In a guest bedroom on the second floor of her mother’s home on the banks of the Ortega River, Caroline Sands shifts stacks of plastic bins holding crisp cotton shirts, soft striped linens and chevron-printed clutches to make room on the bed for her company’s signature feel-good accessory. Not just any old tote, Trunks Beach Couture’s Bosun bag, with its sturdy canvas walls, stainless steel anchor shackle joints and hand-braided handles does more than set-off an outfit – it helps saves lives.
Through sales of its Bosun bag, Trunks Beach Couture supports North Carolina-based charity Wine to Water, which builds and repairs wells for producing clean drinking water in 17 developing countries. For every tote purchased, $10 goes toward the movement, which was founded by Doc Hendley, “a regular rough-and-tumble guy who loves booze, music and his Harley,” according to Wine to Water’s website.
Hendley started the concept of drinking wine in the name of potable water while bartending in Raleigh, N.C. His first successful wine tasting fundraiser in January 2004 was held to send money abroad for clean-water projects, but a few months later Hendley found himself on the ground in Darfur, Sudan building wells. Since then the charity has created safe water for more than 250,000 people.
Back in Jacksonville, Sands and her business partner and mother Kathy Long, got drunk on the idea of retail charity through local artisan sailmaker, Tom White, owner of Wind Dancer Sailmakers. White inspired Sands, 37, and Long, 61, to give a portion of their profits to Wine to Water when he was hired in 2012 to press grommets for their bags, and he refused to accept payment for his services. White had been searching for a way to give to charity. The Bosun bag was his answer.
“Tom White is the most altruistic person you can possibly imagine,” Sands says. “He was grommeting [the bags] and wasn’t charging us. I said, ‘We can’t keep bringing you these things and you not charge us.’ This was his idea. And we just thought Tom was so great. So we said, ‘We’d like to do that too.’”
White, 60, who continually grows a ponytail to donate for cancer patient wigs, has mad sails in his San Juan Ave. shop for nearly 10 years, with a little help from his 6-year-old cocker spaniel Bosun, the bag’s namesake. He first got into the craft as an amateur, because he wanted to make a mainsail with the Jacksonville Jaguar logo on it for his sailboat. Although the Jaguar sail never functioned, a few years later White graduated from the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, left his job working on bio-medical equipment and eventually bought the Wind Dancer Sailmaker shop.
Like White, Sands and her mother turned a whimsical idea into an unexpected business venture.
“We were walking one day and Caroline said, ‘You know I really want to do women’s bathing suits,’” Long says, wearing one of their crisp classic button-down shirts. “And I said, ‘Caroline I don’t even want to put on a bathing suit.’ But we decided to go to market and see what was lacking.”
The mother-daughter duo launched Trunks Beach Couture in 2002 with a first cut of old-fashioned seersucker bikinis with bloomer-style bottoms. But after scouring regional apparel markets, they saw a need for beach cover-ups and abandoned the swimwear. Trunks Beach Couture’s keyhole tunic became its signature shift and has been carried by retailers from Kate Spade to the Home Shopping Network, which later played a role in Trunks Beach Couture two-year pause in production.
“We went from a cottage industry, to making things off-shore,” Sands says, sitting next to a long rack of shirts and tunics covered in plastic bags. “It was our biggest learning experience.”
A combination of the exciting but unprofitable HSN experience and the recession caused Trunks Beach Couture to close shop in 2010. But in 2012, the Jacksonville natives reopened with a renewed passion to create high-quality clothing and accessories with a purpose. That’s when they started making the Bosun bags, which so far have raised enough money to build one Wine to Water well.
Today, Trunks Beach Couture manufactures its nautical resort wear and accessories in America, with the exception of its fine beach linens, which are hand-loomed in Lithuania. The company sells its “bohemian-prep” shirts, tunics and accessories in area boutiques and online with national retailers like Red Envelope, Gilt and One Kings Lane.
With an emphasis on maintaining a luxurious handmade quality for all of their designs, the ladies of Trunks Beach Couture, a name that pays homage to those first seersucker swim trunks, have honed the line to include only pieces that sell well like the Keyhole tunic and Classic button-down shirt. All new development is focused on the bags.
“She has a wonderful fashion sense,” Long says of her daughter. “She does all the designing, every bit of it, and I’m the yes man.”
Sands and Long have struck a business balance that works, with Sands creating and Long keeping both the books and the grandchildren when the business demands it. Long may find her duties require more babysitting and less accounting this fall when Sands gives birth to her third child.
“We’re equally impressed with the other person,” Sands says. “We both realize that it takes both of us to make all the gears run.”
On a warm balmy evening Sands’ small baby bump fills out a chambray top, as she oversees a trunk show hosted at a home in Atlantic Beach. Neighborhood shoppers browse Trunks Beach Couture’s latest collection of shirts, tunics and bags, while Sands chats about someday increasing sales enough to donate earnings from all their garments, not just the Bosun bag, to charity. Then she seizes the moment and approaches a guest admiring a table covered with marked-down old-model tunics, shorts and skirts.
“Would you like some wine?” she says, smiling.