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Busty Business: Enell Owner and Founder Discusses Her Bra Invention

When she was younger, Havre barber Renelle Braaten liked to spend her spare time playing racquetball and volleyball in city sports leagues. But she was frustrated. 

“There were no bras for big-busted women like me,” she said, looking back at the creation of her business, Enell Inc.

It turned out there were a whole lot of women in the same situation.

But none had the determination of Renelle.

At first, she and her mother worked tried to come up with a patchwork solution. But Renelle was driven by the idea of helping lots of women. So she went to work. She started by getting a patent on her idea, no easy task. It took 18 months. She took small steps, building her business slowly.

Then one day, because of a segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show, her business took off like a bullet. Now women throughout the United States and Canada, and several other countries, wear Enell bras. There are distributors throughout the U.S. 

Many people buy her product online, and more than 500 retail outlets carry it. 

Although the manufacturing is done in Mexico, headquarters is and forever will be in Havre.

All of this has happened because not one company took her up on her offer to buy the patent and manufacture the bras. She spent two-and-a-half years trying to pitch her idea to all kinds of clothing firms.

“They must have been thinking, ‘How can this crazy broad in Havre, Montana, come up with something we didn’t come up with?’ It was the NIH response,” she said. “Not invented here.

“That pissed off this ornery Norwegian.”

But what was she going to do?

“I’m just a barber.”

What else could she do? The colorful, determined woman had one choice. She charged full-speed ahead to start manufacturing her bra. She went full force in deciding to sell her product herself. She found a seamstress in Havre and farmed out work to seamstresses in Malta, Great Falls, and Lewistown. She set up a cutting table in the basement of the office building she and her husband, accountant Wayne Koepke, share on 2nd Street in downtown Havre.

There was no money for advertising, especially in women’s magazines that charge thousands of dollars for a small ad. So she did it the free and proven way.

“Word of mouth is the best advertising. It’s slow, but it’s best,” Renelle said.

 She went to shows in Spokane, Washington, where the bras were well-received.

 “My bra is ugly,” she said. “But it works.”

 The key is getting them to try it on.

“Then you can sell it.”

People tried it on and bought it. Business got so good that using local seamstresses wasn’t cutting it anymore. A firm in Puerto Rico agreed to manufacturer the bra. As that happened, people started to take notice of the bra. Fitness’ expert Kathy Kaehler, who provided fitness tips on the Today Show, was pregnant with twins. Suddenly she needed a special bra. They pointed her to Enell. Then Kathy wanted one for a client, Drew Barrymore, to start jumping rope. Barrymore said she couldn’t do that because it hurt her body.

“I know just what we can do for you,” Kaehler said.

The next day, Renelle walked into the office.

“Guess who we are getting a bra for,” the excited staff asked.

“Who?”

“Drew Barrymore.”

“Who?”

Renelle knew Barrymore’s movies, but not her name. That sale got the ball rolling.

Renelle had been trying to get through to television star Oprah Winfrey for years.

“I’ve seen Oprah, and she could use my bra,” Renelle said.

But lots of people were trying to get through to Oprah. It wasn’t easy.

“Why don’t you quit that (trying to get Oprah) and do some real work,” her husband would chide her.

(Friends love watching the couple work together. Wayne is a quiet, dignified accountant, Renelle, the brash, vibrant lady with all the ideas.)

Barrymore knew a publicist at O Magazine, which Oprah owned. One person talked to another, and another. Then, in June 2005, Renelle got a phone call from someone on Oprah’s staff. They were doing a segment on bras for the next day’s show. Could she get two bras to Oprah for the program?

But how? Renelle asked.

“We can put it on the red-eye (overnight flight).” 

“The Red Eye? From Havre?”

Quick thinking came up with an answer. One of Renelle’s retailers in Los Angele was called, and she put two bras on the Red Eye, the overnight service 

The next day came. Breathless, Renelle went to Radio Shack, located across the street from her office at the time, and convinced the staff to call up the East Coast feed for the Oprah show. 

