about.”
Since locating her business on Main Street two years ago, she’s become involved in the Polson Business Community, spearheading the monthly First Friday promotion and helping revitalize the town’s signature Cherry Festival.
“After 15 years of organizing events you just are aware of issues and obstacles to overcome,” she says. “That’s the skillset I bring to the Polson community and it’s something I want to be able to teach and pass on to other people.”
She’s cultivated relationships with other business people and enjoys “sharing how we can grow and be supportive of each other instead of competing. I send people to other stores and they send people to me.”
Since opening her doors in July 2019, her business has flourished. She has one full-time and two part-time employees, with openings for more, and notes that July sales were up 60% from a year ago.
With all these enterprises swirling around her, it’s no surprise that the mother of two children, ages 7 and 11, strives to cultivate balance between work and home. “Instead of giving 150%, I’ve learned that just 110% will be OK.”
During a recent conversation, she was giving away a plethora of homegrown tomatoes and preparing to watch her 7-year-old son’s first soccer game.
“I don’t want to miss those kinds of things,” she said. “Some days you just need to pause and go watch a kid kick a ball.”
– Kristi Niemeyer