‘Hustlin’ My Hoodies’
How four boutiques sell Alaskan style
Salmon Sisters co-creators Claire Neaton and Emma Laukitis were inspired to start a company that reflects their experiences as commercial fisherwomen.
Alaska boutiques have found a fashion niche using images of local flora and fauna to convey the spirit of the state. The summer season is one of the busiest times of year for local boutiques as their style captivates both locals and the surge of tourists looking for that local experience. Alaska Business spoke with four Alaskan artisans who are taking their incredible talent and combining it with savvy business sense in a way that adds to the local economy and gives tourists and residents alike the opportunity to buy amazing—wearable—works of art.
Sina Sena is the creative genius behind the designs of Crab Terror Island, which has one brick-and-mortar store in Anchorage and a strong online presence. In establishing her business, Sena has created a community of “islanders” who both enjoy and help bolster the experience of her store.
“‘Island’ means community to me, and I really focus my business on building that community,” Sena says. Sena’s inspiration for the name of her boutique stems from her childhood experience growing up in Dutch Harbor, where her mom ran the local television and radio station Channel 8, which often broadcast locally-produced movies. “The community would get together and make these soap operas or little movies and one of them was called Crab Terror, about this giant crab that was sinking the boats in the harbor,” Sena says. “And I thought, gosh how fun, we’ll put a crab on a shirt and call it Crab Terror.”
Marci Nelson’s first career was as an English teacher at Dimond High School, but after eighteen years there she decided to devote her time to her passion for art, founding AK Starfish Co., one of the larger boutiques in Alaska with six stores located from Anchorage to Homer. After twelve years of success with AK Starfish Co., Nelson founded Mermaid Co. Boutique.
“I knew I wanted to start creating collections beyond what I was already creating at AK Starfish—and what I created, I really wanted to celebrate women and the ocean,” Nelson says.
While the two began as separate boutiques, they are now merged under one LLC and oftentimes share the same space.
Also operating as a pair, Salmon Sisters co-founders Claire Neaton and Emma Laukitis opened an Etsy shop for Salmon Sisters in 2012. Both women split their time between Salmon Sisters and commercial fishing. It is that immersion in the world of fisherwomen that inspires their designs.
“I knew I wanted to start creating collections beyond what I was already creating at AK Starfish—and what I created, I really wanted to celebrate women and the ocean.”
“[Our style is] Alaskan, which means practical, comfortable, durable, strong—yet feminine and delightful,” Laukitis says. “We focus on products that hold up well over time, in the elements, and can be worn in, worn out, worked in, moved in, and made better with time.”
Salmon Sisters has three seasonal brick-and-mortar locations that are managed by an all-women team while Laukitis and Neaton spend their summers fishing.
Shara Dorris moved to Alaska in 2003 and is the owner and artist of Octopus Ink, which she founded while she was in college as a way to cover tuition.
“The fashion of Octopus Ink is strongly rooted in eco-friendly and sustainable materials,” Dorris says. “I feel good about the products that I sell and I want my customers to feel good about what they buy from me.”
Crab Terror Island founder Sina Sena stands in front of her store, named for a locally-produced soap opera based in Dutch Harbor.
Making it to Market
Sena calls it a hustle, and Nelson calls it hard work. But for both boutique owners, making it to summer markets was the foundation that eventually allowed them to invest in brick-and-mortar locations.
“I worked all the time—I have three kids, I’m married—but every weekend I would be down at one of the markets during the summer, as I say, ‘hustlin’ my hoodies,’” Sena explains.
AK Starfish Co. also got its start in a ten-by-ten-foot tent at weekend markets; over fourteen years what started as one tent turned into four tents and has now become a successful multi-city business. Along the way, AK Starfish Co. found some success making house calls and holding chocolate parties, where people would schedule a time to come to Nelson’s home to shop before she had a storefront.
While Dorris was in college, she would sell her clothes at summer and winter markets. She saved her profits from market sales to purchase a storefront for Octopus Ink in 2009 in Anchorage, which is now open year-round.
Even with Alaska’s small population, Sena says there’s a market for every designer interested in joining the ranks of Alaskan boutique owners.
“Anybody right now that’s kind of struggling… there’s plenty of business out there,” Sena says. “There are billions of people. You just have to know your market and you have to be prepared to put in the time and the energy and the money it’s going to take to find those people to buy from you.”
“There are billions of people. You just have to know your market and you have to be prepared to put in the time and the energy and the money it’s going to take to find those people to buy from you.”
“We focus on products that hold up well over time, in the elements, and can be worn in, worn out, worked in, moved in, and made better with time.”