The segment on bras was the concluding part of the show. But just as it was set to begin, there was a terrible mudslide in New York. The Oprah show was interrupted for live reports. Renelle feared that her dreams of nationwide free publicity were going down the drain.

She doesn’t know today if New York City viewers ever saw the segment. But the rest of the country saw the show – all of it. She could tell by the number of calls that bombarded her poor beleaguered staff. 

As the show aired in each time zone, more calls came in. Thousands of people got busy signals. She had an eight-month supply of bras when the show aired. It was sold in a few days, and the backlog kept ballooning.

“People were selling their bras on e-bay for more than $100,” she said. “It was crazy.”

The Puerto Rican firm could not handle the workload, so a Mexican firm was brought onboard to do the manufacturing. The Havre office was bursting at the seams.

At some point, somewhere in that melee of growing her business,  she found the time to remind Wayne that her years-long effort to get in touch with Oprah worked out pretty good.

“He said eating crow tastes pretty good sometimes.”

Things have been humming along at Enell ever since. But success has never tempted her to leave Havre. 

Along the way, she and Wayne bought the historic old nurses’ dorm at Montana State University-Northern, right across the road from Cowan Hall. They had been living in a large northside home, and they were ready to downsize. The intent was to buy the building, convert the first floor into offices for her business and Wayne’s accounting firm. They would build a smaller house on an adjacent piece of land. One thing led to another and they ended up living in the old dorm. It was totally redecorated and most visitors marvel at the work done on the house. It’s much larger than the house they moved from. So much for downsizing.

“But it’s been great,” she said. “We can have parties and have our friends over. There is a great view.”

“We never travel, anyway,” she said. “Even Missoula. There’s too much traffic. We spend our time home in Havre.”

And she’s close to Northern, where she watches Lights and Skylights games. 

Every year, she adopts a student-athlete, providing help and guidance and a warm welcome. “We usually have them over for dinner every Sunday.” 

Despite Enell’s good fortune, Renelle hasn’t cut back on her commitment to social programs she supports. She carries in her purse sanitized stainless steel drinking straws she uses for restaurant drinks.

“This way, this plastic straw won’t be sitting at the bottom of the landfill for thousands of years,” she said.

Renelle is also an outspoken animal rights advocate. She got appointed to a seat on the Hill County Parks Board because she was aghast at the idea of trapping beavers in Beaver Creek Park.

“I like most animals a lot more than people,” she laughed. “There’s nobody to speak up for them.”

She said her house has become a magnet for stray cats. She nurses them back to health as she takes care of her own cats. A pregnant cat found her way into the yard recently. After a tough delivery, two of the young ones survived. They pretty much rule the household today. She’s willing to give them up to a good home.

“But I have stringent requirements,” she said.

People have to sign a contract saying they will take care of the cats, keep them indoors and be willing to submit to inspections from Renelle.

“People tell me no one will agree to that,” Renelle said. “Maybe they won’t but I want change.”

“I don’t need more than three cats, but if that’s what it takes …”

But what about letting the cats become barn animals?

“It’s not going to happen,” she said.

In addition to providing housing for domineering cats, Renelle also uses her home to support her political ideals. 

Her home has become a regular staging ground for fundraisers on behalf of Democratic political candidates, Jacob Bachmeier, Paul Tuss, John Heenan and Jon Tester just this year. She throws parties for causes they believe in. And she believes in Democrats.

Among her wardrobe is a giant collection of anti-Donald Trump T-shirts.

“I have tons,” she said. “Tons and tons.”

“He is the worst human being ever.”

In her many years manufacturing, no one has ever approached to buy the business. She doesn’t know what she’d do. It’s a lot of work, “but it’s my baby.” She’s worried the women who use her product would not be able to find anything else like it. She’s seen Enell grow from the ground up.

She shares her business acumen with others, especially women groups.

“The best thing I ever did was marry my accountant,” she laughed. “It saved me money on my accounting bills.”

editor@havreherald.com (406) 262-7778
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