MADWORLD founder, designer and artist Meredith Alex in one of her creations, a dress made from strips of black-and-white photographs called “Imagery in Chaos”. The photo prints are courtesy of Richard Sandifer (Brian Fitzgerald/Inspire Portland).
Editor’s Note: Meredith Alex comes from a town called Freedom, which is a good place to start if you want to be an artist, designer and entrepreneur. Alex, AKA, “MadGirl” chose Portland after living in Los Angeles, but her plans stretch far beyond Casco Bay. Her business, MADWORLD, is relaunching this fall with a new focus, a business team and a plan for world domination.
IP: Busy day today?
MA: Yes! Lots of errands and running around. I have a reception wedding dress that I’m finishing. I’m sending a bride off in her reworked mother in law’s wedding dress that I am turning into a reception dress.
IP: How’s your business going?
MA: Good. I am really excited about the revised MADWORLD launch this fall. We have new products coming to market, a new brand, and a fresh new look. My vault studio is a great work space and has been my madworld home for the past winter since I left Commercial Street last fall. We just had a video crew from MSN.com there and they thought it was so cool that the studio was the luggage vault for the old railroad station. I used to play in my grandmother’s steamer trunks of clothes, and now here I am sewing in this big room that they locked the steamer trunks in when they got off the train. Isn’t that cool?
IP: What brought you to Portland?
MA: I grew up in Freedom, Maine. So I haven’t lived in Portland before. I moved here four and a half years ago. I really love Maine. I had moved away to work and go to school in California—in Los Angeles—and when I decided to come back East, I lived in the midcoast for a while and raised a family. Portland was a natural gravitation for my business. I really like the vibe of being close to other cities, being able to hop on a plane, being two hours from Boston and also the combination of the arts and the food and the culture. It’s such a wonderfully diverse, livable city for someone who’s creative. There’s a lot to offer and I think coming from California, where there’s a lot of ethnic diversity, Portland fulfilled that for me. I love being around different cultures. I’m a real people person. Having that around you, hearing different languages, the different styles and different dress, for me as a designer it’s inspiring. I live in
[Portland’s] East End and I love seeing women wrapped in their beautiful colorful fabrics and hair wraps. That was a big draw for me.
IP: How would you describe Portland?
MA: I actually just answered that for the MSN.com interview. I said ‘Madras,’ which is a type of fabric which is sewn together in different directions. What I liked about the Madras analogy was that it’s very New England—it’s very preppy in style, but when you look at it, it’s wild, it’s got patterns going in different directions. It’s conservative yet liberal, and I think Portland’s got a mix of both. You have this seafaring working waterfront town combined with the most creative green artsy spaces. It has a lot of both qualities sewn together in one fabric. When you back away from it, it’s really interesting to look at. That’s how I see Portland. All viewpoints come together, they work together, and they own businesses side by side. It feels like no matter the backgrounds, religious beliefs or political beliefs, people put them aside to work side by side to create a greater whole—Portland. It’s a great community.
The other idea you could relate to it is a quilt. A crazy quilt. In the old days, they would be made of men’s suits and all the scraps of fabrics that women would save. [Crazy quilts] have all these different layers, and they’re warm and strong. To me, a community has to have that. It has to have the diversity. It has to have strong threads sewn together throughout the neighborhoods and here, you feel that. Even though there are very distinct neighborhoods, because of the the city is confined to a peninsula, people live as one community and love the city of Portland.
IP: How would you explain what you do to a five-year-old?
MA: I make people smile.
IP: That’s the most succinct answer I’ve gotten to that question.
IP: You design, you create art and you’re a businessperson.
MA: Right. I’m an entrepreneur, an installation artist, and a designer. As a designer, I have my own lifestyle brand, which is growing and expanding into multiple markets. All of the products I’ve designed and invented are based on visual fun. Modern design with a colorful twist. In the new company there’s MADWORLD as the umbrella company and the new products we will start launching in the fall will create a viral energy that speaks to all ages of people, all over the world. MadGirl Custom is one arm under the bigger MADWORLD umbrella. I have my pimped-out pumps under MadGirl Custom and I’m really going to be marketing those in the upcoming year.
IP: What are you doing right now?
MA: I just finished a men’s suit out of Crown Royal bags and I’m working on the wedding reception dress for a new bride. If you have an idea of a really interesting piece—you have an old quilt you want turned into a party dress for example—it’s a one of a kind piece, that’s an example of the kind of custom work that I do.
IP: You basically reuse things.
MA: Yup. In the MadGirl Custom arm of the business I do. MadGirl Custom also is the part of the business that does the big dress installations and the fashion shows. MADWORLD is focusing on manufacturing my designs.
IP: You’re thinking really big.
MA: Oh, yeah.