Networks and Mentors
Finding the right market—especially for artisan-created products—requires building relationships with the community. Nelson’s history as a third-generation Alaskan and her career as a teacher gave her a solid background to start a business, but her relationship building didn’t end there.
“I think service is so huge, and I think that I built my business with relationships in teaching,” Nelson says. “I already had a connection to so many people, and it was a connection that wasn’t even business related, it was about service.”
AK Starfish Co. was able to weather the 2008 recession and other economic downturns in the state due in part, Nelson says, to the loyalty of Alaskans to local companies. Even after the November 30 earthquake, Nelson picked up dented Hydroflasks, swept glass from the floor, and was open for business the next day: “The entire community, it felt, turned out,” Nelson says. “We were slammed. We had standing room only in the store and people pouring in to come and purchase things and offer their support.”
The success of Octopus Ink’s brick and mortar store is impacted by the health of downtown Anchorage, so establishing a clientele that continues to visit the area is essential to Dorris’ business.
“The decline in locals visiting our downtown area, combined with the closing or relocation of many neighboring small businesses, has changed the landscape in the past few years,” Dorris says. “Luckily, we have cultivated relationships with customers around the world, giving us the opportunity to use our online presence to balance out the changes we are feeling in Alaska.”
Other professional relationships are also critical for small business owners. Sena attributes her success in forming Crab Terror Island to finding a mentor who could help her with the basics of business.
The Alaska Small Business Administration offers tools and classes for boutique owners that speak to particular problems they are facing. Salmon Sisters reached out to the Alaska Small Business Development Center in 2018 for resources and advice on managing cash flow, inventory, and organizational structure.
“Use resources in your community to build a business plan; use free resources available to you through your e-commerce platform [and] email marketing; and use them during your day to day operations,” Laukitis says. “We’ve used AK Small Business Development Center, Shopify, and MailChimp.”
AK Starfish Co. has six stores throughout the state with seasonal storefronts in Homer and Seward.
For Women, by Women
These and other local boutiques are run by women, many of whom have found ways to support other emerging female artists. Nelson likes to represent women in her newest collections for Mermaid Co. Boutique, and many of the eighty-six other artists featured in her stores are female.
Sena’s clientele is women in their thirties to fifties, and she says they like to see female-forward comradery in the community.
“One of the reasons I really started a business is because I was always known as: I was a wife, I was a mom, I was an employee,” Sena says. “And when I was a little girl, I was an artist. I had all these hopes and dreams—and not that I didn’t like the direction my life was going, I love my family—but I wanted something that was kind of just for me.”
Each of these boutique owners began as artists with a passion for Alaska design and found ways to turn that passion into a career. Nelson says she has always let her philosophy guide her choices instead of a business plan. Her advice to others: “My advice would be maybe for folks to reach out to experts in certain aspects of their business where they don’t tend to have those same strengths, and then they can focus their time on the things they want to spend their time doing.”
As a larger boutique in the state, AK Starfish Co. has encountered difficulties with point of sale systems that can span the distance of their six stores, but Nelson says it’s important to make sure such a system is in place. “Systems are key to making things efficient and to run smoothly, and I’ve been willing, like I said, to do it the hard way and the more laborious paper tracking methods. They get the job done, it’s just that they take more time and energy,” Nelson says.
“Money can quickly become a major stress,” Dorris says, especially for boutiques that cater to seasonal dollars. “If you budget well and have money set aside to cover the unexpected expenses and slow times, you can minimize the stress when it comes up.”
“Money can quickly become a major stress… If you budget well and have money set aside to cover the unexpected expenses and slow times, you can minimize the stress when it comes up.”
No End in Sight
As artists and business owners, the women who run Alaska’s boutiques work continuously to add new designs and products, including unique collections and styles in anticipation of the peak summer season this year.
“I’ve spent the last few months in my studio working on a project that I’m hoping to debut this summer,” Dorris says. “I have a feeling that this current stream of inspiration will lead to something fun down the road, but I’m still in the discovery stage and not quite ready to put words to it.”
Neaton and Laukitis are continuing to expand the scope of their boutique from clothing retailer to the ultimate authority on Alaska salmon.
“We have a cookbook launching in spring 2020, and we’re excited to be building our seafood program with additional frozen and shelf-stable wild Alaska seafood options available in store and to our web customers,” Laukitis says. “Our short term focus is empowering our growing team with commercial fishing knowledge, seafood knowledge, and to prepare for our summer.”
Sena’s growth plan for Crab Island Terror includes expanding into a community center with an art space and coffee shop alongside the boutique.