Wharf Side Story
At its Portland headquarters, Sea Bags continues to write new chapters with repurposed sails
Given the cachet of Sea Bags’ stylish totes, visitors may be slightly bewildered as they follow the sign pointing off Portland’s Commercial Street toward what is clearly a gritty section of the city’s working waterfront. Yet, between Harbor Fish Market and Coastal Bait Company, there it is: the company’s first retail shop and the place where every Sea Bag is designed and made.
“It would be cheaper to make them elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be as authentic, which is the one word that sums up our company and our product,” says Sea Bags CEO Don Oakes. Made from repurposed sails, each Sea Bag is handmade and unique. “We kid that, even if we wanted to make two bags exactly alike, we couldn’t,” he says.
On a July afternoon, seagulls cry overhead and the faint scent of fish is carried on the warm breeze as people wander the weathered wooden floor of the shop, taking in the displays of bucket bags and wine totes, duffle bags and clutches. The most prominent feature of the space is the tote wall, a floor-to-ceiling showcase of Sea Bags’ original product, now available in myriad designs, including the latest: silvery constellations and zodiac signs on a deep blue background. Visitors can also peek into the sewing room behind the shop, where lengths of cord used for the bags’ signature spliced handles hang on hooks behind two rows of whirring sewing machines. The used sails—standard Dacron or laminated high-performance fabric—are cleaned and cut, or “kitted,” at a warehouse in South Portland before coming here to Custom House Wharf. Upstairs, artisans transfer printed designs onto the material or stitch on appliqués—an anchor, a whale tail, a lobster claw, to name a few. Sea Bags also has a vintage line made from sails with insignias—letters, numbers, and logo sails that once flew from the masts of Catalinas, Pearsons, or Lasers. Custom bags can be monogrammed and designed to commemorate a wedding date or display a boat name.
Founded in 1999 by Hannah Kubiak, Sea Bags was incorporated in 2006 when current president and COO Beth Shissler joined the company. Oakes came on board in 2013 after 20 years at L.L. Bean, where he was senior vice president in charge of the famous catalog and website. A native of Milo, Oakes had always been drawn to helping small businesses, and he saw an opportunity in Sea Bags, which had 25 employees at the time. “Beth was looking for someone to help grow the company,” he says. “We agreed to get to 100 employees in five years; we made it in three.” For their impact on the state’s economy, this April Oakes and Shissler were named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Maine Small Business Person of the Year for 2018.
Under Oakes’s leadership, Sea Bags has opened more retail stores, including four so far this year: in Rockland, Maine; in Newport Rhode Island; in Chestnut Hill in Massachusetts; in Annapolis, Maryland; and on Newbury Street in Boston. A fourth store is planned to open later in 2018 in Vero Beach, Florida, which will bring the total to 18. “It makes sense to be where Northeasterners spend their winters,” says Oakes. “Retail has emerged as the dominant channel for us, because the connection to the product is so much stronger when you see it in person.”
The fact that Sea Bags has such a compelling story is a large part of what drew Oakes to the company. How and where the products are made is one element of the story; sustainability is another. “You hear a lot of companies talk about reducing the waste they create— our whole concept is about sustainability,” says Oakes. “We’ve kept more than 600 tons of sails from going into landfills.” On Custom House Wharf, the repurposing ethic extends to the vintage tables and trunks used for display (all of which are for sale), the desks made from reclaimed wood in the marketing department, and even the interior windows that let light into an upstairs office (they came from the Porthole restaurant nearby). A couple of summers ago, Oakes traveled to Brooklyn, New York, to pick up a “really beat-up” Red Bull truck that Sea Bags has refashioned into a kind of pop-up shop. Painted Sea Bags blue, the truck has garage-type doors that roll up to reveal a version of the tote wall. “We take it to the Blues Festival in Rockland, Tall Ships Portland, the Old Port Festival,” he says. “People want to connect with our brand, our story, and this is another great way to get that story out there.”
Don Oakes’s Tips for Using Sea Bags
- Need to spice up your living room with nautical flair? Sea Bags’ pillows are the perfect addition to a couch, outdoor patio furniture, or even a bench in the foyer. They are made out of durable and water-resistant recycled sailcloth.
- Unique hostess gifts are tough to find. Sea Bags offers a recycled sailcloth wine bag that is the perfect complement to a bottle of wine. The bag is designed to keep on traveling, just like the repurposed sails it is made from: its voyages can be tracked using the log located on the back.
- Headed to a cookout? You can store your favorite drinks in Sea Bags’ beverage bucket. The bucket features six interior pockets sized to hold a six-pack. You can fill the center with ice, and the melted ice escapes through a grommet hole in the base of the water-resistant recycled sailcloth.
- Keep those magazines and newspapers tucked away in a vintage medium tote. It’s a unique way to store household items and can be located in any room in the house.