IP: How big?
MA: It’ll be big. We’ve got a whole launch planned. Not everything comes out at once. Everything is timed. What’s really cool is that under MADWORLD we have all of these categories in different markets and MadGirl Custom is what’s unique to my artistry. If people want to work with me one-on-one they would come to that. The MADWORLD lifestyle brand products are really going to be pushed wholesale. And It’s not all fashions. It’s decor too.
IP: It’s much bigger than Portland. How are you managing it all?
MA: My new business partner [Lesley] is the COO. She’s the missing link I haven’t had before. I can wake up every night and sketch a new idea out but the innards of running a business doesn’t excite me. It’s really nice to have a team. Some artists and entrepreneurs are really interested in doing it their own way-completely. They have their own style and they don’t want to share but I’ve been doing this on my own since I moved to Portland. I’m excited to have passive income from having things I’ve thought up be mass-produced. We’re going from one-offs to mass production.
IP: I don’t really hear terms like “passive income” being talked about by creatives.
MA: What’s really cool about the way the business is unfolding is that there’s still this artistry component—the MadGirl Custom—and that’s the part that will continue to still have a storefront. A working fashion studio, is what I like to call it. Having a retail store was never my goal, but a working fashion studio where people can come in and meet with me, talk with me…that’s what’s really I love most. The people I meet. My studio is really like walking into a magic elf workshop. It’s inspiring. People get to see all the bits of lace and the hot glue gun and the magic. You can’t hide the recipe, you have to share the recipe. What’s really cool about having a brand that’s really specific to your energy is that it has your energy, your colors, your style and your patterns and nobody can do it exactly like you.
MA: I have a wonderful team of marketers and I like guerrilla marketing. We’re going to do some really cool stuff in Portland and in other large cities.
IP: Beginning this fall?
IP: Now with your new business partner, it sounds like you have a full ‘business brain’.
MA: I definitely have a full brain now. What’s been really nice this past winter has been sitting back and deciding what parts of the business were working or not working. I really tore it (MADWORLD) down to the bones and built it back up with a really great team. I feel so much more organized.
IP: Do you have any advice for other creatives or businesspeople?
MA: The biggest thing is never give up. You have to never, never give up and you have to make your opportunities happen. That’s the key thing. Cold call, put yourself out there and sell yourself. I’ve had my ups and downs. But the key is to keep moving forward. I did and things happened for me, and I met people—new business partners and investors—by talking about my ideas. Every person you meet could be a potential opportunity. Keep your doors open. Stay positive.
IP: So what would you be doing if not here for this?
MA: I have like ten things I need to do right now. It’s not anything interesting, like working on the next sculpture.
IP: It never is, is it?
MA: Well, it will be. I have a deadline for another installation tomorrow.
From Custom House Wharf to the World: Hannah Kubiak and Beth Shissler own Portland-based Sea Bags, which recycles used sails into bags and other products and ships them around the globe. (© Brian Fitzgerald/Fitzgerald Photo)
Editor’s Note: Recycling and reuse are more than just slogans to Beth Shissler and Hannah Kubiak, Maine natives and co-owners of Portland’s Sea Bags. The company repurposes old sails into tote bags, placemats and other products that each carry a bit of Maine with them wherever they go. The company is committed to staying on Portland’s Custom House Wharf, where they work in a crowded manufacturing and retail facility filled with second-hand furniture.
IP: Why is Sea Bags in Portland?
Beth: Because there’s no better place for a business like ours. Not just Portland, but specifically Custom House Wharf. Hannah started here forever ago—in 1999—across the way and it was just a natural. When we first started, we got up to 12 people over there [in just over 400 square feet].
IP: Working in shifts, I hope?
Beth: No…we actually had people cutting sail in front of us, and four sewing machines. I had my corner—I’m a little claustrophobic—that no one was allowed in because I was running the computer and running and shipping boxes in the corner.
IP: That’s impressive. When did you move here?
Beth: Maybe three or four years ago.
Hannah: Yeah…we couldn’t tell you.
Beth: It was a year from the time that we decided to move here that it was ready. [Moving pre-production upstairs] will give us an additional 4,000-5,000 additional square feet up here. We thought we’d hit the jackpot when we moved downstairs, and it soon became apparent that we’re busting at the seams down there, too.
IP: There’s something to the atmosphere you have down there, with the seamstresses. How do you maintain that?
Beth: I think the energy comes from the people we work with. We’re really lucky that we have over a third of our staff who started with us in our first year. The energy comes from the demand for the product, which we’re so thankful for. We’re trying to keep kind of a calculated growth to keep it sustainable, because we don’t want to hire people and then have to lay them off or let them go. So everybody wears at least a dozen hats. We’re the owners but we’re known to roll up our sleeves and pack up a box, or do labels, or fix the copier, or whatever it takes. Our staff has really grown with us. I think the energy comes from that growth. It’s exciting and it’s scary and it’s chaotic.
