Success is in the bag for one South Portland fashion startup

Alaina Marie Harris with her bait bags, made of maritime mesh, in her South Portland shop.
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Alaina Marie Harris with her bait bags, made of maritime mesh, in her South Portland shop.
Alaina Marie Harris uses maritime industrial mesh to make bait bags in her South Portland shop.
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Alaina Marie Harris uses maritime industrial mesh to make bait bags in her South Portland shop.
Alaina Marie Harris makes each bait bag by hand in her South Portland shop.
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Alaina Marie Harris makes each bait bag by hand in her South Portland shop.
Posted Aug. 07, 2014, at 2:07 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2014, at 5:21 a.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Stuffed with rotted fish guts and tucked into traps, bait bags help lobstermen catch Maine’s famed crustacean. But above water, the tactile mesh netting is catching something else this season: fashion headlines.

In a shoebox-size store, Alaina Marie Harris slides kelly green fabric through a sewing machine. Behind her, neatly stacked piles of the maritime material, silk screened in vibrant hues, from neon orange to lilac to blue, await their turn. The store, named Alaina Marie, is located at 79 Ocean St. in South Portland.

Repurposing the industrial fabric into clutches, wallets and wristlets, Harris is turning this maritime commodity into arm candy. Her company is winning fans on Instagram and impressing major retailers.

No sooner were her bait bags on the shelf at Portland Trading Co. when a scout from Anthropologie called. Now the 26-year-old, who started making bait bags last fall, is in 17 of their stores and sells her clutches at boutiques, from Bar Harbor to Boston.

“If I’m going to make art for the rest of my life, I might as well make a business out of it,” the University of Maine graduate, who majored in the subject, said.

An internship several years ago at Sea Bags, where she cut sails and assisted with design and customer service, helped chart her course. “It happened very organically. I like to screen print on different materials. I was in a marine store, and the idea came to me,” Harris said. “I love sewing because you can take scraps and make something.”

Setting up in a small storefront in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood in January gave her the courage to weigh anchor. Inside her nautical studio, she sews bags, sells custom tees and debuts new items, including weather-proof pillows made of the same material and stamped with an anchor. All are boat friendly.

“I always wanted to start my own business,” said Harris, who is still catching up with her lightning-quick success. “Now when I go out in Portland and I see six people with my bags I say, ‘Oh my God.’”

Why are bait bags netting so much business? “Anything Maine-made and nautical is hot right now, so I’ve got that on my side.”

And the candy colors of these style confections pop on Instagram, a free and visual social media channel central to her success. The South Portland native counts Facebook and word of mouth as her only other marketing tactics.

With another order coming in from Portland home decor store Company C for 40 more bags this month, she’s reached a point where she is ready to hire an assistant.

“My business has tripled since I started,” Harris, who minored in business, said. “This is where I thought I would be in five years.”

Across the street, proprietor Jeannie Dunnigan of Cia coffee shop is a fan. “This is the Coach bag of Maine,” she said, digging her well-worn clutch out from under the counter. “I’m so happy she is here.”

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