Down by the wharf in Portland, Me., a little handbag company is setting sail for new territory.
It includes more than 20 retail locations along the East Coast and 140,000 handmade bags sold each year.
The company, Sea Bags, began with Hannah Kubiak, who in 1999 was living aboard her father’s sailboat in Maine. As a hobby, Kubiak started making bags from recycled sail cloth. Since Kubiak was sewing the bags by hand, she could only produce about 40 a year.
Still, that was enough to catch the attention of Beth Shissler, who began buying the bags in bulk and reselling them at her mother’s gift shop.
In 2006, the duo decided to partner and Sea Bags the business was born.
But it’s only recently that the business has really taken off. In fact, Sea Bags has quadrupled in size in the last four years, with sales consistently increasing 25 percent year-over-year. The retail portion of the business has grown 35 percent year-over-year.
“Our growth has been only limited by our production capacity and our ability to ramp that up,” said Don Oakes, chief executive officer of Sea Bags.
The impressive growth tells a story of a company that employs nearly 150 people and is completely omnichannel, selling wholesale to buyers across the country, direct-to-consumer by way of its web site and in various retail locations along the East Coast. The company also has collaborations with bigger brands like apparel and footwear company Sperry and Vineyard Vines. Last year, a Vineyard Vines-Sea Bags collaboration was released and is now sold at 56 Vineyard Vine locations. The collaboration, in terms of volume, is the company’s largest to date.
“We can sell everything we can make, but we haven’t always been able to make everything that we can sell,” Oakes said of the company’s need to expand. “The fact that we cut and sew and print everything that we make has meant that we need to continue to increase our production capacity in order to have the opportunity to increase our sales.”
And the appetite for Sea Bags seems to be growing. Oakes said shoppers use the totes as beach bags, work bags, gift bags or even Friday nights on the town. In addition to its signature totes, Sea Bags also sells accessories, such as wallets, wine bags, bottle openers and nautical jewelry, made with things like sailboat rope. Prices range from around $30 to $250. But the Correa & Chart Metalworks rope pendant retails on the site for $2,100.
It’s all handmade in Maine.
The company’s expansion has come at a time when other handbag and accessories makers are on edge as the world’s two largest economies remain in a stalemate over continued tariff talks on at least $200 billion of Chinese goods. Many are scrambling to move production out of China.
Oakes said since all Sea Bags are made in the U.S., even the zipper and bag clasps are sourced in the U.S., the company isn’t affected by the current political environment.
Even so, Sea Bags’ homegrown image isn’t hurting business.
“[Donald] Trump has had a tremendous impact on his core base in terms of pushing them to support American-made products,” said Martin Lindstrom, a brand expert and author.
Still, other consumers are noticing origin of products, among other things, when making purchasing decision. One important factor is sustainability.
And Sea Bags, made from recycled materials, said Oakes, a Maine native, are both sustainable and distinctive. He’s steadfast that this is the real reason why the company is growing.
“That uniqueness of it being handcrafted, that’s what I believe propelled our growth. That’s what keeps customers coming back to us for more,” he said.
“People understand the importance of being made in the States,” Oakes continued. “But we’re not wrapping ourselves in the flag and draping that around and saying, ‘Hey, made in America, not made in China.’ It’s just who we are and it’s what our commitment is. If that helps us, great. But I don’t think it’s what’s driving our growth.”
That uniqueness Oakes refers to means each bag is slightly different, even ones in the same style, since recycled materials are one-of-a-kind. All totes come with handles made of rope from real sailboats. Some have different fabric designs on the inside as well.
In addition to ramping up production, Sea Bags is investing in its digital presence and physical stores to continue creating awareness and grow the company.
There are currently 19 Sea Bags locations in the company’s portfolio — the latest one opened last week — and Oakes said at least four more will open this year.
“If I find the right opportunity and we can increase our manufacturing production to support it, I wouldn’t be shy about opening [even] more,” he said. “I see our future as a continuation of our past. We want to continue to grow the company to introduce our products and our brand to more customers.”