IP: Can you share some metrics?
Beth: We’ve gone from three of us to 20. We’re in our sixth year. We’ve gone from less than a hundred bags a year to over 2000 units a month.
IP: Hannah, you started in 1999. What happened six years ago?
Beth: We incorporated. I came on in 2006.
IP: What was going on before that?
Hannah: It was just a little shop my best friend and I started the company in 1999. We were making the bags to pay the bills and we were having a wonderful time doing it. We met some wonderful people, and we found a great use for materials that would otherwise have hit the landfill. Being down here on the waterfront as well was key to the whole aesthetic of what we were trying to accomplish.
IP: Can you remember the first time that idea of bags popped into your head?
Hannah: Yeah, because my dad told me about it (both laugh).
IP: How did he bring it up?
Hannah: He said, “Hey kid. Check this out. It’s just a wonderful thing. You gotta do this.” He was actually a bag maker from way back. He started a company called the Port Canvas Company in 1969 in Kennebunkport, so he knows the basics on how to make a sturdy bag. He lives on his sailboat and he needed a bag one day. He had an extra piece of rope, and…tada.
IP: What’s your role here now?
Hannah: I run a lot of errands. Seriously, every day is quite a bit different. I don’t have any set parameters. It’s all a big mystery which kind of keeps it interesting for everybody, including me. We have meetings that we have to set up. We have people that we have to look after. I need to make sure the flow is going well in production. If there’s something missing then I’ll either fix it or go after it. Stuff like that.
IP: Are you designing new stuff all the time, and how does that process work?
Hannah: Beth comes up with some great ideas and occasionally I’ll chime in with one or two as well. Our staff is pretty amazing at being vocal about what’s hot and what’s not. I’m more the utilitarian type of thinker when it comes to design. Beth is the aesthetic thinker.
Beth: Hannah is being a little bit humble. Hannah still makes the best bag around. I might dream of something at night that sounds good to me and I’ll come in and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this,’ and 45 minutes later she’ll show up with something that she actually put together based on that. That’s the difference between somebody who can think about something and somebody who can something.
IP: So you set the standards, in terms of stitching, the quality and how things are made here.
Hannah: Yes, absolutely. But it’s just grown really strongly in those cornerstones of what we believe in, how our material is used, and how our look is represented in each and every bag we make. From strength and durability to being comfortable on you. But Beth is being quite humble; she comes up with some really amazing ideas.
IP: What’s your role, Beth?
Beth: I like to think what I bring to the party is more the business end. My background is business. I worked for a big global company and have never been involved in a start-up. I don’t have a background in bags or even consumer products, but it’s safe to say that my background in business is what I’m most comfortable with. The bags themselves are just something I fell in love with. Our line is based on Hannah’s core line. Our best-selling bags are the Stars and Anchors and Hannah’s been doing that since 1999. We’ve strayed very little from that as a core design element. We built the business on three cornerstones: Green in product and practice; made in Maine, and being involved in our community. For us to come with something that totally contradicted that wouldn’t feel right to us. We agreed early on—when Hannah and I were ‘dating’ before we went into business together—that if it didn’t feel right we just wouldn’t do it. And still that gut feeling is what drives us.
IP: Is that why you’re successful?
Beth: Are we? I think that there is nobody I’ve ever met that has a better instinct about decision making than Hannah does. We can lay it out and she’ll make a decision from her gut, and never backtrack on it, and that is really admirable. Being able to do that together has made us be able to grow to the extent we’ve been growing. Not sure I’d call it success yet, but I’d call it sustainable growth.
IP: You have a strong brand that’s built around reuse and recycling at its core.
Beth: It is a core belief for us. Myself, I don’t think consumers buy things because they’re green . I think it makes them feel better about taking their wallet out. But I don’t think there’s a market for green product just yet. Hannah has certainly been doing this before it was trendy or cool. We feel it’s our responsibility, not necessarily a trend to follow. Being green in product and practice was a cornerstone we built our business around. But not a buying trend.
IP: Is that why you’re still here in this building?
Beth: Yeah, look around….we stole the windows from the Porthole [Restaurant].
IP: That’s recycling.
Beth: It’s really who we are. We have furniture downstairs, a lot of it we got from architectural salvage. They have amazing histories in themselves, from old mills and things like factories. It’s cool.
Hannah: It definitely is. It’s like what people want out of a magazine. Only it’s the real deal.
Beth: Hand-me-downs are very cool in Maine. We’re a very thrifty state to begin with, so it’s just more who we are. I think our homes reflect that too, and our personal lives. We’d much rather have something cool and weathered than manufactured new to look cool and weathered.
