Capturing the beach in a bag

Some people get into business purely to make money – but  that could hardly be said of Georgia Wyatt-Willsmore.

What drives her is a hatred of waste, which is why she uses her arts training to create stylish products out of what other people might see just as junk from the beach. Having spent seven years plugging away at her quirky seaside-infused bags, suddenly her signature  Wyatt and Jack tote design is taking off, with big-name retailers queuing up to stock it. Jackie McCarrick spoke to her.

Georgia laughs as she describes herself as a ‘deck chair nerd’, and promptly reels off the colours of stripey canvas that various locations use for their deckchairs.

London’s Royal parks go for green and white because apparently the Queen favours the colour, Brighton beaches have blue and white, whilst Margate is right out there with a funky ‘Rasta’ stripe of red, black green and yellow.

Her intimate knowledge of the classic British outdoor chair springs from the fact that she reclaims redundant deckchairs and ‘re-purposes’ the classic stripey fabric to create her bags.

“I’m such a nerd that I keep a swatch of each fabric because ultimately it will disappear” she says.  “Really, you could say that it’s a symbol of a beach culture that’s dying out”.

The lovely thing about Georgia’s creations is that they literally smell of the beach.

“Even after the fabric has been washed” she says, “it still smells like fresh air and beaches. People say it reminds them of childhood holidays”.

She also reclaims and re-uses vinyl PVC from ‘retired’ bouncy castles which, like the deckchairs, would otherwise end up in landfill sites, and produces ‘limited edition’ totes, made from the fabrics  of her rarer finds, including vintage windbreaks, beach trampolines, sunbeds and parasols.

“When I first found out that all this stuff was just being dumped, I couldn’t believe it. Because my mind is always thinking about things I could make, it occurred to me that  I’d like a bag made out of that deckchair fabric – and that’s how it started.”

Fascinating characters

When it came to sourcing her raw materials, Georgia found a willing supplier base among the beach and park concessionaires, who were otherwise having to pay to dispose of their old stuff.

“I was offering to turn up and pay for it, so they were pretty pleased” she says.

Over the past seven years, she’s worked hard to build relationships of trust with her suppliers – many of them fascinating characters with a fund of stories about a fast-disappearing way of life.

She pays particular tribute to Norman Abram, who set her off on this unlikely business path by offering her the first lot of deckchairs from his many beach concessions on the Isle of Wight – which included Sandown’s Eastern Beach and Sundial Cafe.

As her business has expanded, she now makes trips around the whole UK coast, sourcing her raw materials for the bags.  In fact she plans her next pick-up trip at the end of February, calling in on 25-30 suppliers, and says this is the part of the job she loves most.

“I worked for three or four years to develop some of these relationships, which primarily involved sitting in huts talking to septuagenarians who are wondering what on earth you want from them!” she laughs.

Georgia certainly wasn’t looking for a quick profit:  the work of re-claiming and cleaning the materials is hard and heavy graft, and most of it she’s done herself.  The materials can also be tough to work with – especially those bits of the deckchair seat that have a well-worn indentation from cupping hundreds of backsides!

In fact for most of the past seven years since she started, business has hardly been what you’d call lucrative – more a labour of love.

She admits that she probably made the mistake of spreading herself too thin, at one stage having no less than 75 different designs of bag in her range.  For a small craft maker employing just two home-workers, that was never going to work.

Winning formula

Ultimately, Georgia realised she had one bag design that was massively outselling the rest – her classic tote – and decided to concentrate all effort on that.

“It took a while but eventually I found the right formula.  I realised it was enough that we are the only people in the country doing this, and in this way – so it only really needs one product rather than dozens of them”.

The totes come in a choice of colours, and as well as having that “scent of the beach” about them, the bags also sport an inside message such as “Once upon a time I was a bouncy castle”, which buyers seem to love.

Particularly buyers of an environmentally-friendly persuasion –  shoppers at stores such as the trendy Jack Wills and members of organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Surfers Against Sewage.

Sales have suddenly started to boom and Georgia says:  “This is the year!  The difference is amazing and I really couldn’t have predicted what’s happening now”.

Typically of her, though, it’s not the pound signs that are exciting her, so much as the fact that more defunct bouncy castles and dog-eared deckchairs will get a new lease of life.

“It’s brilliant because this fabric shouldn’t be just chucked away” she says. “I literally can’t make enough of the tote bags and have sold ridiculous amounts in London”.

Georgia now has a total of 50 stockists, located all over the UK, in Australia – and a new one just coming on board  in New York.  As she says, they are literally flying off the shelves of her unit in Bembridge.

Still operating with just a couple of outworkers and doing a lot of the work herself, she dedicates one day a week to producing more creative bespoke products for organisations such as Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, and the rest of her time to the primary range tote bags.  With the business now growing, she says she’s keen to create Island jobs.

“There’s a lot of unemployment here and it would feel good to be able to make a small difference to that” she says.

“For me, it’s never been about the money.  I was brought up being taken on picket lines and was writing letters to the Australian Prime Minister at the age of eight, so I do care about this stuff.”

The bags are also available on her website www.wyattandjack.com, or direct from her workshop at Weavers Yard in Bembridge.