Hilton Head Island company’s outdoor clothing made to last a lifetime
When Curtis Hart set out six years ago to make a duplicate of his beloved cotton canvas “duck” cloth field coat for himself, he had no idea that endeavor would blossom into an extensive line of outerwear that would sell in outfitter stores across the South.
Hart said a friend of his dad’s gave him the coat in 1964 and he wore it constantly until he could no longer get it clean and his wife, Mary, told him it was too disreputable to wear any more. He said the coat had been made in 1943 at the Dux Bak Co. in Ithaca, N.Y., which went out of business in 1948.
“It was already 20 years old when I got it,” he said. “It was advertised for sale in a 1946 catalog for $8.”
Today the lookalike Hilton Head Island Marsh and Field Coat made by his Red Fish Brand clothing company retails for $575.
“It’s not the cheapest coat out there,” Hart allowed, “but it’s not the most expensive either. But there’s no better product out there.”
Since that coat went online, Red Fish products have expanded to include a second jacket, two styles of trousers, Bermuda shorts, vests, polo shirts, T-shirts, hats, buckles and straps for belts, and the latest - an oyster knife with a hand-carved handle in a leather sheath.
To make the duplicate of his old field jacket, Hart took the coat apart seam by seam to see how it was made and to make a pattern. He then went to Mt. Vernon Mills in Greenville, and had that company make the fabric for the coat: 8.5-ounce cotton duck canvas sail cloth. He then took the fabric to Carlisle Finishing Co. in Union for dyeing and finishing. Hart calls the color of his coat ”light wheat.” The original coat was called “tobacco brown.”
When Carlisle has done its job, the coat is ready to be sewn, according to Hart. He said he has a team of five women in North Carolina who put the coat together and do the sewing. He said they only build 15 at one time, all in the same size, and it takes three to four days to do those 15 coats. They can do 20 to 25 overall in a week, he said.
In sewing the coats, they use an industrial strength thread – the same that is used to sew together airplane seats,
Corduroy for the collar is imported from England since corduroy is no longer made in the United States, Hart explained.
“This coat has 48 pieces,” he said. “People who buy it say how comfortable it is. If you buy another coat at the store, you’re lucky if you find 14 pieces. If you want to talk about American craftsmanship – it’s unbelievable."
He said the coat is available only in men’s sizes, ranging from small to a 2X, but that some women buy it in the small size.
Hart noted that the original field coat was sold in hardware stores, and it was used as a work coat for watermen, but evolved into a hunting coat used when Hilton Head Island and other nearby sea islands were home to hunting preserves and lodges.
“There was no regard (in making it ) as to fashion,” he said. “It was all about how long it would last.”
It took two years to develop his coat. Once perfected, Hart founded his Red Fish company four years ago and began to sell it. For his first two years in business he sold only the field coat. Then two years ago he began to branch out with a flourish.
Hart, who’s originally from Beaufort, grew up bird hunting and fishing on nearby Coosaw Island and digging for oysters there “or just exploring what washed up with the next tide.” He named his Coosaw Island Briar Britches & Shorts from that memory.
Now a resident of Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island, Hart showed off a pair of the britches designed to protect one’s legs against briars and brambles. Another pair of britches are designed for camouflage, or more accurately, “oysterflage,” and are created from material imprinted with a gray oyster pattern taken from a photo of oyster shells a friend of Hart’s took. He said that in addition to hunting, they are popular for oyster roasts.
Hart’s T-shirts have fish emblems on them that began as rough sketches by him.
“I send the rough sketch to Barbara Bricker, of Bluffton, whose business is Small Miracles, and she will refine it and put it in printable form,” he said. “The shirts are printed in Hilton Head.”
But perhaps the most popular items in Hart’s’ Red Fish collection of merchandise are his belt buckles. Straps to go with them are made by a woman in Kentucky, who’s a saddlemaker. The buckles come with fish figures, such as the red fish and the tarpon, or a shark’s tooth, and in plain, with different borders, ready for engraving with initials or the image of a boat or whatever the purchaser wants to put on the buckle.
The buckles, made of solid brass or silver bronze, can be found at Outside Hilton Head at Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island and at Outside Palmetto Bluff in Palmetto Bluff. Baystreet Outfitters in Beaufort also carries the Red Fish buckles and belts and, in addition, carries the Red Fish cufflinks and hats.
“We’ve enjoyed taking it where it’s gone,” Hart said of his and his wife’s development of the Red Fish Band. “It is really exciting and fun to add new items.”
Hart said they make contributions from the company’s income to the Port Royal Sound Foundation in support of its effort to keep the water clean.
“We appreciate all that they do,” he said.