IP: Sounds like you’re planning to stay here for a while.
Beth: God willing. City of Portland willing, and the landlord willing. Yeah. We love it here. And if you think about it, in Portland, we’re one of the only commercial wharfs that you can come down and see. We’re one of the only places you can see your product being made. We’ll have people come down here—Commercial street is, what, 100 yards away—they’ll come down and say, “Whooo!. We’ve FOUND you.” Like they had traveled to the bowels of the earth to find us. It’s great. We love it here. It’s seedy and dirty, like we are.
Hannah: It doesn’t get any more authentic than this. The smell of bait in the summertime. And the lobstermen who are our neighbors love us.
Beth: They take good care of us, too. We are safe down here. We’re well cared for and we think we’re good neighbors too.
IP: You have some superfans, I know. I imagine they’re pretty vocal. Do you have any fun fan stories?
Hannah: Stalkers, do you mean?
Beth: We get letters from as far away as Japan and Amsterdam and Saudi Arabia so those are always kind of fun. We have active social media participation and a Facebook page, so when we put out there ‘how many Sea Bags do you have’ we had over 200 people reply that they have five or more, which for a company like ours is pretty fun. We get people here and in the Freeport store all the time who say they read about us in a magazine. It is a destination, because they have seen us on Facebook or they have read about us in a magazine or they have seen us somewhere and they can come watch the product being made. That’s pretty amazing. We’ll get phone calls—we have our crew on our Facebook page—with one sentence about each of our employees and they’ll call up and say, now, “Are you the blonde girl? which one are you?”
IP: People connect with you guys.
Beth: We hope so. That’s what we’re out to do, so it’s great.
IP: Do you have a favorite bag?
Beth: I think we all have pretty extensive collections.
Hannah: Right now I’ve got the upside down 58 and it’s got an original sail maker’s stamp in it from the 70s, which I absolutely adore.
IP: What do you carry around in it?
Beth: The problem with us is, what don’t we carry around in it. Right now I’m carrying around our new Hobo bag, which I’ve been ‘testing’ for a year now. I’m in love with it. When you own your own business, you hope you love what you do, and we do love our product. Ask me about our placemats.
IP: So…what about your placemats?
Beth: I’m so glad you asked. We are a bag company, and yet the placemats are my favorite. My husband and I are the biggest slobs on the planet when we eat. I throw them in the washer, I throw them in the dryer and they don’t stain, they don’t wrinkle and they come out looking brand-new every single time. I’m in love with them.
IP: What makes Sea Bags special?
Beth: One of the ways we stand out is we really are, I believe, the best quality. Beyond that we have the most extensive sail collection and acquisition process of anyone. We’re the only ones that could offer an extensive line of what we call our vintage sales. If you think of a sail like a triangle, there’s a little sweet spot. That’s what we think is the most coveted piece—that really vintage piece, whether it was a number or a letter or whatever it was that was on there. We were able this year to offer J. Crew a line of what they call their Indigo collection of just blue original vintage. We didn’t do anything to this bag. It’s just whatever was on [the sail] and it’s all shades of blue. We let them hand-pick them. We’re the only ones I know that could offer something like that. When a sail gets unfurled downstairs there isn’t one person in the shop that isn’t like, “That’s so cool. Wow….I’ve never seen that one before.” It’s like unwrapping a Christmas present every time we unfurl a sail to see what it is.
IP: Are they really that different?
Beth: Oh, yeah. Some of them are so unique that it’s amazing. You just want to know the story behind them. Because we use authentic recycled sail that’s actually been sailed, we do wonder about the stories behind them. It’s very different than buying product off a bolt—not that a start-up business isn’t exciting and something to be proud of in its own right, it is—but it’s very different doing it this way. I mean, try to inventory something that all comes in random triangles. Your yield is different on every single one. So to do it and do it well and profitably is really something that we’re very proud of.
IP: Do you have any sails that come off of a really cool boat?
Beth: We see sails off the windjammers and we can name those. We have our pedigree sails. Hannah and I never want to give them up so we actually stockpile most of them, just waiting for that special project to release them on.
IP: What makes you personally successful?
Beth: I think it’s our staff. It’s scary to have a payroll to meet every week. That’s probably the biggest driving thing in my life. We promised to create jobs when we started this. There sure could have been a lot of shortcuts along the way in doing this. But we set out to create jobs here and that responsibility is what drives me to move this ball forward every single day. It scares me too, most nights.
IP: Describe a time when it just got crazy for you.
Hannah: It would be the day that our website went up. HGTV had just aired a spot [in January 2006]. This was our first national spot and it was the day that we launched the website.
