Sometimes fashion imitates life — just ask Ralph Dunning.

This story first appeared in the December 30, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Toronto native and founder of Dunning Sportswear was a competitive cyclist and triathlete who turned his passion for sports into a successful business, launching the Rip ‘n Hammer line of apparel in 1993. In 2000, when a knee problem stopped Dunning from racing, he took up golf, and the next year introduced a line of performance-based golfwear. Over the years, the company evolved from exclusively golf apparel to sportswear targeted to the athlete, with slim fits, performance fabrics and understated designs.

Today, Dunning’s knee has improved and he is racing again. And so he will augment his golf collection with three new collections of race apparel for the triathlon, cycling and running, slated to be introduced early next year.

The lines, which will be produced in Toronto in small amounts, will be sold exclusively in Dunning Sportswear stores and online.

Dunning opened its first store in north Toronto last November, and the unit is already turning a profit, he said. Last month, he added a second unit in that city’s Unionville suburb, as well as a third on Queen Street, which he said is “similar to SoHo.” Dunning will then turn his attention to the U.S., where he is planning to open stores in the athletic meccas of Boulder, Colo., and San Diego. Scottsdale, Ariz., is also on his wish list, he said, and eventually he would like to add stores on the East Coast, with New York City as the logical first choice.

“The goal is to have five locations by early spring,” Dunning said.

Operating his own retail store has allowed the entrepreneur to test product directly with consumers, who he said are brutally honest about what they like and dislike about a line. “Going direct to consumer is critical to the success of a company,” he said.

Dunning said this strategy is preferable to showing his line at trade shows. “Setting up a retail location actually costs less than doing a trade show,” he said. “It’s not that big an investment.” He said his store designs are “minimalistic,” incorporating refurbished old furniture and sports photographs, so “there are no big build-outs.”

Dunning has also had success selling his sportswear at race expos or through pop-up shops. He set up one such shop during the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October, and more than 2,000 people walked through in a few days. He also uses two-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander as a spokesman for the sportswear line to appeal to the athletic man. Dunning calls this grassroots selling strategy “old-school — just get your product in front of people.”

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