Recover currently sources the materials for several of its products entirely within North Carolina and South Carolina, while some of its more technical fabrics come from a partner in Guatemala. They also work with a work co-op in Haiti, where they cut and sew the garments.
While Johnston is based in Asheville, the company’s warehouse and distribution center is based in Hickory where Riddle lives. They have one other full-time employee and work with a range of contractors like graphic artists and printers as well.
The majority of the company’s sales come from wholesale partnerships with local races, festivals, and businesses like breweries and summer camps. “When people see our logo on the shirt they know its 100% recycled,” says Johnston. “We try to use our product, story, and processes as a tool for other companies who make apparel tell their own sustainable story.”
Where it’s based: Asheville
What it makes: Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) & shoes
Year founded: 2002
Philip Curry, a former Warren Wilson College student and an avid paddler, started Astral as a way to make a better and more eco-friendly PFD. It was actually his first company, Lotus Designs, which he started in 1993 in Weaverville, which helped modernize the PFD from the blocky orange one you might see in a WWII flick. Curry wanted something that could help protect him and other paddlers as they tackled obstacles on the nearby Green River and beyond.
The success of his products drew the attention of the people at Patagonia, who eventually acquired Lotus when Curry was just 27. After his non-compete clause with Patagonia expired, Curry started his next company, Astral, with the goal of making a PVC-free life jacket using the fiber of the kapok plant, which is naturally buoyant.
After Curry moved to Vietnam in 2010, the company later introduced its own line of water-friendly shoes, which are also PVC and neoprene free, says Bryan Owen, who heads up marketing at Astral. “Our original shoe won National Geographic Adventure’s gear of the year award,” says Owen, who has worked at the company since 2007, and predicts that Astral’s shoe sales will soon outstrip those of its PFDs. “We wanted our shoes to be wearable on the river and off.”
The company as a whole is also growing fast, with sales doubling since 2007, and it now sells its products all over the world. While all warehousing, marketing and customer service happens in Asheville, as well as some assembly work, Astral now employs a total of 30 people in the U.S. and countries like Vietnam and Indonesia who help make its products. “We see ourselves as a global brand, but Asheville has been and will remain our home base,” says Owen.
Where it’s based: Fletcher
What it makes: Kayaks (liquidlogic & Native Watercraft)
Year founded: 2006
Website: liquidlogickayaks.com & nativewatercraft.com
With its abundance of swift water, Western North Carolina has a rich history of kayaking. But when Liquid Logic, a well-known brand started in Asheville, merged with a company called Legacy Paddlesports in 2007, which was then located in Greensboro, it created somewhat of a gap in the market for locally-made boats. That all changed in 2012, when Legacy brought the Liquid Logic brand back to the Asheville area—bringing Native Watercraft along with it.
Today, Legacy produces about 15,000 kayaks a year right here in Western North Carolina at a high-tech factory located just 20 minutes from the Green River—a key factor since many of the company’s 70 employees are also avid paddlers, says CEO Bill Medlin. “We believe you have to have a close connection to the products you make and the people who use them,” he says.
Medlin says that while he expects revenue to grow by some 40% next year, and the number of employees to 85, Legacy is aiming for more of a controlled growth curve. “We’re not chasing numbers,” he says, noting that Legacy competes against other manufacturers who are more than ten-times its size.
While Legacy currently sells its kayaks, each of which is molded from scratch in their factory, all over the world, their focus is on selling through independent retailers like Diamond Brand located here in the U.S. “We want to respect and remain faithful to the people who helped us grow our business,” he says.
Where it’s based: Asheville
What it makes:
Year founded: 2011
Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. At least that’s the case with Adam Masters, whose father, Bill Masters, founded Perception Kayaks in 1975. As a result, Adam Masters grew up around the world of kayaking and was always fascinated with tinkering around with the design of boats. But it was the experience of lying on top of his boat one day and hand-paddling head first down a river that the idea for the Bellyak was born.
“All of a sudden easy whitewater became new and exciting again,” says Masters, who designs and models his boats from his office at the Riverside Business Park along the French Broad River in Woodfin. “I also knew there are people who don’t try kayaking because of a fear of being trapped. With the Bellyak there are no skirts or straps holding you in, so you have the freedom to move around and experience the river in a whole new way.”
Masters started by taking an old kayak and chopping it up to create a prototype, which he eventually digitally scanned into a computer-aided design program and applied for a patent with. After a somewhat slow start—he had to first convince skeptical kayakers that swimming on top of their kayak through a series of rapids was a good thing—Masters says sales of the Bellyak have gradually increased thanks to interest from surfers (who use the Bellyak as a training tool on the ocean), summer camps, and even a program that helps disabled vets get out on the water. He expects to sell about 1,000 of them in 2014 in North Carolina, as well as in Europe, Japan, and New Zealand.
Where it’s based: Boone
What it makes: Shelters & more
Year founded: 2009
Jimi Combs, like many entrepreneurs, started his company, Tsuga, to help solve a need in his own life. What he saw was how there was no durable portable sun shelter on the market that was capable of both protecting people from the sun and not getting blown away by a heavy gust off the ocean. “Everything out there was designed to be just thrown away,” says Combs. “I wanted to build something that would last.”
Combs, who moved to Boone in 1987 from the Piedmont, had worked as a sales rep in the outdoor industry for 17 years for companies like Black Diamond. He was also an avid climber with experience in tower rigging for high ropes courses, where he learned a variety of handy skills ranging from carpentry to sewing. It was in his basement where he began designing, cutting, and sewing what would become his first product, a shelter that was both lightweight and weatherproof.
He then created his brand (tsuga is the Japanese name for a species of Asian Hemlock trees), quit his job, and started looking for customers. “I wanted to have my own business,” says Combs, who is a single dad and wanted the flexibility to care for his son.
Combs has since expanded his product offerings as well, to where he now sells a variety of utility buckets and urban bags along with his shelters, which are all produced in North Carolina. He is also ready to introduce a new product called Oasis, which is a lightweight, super compact, and portable water filtration system that can purify 20 gallons per hour—something he hopes can radically change the quality of people’s lives in the Third World or in the wake of a natural disaster. “We think we have a unique system that’s going to save a lot of people’s lives,” says Combs, adding that the same system would work great for hikers, campers, and “doomsday preppers” as well. “You can crush them up so they fit in your pants’ pocket and will last you ten years and make one million gallons of water.”
Where it’s based: Fletcher
What it makes: Ultra lightweight tents
Year founded: 2009
When she began hiking the Appalachian Trail back in 2006, Judy Gross, who was then a registered nurse living in Texas, quickly learned how heavy and cumbersome it can be to lug a tent around in your backpack for hundreds of miles. “Carrying that heavy tent pissed me off,” says Gross, who didn’t finish the entire trail due to a shoulder injury.
But she did meet a fellow hiker along the way who could pack his tent down to nearly nothing. After she got home, she linked up with other hikers online who were also intrigued with this guy’s tent. Eventually, Gross brokered a deal with a woman she met online who sent her a one of the tents (its zipper was broken) in return for the cost of shipping.
When she finally got to look at the tent, Gross, who is also a skilled seamstress, despaired: the tent was made out of a complicated series of triangles and diamonds. “I don’t do math,” she says, “I couldn’t figure out all the angles, so I just put it away.”