Beth: Hannah was [in Florida], and I was still finishing up my other job so I was in a hotel on the way back from China. I was in Chicago and I called Hannah and said, “Uh…we’ve got orders!” The website had been live that day that the show went live. I was logging in from my computer—and I had the only computer at that point—and I called Hannah. We didn’t know how to scale up production, it was just Meg and Hannah sewing. That was overwhelming.
Hannah: it’s not a bad thing to be a little bit scared. I think it keeps you edgy.
IP: How did you meet?
Hannah: Beth came down to the shop. Her brother had bought a bag for his wife. She found me open one day, which is kind of a miracle unto itself, because I kept very Hannah-like hours. She came in and was like, “I’d like to buy a bunch of these bags; they’re great. Can you give me a discount?” I was like, “what?” Then she used the word wholesale and I was like, “what?” So I think we decided on five percent.
Beth: It took me a month to get five percent from her. At that point, I didn’t know it, but it was more bags than she sold in a year and I got five percent. She’s tough.
Hannah: I just didn’t see any sense in giving anybody [a discount].
IP: Any really difficult times since then?
Beth: We haven’t had any really scary times. I think that every day is a little bit scary because we have a lot of mouths to feed and now we’re in a new phase. We’ve gone from the first in market and the best in market to being the first in market and the best in market..but not the ‘only’ in the market. We’ve changed our approach a little bit, but what we haven’t compromised on is quality. We’re not afraid to say no to orders; we weren’t then, and we’re not now. If the orders don’t make a lot of sense to our business or our core philosophies, we just don’t take them.
IP: What’s in the immediate future for Sea Bags?
Beth: We have some new products that we’re pretty excited about. They’re a little bit outside of our core bag business. We’ve just partnered with a local bookbinder and we’re creating beautiful journals and guestbooks out of our vintage sails. They’re stunning. We’ve just partnered with some swimwear guys out on the west coast to do some board shorts for men, just to further utilize our scrap; that’s kind of a new venture for us. In the next 12 months our plan is to move upstairs and grow. We have some other key projects we’re going to be taking on over the next 12 months but nothing we’re ready to print yet.
IP: What’s going to happen to Portland in the next 12 months or so?
Beth: We continue to think it’s the best place in the United States to live. I’m lucky; I’ve lived everywhere. I’ve traveled around the world. This is just one of the coolest cities ever. It’s made up of small businesses. It’s a small enough city and state that you can work with the people you want to work with, you can reach your elected officials. There’s capital to be had. Banking relationships are manageable and easy if you are established with good business and good business qualities. I think Portland will continue to grow. We’re going to continue to see the downtown thrive. Our arts scene is just nothing short of amazing. I think you’re going to see more fishing coming back here. We’re just a great place to live.
Hannah: Over the years, Portland has just gotten cooler and cooler. I’ve seen the changes. I started hanging out in Portland when I was about eight, with my dad. There’s definitely been a lot of change but the at its core, Portland is either a tiny city or a really big town. I think it’ll maintain that feel.
Beth: You know what’s great abut Portland? You could be sitting at the diner or at a bar, and the guy next to you could be a fisherman, a millionaire or both. You wouldn’t ever know the difference.
Sean Wilkinson is a designer and a founder of the Portland-based branding agency Might & Main. He's not this serious. (Brian Fitzgerald/Fitzgerald Photo)
Editor’s Note: Sean Wilkinson, 33, is current president of the Maine chapter of the AIGA , the professional association for design, and co-founder of some well-known local ventures, including the PICNIC arts and music festival and the Bollard alternative newspaper. He’s a connector-type whose work history includes stints on a bait boat in Casco Bay and working with many of the top creative talent in Portland. He has a predilection for cocktails, taxidermy (that’s Boris the Boar on the wall) and 70s-era soft rock, known also as Yacht Rock.
IP: So I guess I’ll start out with the burning question: Why Yacht Rock?
SW: (Laughs)Why not Yacht Rock. I don’t know. I used to actually make fun of of lot of my friends for being really into Steely Dan. I felt that it was ‘dad music’ mostly because my dad listened to it. At some point in Seattle I started listening to a lot of Steely Dan and I got really into it. I felt really bad that I made fun of it.
IP: So now listening is like your atonement.
SW: Yeah, right. I feel like I have to evangelize to the rest of the world. I went to a Yacht Rock party. My friend Justin [Ellis] was already into it. He was actually judging the first one I went to. And then we got so into it, my friend Mich[the Fuge] and I dressed up —we had khaki old-man shorts, black socks and boat shoes. We all spray-painted our hair to be completely white—it was a Michael McDonald thing—we won the costume contest, so they asked us to be hosts the next year. Here’s a wierd thing. I don’t dance at bars. I don’t like dancing to music. But I love dancing to yacht rock. Something about having a white wine spritzer and gently swaying to Robbie Dupree. I don’t know why that’s easier.
