November 2015

Spartina 449:An Entrepreneurial Creative Collaboration

Author: Kitty Bartell

Spartina 449 Croc Satchel in Bordeaux with removable crossbody strap, leather handles and spartina jacquard interior lining
Photography by Mark Staff

Cordgrass, a.k.a. Spartina alterniflora, has a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit; multiplying and establishing itself in the coastal salt marshes of the Atlantic coast, taking full advantage of the hospitable environment, and providing a romantic, ethereal quality to the seaside waterscape. Much like its namesake, the thriving handbag and accessory company, Spartina 449, embodies the hearts of the creative entrepreneurs who have firmly planted their burgeoning company’s roots deep into the pluff mud of the Lowcountry and have enjoyed the benefits of a very hospitable environment.

“I have defined myself as an artist all my life,” said Kay Stanley, founder of Spartina 449. Her mother, an artist herself, discouraged Stanley’s artistic inclinations. “When it was time to go to college, my mom sat me down and said, absolutely do not go into art. I followed her advice and majored in journalism. However, after graduation, I put together a portfolio and went to work as an art director for a pretty big advertising agency in Kansas City,” Stanley said. “I never got a degree in it, but it’s all I really knew how to do.”

And it was art and entrepreneurship that brought Stanley together with Curt Seymour, her partner in life and business. Both graduates of the University of Kansas, they started working together when Seymour hired Stanley to do some design work for his fledgling collegiate products business. “He really wasn’t a very good designer. However, he is very creative. He’s an idea person. He’s a logistics person,” Stanley said. After working together on his business for a while, they knew it was time to grow their partnership into something bigger and, from their basement, forged a whole new venture.

Enterprising to the core, Stanley and Seymour learned everything they could about growing their new company, which at the time struck just the right cord within its industry, building a business worthy of notice by an investment firm that purchased it in 2007. Already in love with Daufuskie Island, the couple was in the process of building a second home on the island, which at the time they thought would be a retreat from their round-the-clock life in Kansas City.

“Within a week of selling our company in 2007, we put the dog (Buddy) in the back seat, drove down here, and we never went back,” Stanley said. “We were unemployed”—a welcome state of affairs, that provided Seymour with all the golf he could handle, while the couple rented a Colleton River home and finished their Daufuskie home, taking up residence in 2009.

Spartina 449’s flagship store on Calhoun Street in Bluffton
photography by Ed Kelly

Never far from her creative muse, Stanley says the idea for Spartina 449 was born simultaneously with the selling of their Kansas City business. “I have to be thinking of something creative. My husband wanted to be retired and golf. I said, ‘But I don’t have a hobby.’ I told him I will start designing and we’ll keep it really, really small. It will just be a creative outlet for me.”

Spartina 449 is another successful merger of creativity and entrepreneurship in the Stanley-Seymour story, and while it is no longer small, it has remained and grows in the Lowcountry, where the muse firmly resides. “I was inspired by the whole Lowcountry,” Stanley said, “and really inspired by Daufuskie. That was my love and my passion.”

Left:Stanley Bucket in Juliette print with matching Snap Wallet
Photography by Angela Hopper

Right:The Interior of Spartina 449’s storefront in Old Town Bluffton
photography by Ed Kelly

On the business side, Stanley said, “I saw a niche in the marketplace between Vera Bradley and Brighton: a handbag made of linen with leather accents. I wanted to bring together the patterns and colors that represented the way I felt here. I was happy, and things seemed colorful. I felt like I was on vacation… and in a way I always am.”

Stanley and Seymour have gotten comfortable living on a learning curve and never want to get completely settled. “The bags on the market today are identical to the first bags we made; it has never changed,” Stanley said. Not willing to compromise in order to expedite their production process overseas, sourcing the raw materials for their linen was a learning curve of global proportions. “Our weaving factory is in China, but the flax that we use comes from Belgium and France. We have to purchase it there, then it goes to the Chinese weaving factory, and then they weave it to my specifications. That’s why every bag is identical. Our material is very specific to Spartina,” she explained.

A creative, collaborative environment is where Stanley thrives. “One of the reasons for our success is the employees and the talent of the people we hire,” she said. “They’re better than we are at many of the things we do. It would not be fun if I were doing the creative by myself; we build on each other.” With a team of 14 in China, and 60 in the Lowcountry, including seven fulltime designers, creativity veritably oozes from every corner of Spartina 449.

In May of 2014, the company opened its flagship store in an historic cottage on Calhoun Street in Old Town Bluffton—an incubator of sorts for this inventive group of gifted designers and entrepreneurs. It is a hub where they are able to measure the pulse of the market, get hands-on with their customers, and watch the results of their imaginations come to life.

For Spartina 449, Stanley says that jewelry is one of the fastest growing parts of the business. “Two years ago we didn’t know a whole lot about jewelry, but we are always wanting to do something new and different,” she said. It has taken a creative village to come to the successful level at which their line of 18 karat gold-plated jewelry currently resides. Reaching out to a former colleague from Kansas City for her engineering and design expertise has been a big part of their success. “Jewelry is very dimensional. You have to think 3-D and how things hook together and work. I remembered that her brain worked like that. She’s a natural,” Stanley said. “Sea la Vie is one of our most popular jewelry lines, featuring dainty necklaces in a really cute little gift box with a special sentiment on it. They make great gifts.”

With an outlet store in Pooler, Georgia (incidentally, a true outlet where the merchandise comes directly from overstocked pieces, only), over 1,500 retailers carrying Spartina 449, a thrilling line of new patterns and products debuting for Spring 2016 … including a vibrant line of lightweight, fine Merino wool cardigans, along with pet collars and leashes designed to please Buddy’s compatriots, there is no shortage of inspiration and enterprise happening for the Spartina team.

Spartina 449 has firmly taken root in the Lowcountry, and is enjoying a very hospitable environment.

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