IP: You were raised in Winthrop, Maine. What was that like?
SW: I went to grade school, middle school and high school there. It’s a small, kind of backwards, little town. Nasty small-town politics, and chatter….but the high school had a really good art program. The school was so totally focused on basketball and football but there was a really good art teacher there. By the time I left, I wanted to be a graphic designer or a high school art educator, just because she was great. I had every intention to go to Kansas City, but the loans fell through at the last minute and I ended up taking a year off. I went to London. We had a blacksmith program in Winthrop, because of that art teacher. We made some stuff and seven of us went to London to install them on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater gates over there. Then I went to the Cayman Islands and I spent all my money and then decided to go to MECA (Maine College of Art) here in Portland.
IP: When was that?
SW: In ’97. I was going to give it a try for a year, but all of my design professors were amazing, the school itself is really cool, and there’s a great community of like 400 kids. I still am in contact with every single one of my design professors. I was an adjunct professor last semester.
IP: You also said you worked in Seattle. How long were you there?
SW: After I graduated MECA I went to Seattle for a couple years. My dad was working for Amazon at the time, and my brother lived out there. It was September 8, 2011 when I moved out there. I wanted to take five days off, enjoy the city, spend a little money, and then take my portfolio around, because it was pretty easy to find a job at that point. We woke up on Tuesday morning after bowling Monday night until 2 am, and the whole World Trade Center thing was going on. In my small selfish way, the impact on me at the time was that every design firm in the area was laying people off after that day. I ended up taking retail jobs—video store, hardware store. I did a little freelance. I missed the East Coast enough that I decided to move back here. So I came back here and worked a strange assortment of jobs. I worked at a print shop, worked at the Phoenix for a while, and then started the Bollard.
IP: It seems like you’re involved in every part of Portland. Wherever I go people seem to know you or you’ve worked with them. Why is that?
SW: I don’t know. I have a hard time staying put. I worked at the print shop for 18 months and didn’t like it, so instead of dealing with it, I just quit. My backup plan was to work for the Phoenix because I had an in there. Before I was totally sure, I quit and went to go work for the Phoenix. I lasted at there for about six months and decided that was bunk and helped start the Bollard and was doing freelance. That lasted about 18 months, and I went to Lapchick [Creative] which was in this [Fitzgerald Photo] space. It went for about 18 months and then I worked on a boat. I just quit the agency and I had the opportunity to work on a smack boat.
IP: What’s a smack boat?
SW: It sells bait to lobstermen. We’d bring out literally tons of dead fish. Load up at 10 o’clock in the morning and then get out to Chebeague Island to this raft by 11 or so. And then guys would come up to us at the end of their day and would sell us their lobsters, and we’d sell them bait. So I did that for seven months.
IP: Did you have any background in doing anything like that?
SW: No. It’s a wierd story about the whole smack boat.
IP: Are you glad you did it?
SW: Absolutely. It was one of the best things I ever did. I look back on that a lot, partially because I’m obsessed with the ocean, and it was a great way to really get in touch with it. It took a good 3-4 months before the lobstermen really accepted me and were cool with me. Unti lthen I was ‘college boy’ or ‘what the hell are you doing as a 30 year old working on a smack boat?’ Because it’s a job for 18-year-olds. It’s a job for kids in high school. You just get dirty all day.. I love the fact that it’s on the ocean, next to the working waterfront, which I love, but it also is an indicator of why I know so many circles. I leave jobs that I don’t like. And if I want to try something, i’ve been able to just jump in and try it.
IP: What would lead you to do that kind of work?
SW: At the time I was like I was working here, exactly where I’m sitting.
IP: Is that bad?
SW: No, it’s alright. It was really hard work that I wasn’t getting a lot of respect for. There wasn’t a lot of creative freedom; there wasn’t a lot of respect for the stuff I was doing, or representation with the client directly…so it was frustrating. It was like the epitome of an office job—too much bureacracy: show up at work at nine, get in trouble if you’re late, work for eight hours, get in trouble if you go home early. It wasn’t a creative job. It felt more like a cubicle job. And there was a romantic thing about working on the water, where it’s hard work, and you work hard every day. It took me two months to not be sore because you’re hauling 500-pound barrels of dead fish around—maybe two dozen of those a day—and dumping them over, dumping them into 160-pound crates, lifting those up onto boats. It’s work, but it’s finite; you have a set number of things to do in a day. When you accomplish those, you’re tired and done. You don’t feel like you’re bringing anything home.
IP: What happened to that job?
SW: After seven months, by the time we were into January, the deck of the boat was freezing and a couple of times I thought I was going to die. I was ready to go back to some kind of creative cubicle work.
IP: That brings me to a couple other questions. You’ve decided to live in Portland. Why?
SW: I chose here as a default originally, because I wanted to go to another school and I ended up going to MECA. As soon as I got here I thought Portland was really cool. I guess I just assumed that I wanted something bigger than Portland so that’s why I went to Seattle. And I realized that I liked the Yankee aesthetic of the East Coast. I liked the honesty and the brusqueness, the friendliness and the wilingness to help…all those things about being on the East Coast. And I think I saw that in Portland, plus I had some contacts and friends here. As time went by I realized more and more how Portland was a great mix: it’s got some culture, there’s a good music scene, a good arts scene, and there’s a pretty robust business scene here. And so at this point I’m completely in love with the city and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. There’s so much in the city that shares my aesthetic.
IP: Which is?
SW: Eclectic. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe because it is so eclectic. It’s weird.
IP: What’s going to define Portland’s future? Food? The creative scene?
SW: I feel that if this was a town of similar size in California that was getting known for food I think that would be where they’d be stuck for the next 20 years. But in Portland there’s already a significant movement with those like the Food Coma TV people who are like, “Alright, already . I get it. I’m sick of talking about foodie culture”. Maine is so much more than that. We appreciate a really great casual meal as much as we appreciate a really fancy, macro-engineered ‘whatever’ meal.
IP: So it’s not that kitschy Maine aestheic that people from Away might imagine?
SW: I love the fact that we’re getting attention because I think we have great restaurants here. But I think most restaurant owners wouldn’t get stuck in that, because we also have a great cultural scene, or a growing cultural scene. There’s a great art scene and we’re also enviably close to the ocean. Whether it’s walking down to Commercial Street and seeing a real working waterfront—which is becoming more and more rare—or driving five or ten minutes to Willard Beach and Cape Elizabeth. We’re in a really lucky location. So I see Portland as becoming more and more populous. We can potentially have so many more people living here.
IP: Ideally, what do you think should happen here?
SW: The fantasy I’ve been having lately—and I don’t know what the timeframe is on this, whether it’s five years or ten years or 20—but I saw this graph the other day tracking the growth of Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon. We have less people living here now than we did in 1950. And Oregon is a great example of a city that was a similar size that just skyrocketed to half a milion or something. I feel like we could be there. I know we’re approaching 100,000 or something like that now, but we could be another great, big city with great infrastructure, with smart decisions being made. Portland needs to increase the density of work and population. Great new businesses are coming to Portland all the time and Portland is pretty good about encouraging local businesses to stay here. I feel like the trend is going towards more density and more business. I wouldn’t want to move anywhere else or work anywhere else at this point.
IP: To find your dream job, you sort of had to create one. It seems like a lot of Portland people find themselves in that boat.
SW: I have to admit in that way I’m a little spoiled. I’ve had good jobs. I’ve had the luxury of quitting good jobs to go work at wierd waterfront jobs and then I’ve had the luck of starting a new business that went really well and is actually in the first year is paying us, and has been a success. I’m not saying it’s easy for everybody, or that it’s even easy for us but we’re in a very good place.
IP: So what’s the secret of your success?
SW: I think not settling is a big one. If something’s not going your way, if you can’t change it effectively, then you’ve got to walk out and find something that will go your way. I feel like somebody could read that the wrong way and say that ‘you’re just fickle and escapist’, but every walking-out situation I’ve had in my life has led to something better.
IP: What do you have in your pockets?
SW: My iPhone, my wallet and change, which I started keeping in the back pocket since I switched to a front-pocket wallet.
IP: Because of all the pick-pockets, right?
SW: Yeah. As Portland gets bigger, there are more urchins out there. No..there was a massage therapist who used to come to this office and she used to get on me about having a giant wallet in my back pocket because it affects the way you sit. I had a big Euro wallet for a little while, one of those folio cases that was a little too much, so I went to the simple money clip card thing.
IP: What’s your favorite whiskey currently?
SW: Woodfords Reserve.
IP: Favorite cocktail?
SW: Right now, it’s the Martinez. The way I’ve been making it—there’s a book called Speakeasy, from a bar called Employees Only, and they make a more contemporary version of it—it’s gin, Maraschino liquor, Bianco vermouth, and what is the other one…I just made three of them last night.
IP: Maybe that’s why you can’t remember.
SW: I think so. Oh….Absynthe Bitters. And a twist of lemon.
IP: How would you describe what you do for a living, to a five-year-old?
SW: I make things look prettty so that people will want to engage with them. I guess ‘engage’ isn’t a good five-year old word. I make things pretty so people will want to hang out with them.
IP: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t doing this interview?
SW: I would be going through emails. I like to go through my inbox and open every message that I need to answer in a separate window. Then I can get everything and all I have to do is go through the stack of open messages one by one. It’s a good Monday thing for me. Sounds really exciting. Start your own business! Answer emails!
IP: What’s been your biggest surprise about starting your own business?
SW: That it works. (laughs). The biggest surprise is that when the three of us [Arielle Walrath and Kevin Brooks] came together, we had this kind of fantasy of where we’d be in five years. I feel like we’ve kind of gotten there in two years. We’ve had better response than we hoped for, we’ve had better business, and continued success. Not surprising in a ‘I doubted myself’ kind of way but surprising in a ‘nice to see’ way.
IP: What time do you wake up and go to bed?
SW: It depends on the night. Last night was 12, but I try to go to bed around 11. And I try to get up between 6 and 7.
IP: Besides Might & Main, and AIGA, what else do you do?
SW: PICNIC music and arts festival; I just did a Pecha Kucha, which was fun, and I’d like to have more of a hand in, but I don’t know if I should. I have a hard time saying no to things. What else do I do? I go to a lot of Space [Gallery] things. I’m considering, after I leave the AIGA board, joining some other boards. I don’t know. it seems like I’m always busy but I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.
IP: Things like working and making money?
SW: I’ve been in the new business role, which comes naturally to me—but it means a lot of networking events and a lot of meeting out for cocktails and mixers.
A place for invention and reinvention: Leslie Evans, owner of Leslie Evans Design Associates (LEDA), at her studio in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. (©2011 Brian Fitzgerald/Fitzgerald Photo
Editor’s note: Leslie Evans is a creative Portland entrepreneur who has helped bring the Maine aesthetic to many well-known brands as owner of Leslie Evans Design Associates. Periodic reinvention is something Leslie has done throughout her career, taking her from Manhattan to Portland’s Old Port and eventually to Cape Elizabeth. She recently started a custom textile design brand, Leslie Evans Designs.
IP: Let’s start at the beginning. How did LEDA get its start?
LE: I started LEDA in 1986 in New York City. I started very small, doing production work for People Magazine and QC (Gentlemen’s Quarterly). I went to the Iditerod [in Alaska] and met Timberland and then landed the Timberland catalog. We were located at 18th and 6th in New York—doing packaging and collateral. In 1990, ’91, I left New York. I wanted to have a family.
IP: Where are you from?
LE: I’m from Boston originally.
IP: So coming to Maine isn’t that far, geographically. Why make the move?
LE: Alaska so affected me that I wanted to leave the city. I kind of started over in 1990. I had a place on Exchange Street. It was 1000 square feet and had two Mac computers. I kept the GH Bass [Shoes] account, which was a big fashion account.
IP: You started over in Maine. Who were some of your early clients here?
LE: I did work for Thomas Moser. I also got Esprit and Phillips-Van Heusen. Casual fashion. Stonewall Kitchens, in 1994. I had no experience in food. Instead I approached the food as fashion. I thought, I’m going to come at it fresh. We changed it up every six months. We put each other on the map, Stonewall. I did them for ten years. I also have parts of lots of other accounts—Lindt Chocolate is one. Calendar Islands Lobster. When it comes to food and fashion, I can bring the Maine-creative into it.
IP: Did you achieve what you wanted to by moving to Portland?
LE: When I moved here my dream was to be the biggest design firm in Portland, and I made it.
LE: I hit the high-end clients. Norway Savings Bank is one that worked really well.
IP: How would you describe what you do to a five-year-old?
LE: I’m not an illustrator. I flunked out of drawing class. I’m an excellent editor. I edit things, basically. I’m really good at taking something and editing it down, for drama.
IP: You were in Portland for most of your time in Maine. Why Portland?
LE: Portland’s an awesome little town. It’s definitely small, but it’s growing and has a fantastic creative community.
IP: Have any predictions for Portland’s immediate future?
LE: The thing that’s going to save Portland is the food industry. Food will keep us in the ‘hip’ industry. Food is fashion now. Portland needs businesses that are here to hire people that are already here, in the creative economy.
IP: Why is the creative economy in Portland so important?
LE: The visual marketplace is world-wide. And design sells product.
IP: What else do you have going on these days?
LE: I’m trying to reinvent myself. I’ve always wanted to do something with my archival patterns and images. I have a whole line of pillows and runners using these designs. I’ve been prepping my whole life to do this. I just launched Leslie Evans Designs.
IP: What’s your normal wake-up and go-to-bed schedule?
LE: I get up at 6 am and walk at 6:15.
IP: Last question. What’s the secret of your success?
LE: I don’t look at the competition. I try to stay ahead of the competition. I take risks.