Clothing startup founded by Calvert Hall graduates launches partnership with bay foundation

A budding clothing business founded by a pair of Calvert Hall College High School graduates has formed a partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation through which it will donate a portion of the proceeds of its sales to the foundation's mission of restoring the bay.

Kevin Ames and Mathew Wilmer own Chesapeake Collection, which sells shirts for men, women and children that have a theme centered on the bay.

The company also sells belts, ties and hats, emblazoned with its signature blue crab logo. Though most of the company's sales come through the Internet, its apparel is also for sale at Cohen's Clothiers of Cockeysville.

The pair, who are now 22-year-old college seniors, announced the partnership this month.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation aims to reduce pollution throughout the bay's 64,000 square-mile watershed through education, advocacy, litigation and restoration efforts.

The pair said they pursued the partnership because they believe in taking care of the bay, calling the idea of making conservation a part of their brand "a natural fit."

Both men grew up boating on the bay with their families.

"We really want to make the conservation a part of our brand," Wilmer said.

Chesapeake Collection's shirts list online for $22 to $32, while caps sell for $21 to $28, and belts are $44 and ties $78.

Last week, the company donated $2,500 to the bay foundation. The pair also introduced a "Wear the Bay" hashtag through the company's website and social media platforms, Wilmer said, adding that, now that their company is beginning to grow financially, they can afford to give more.

"Essentially the bay is our brand so that's going to be a big part," of the company's future, Wilmer said. "It's not just high-quality apparel. At the end of the day we want to be known for stewardship."

'A stance we want to take'

The two hatched the idea for Chesapeake Collection during their junior year in college, Ames said. Though they attend different universities — Ames attends Towson University, while Wilmer attended Loyola University — the two remained friends after high school.

Wilmer said he was taking a branding and marketing class when he and Ames sat down to brainstorm a "preppy culture lifestyle brand" of apparel just for Maryland, something similar to apparel brands such as Martha's Vineyard-born Vineyard Vines or tailgate staple Southern Tide.

During the previous summer, the friends had started a landscaping business, using the proceeds as seed money to launch their apparel company. In 2014, they trademarked the blue crab logo, incorporated the business and spent the next six months looking for a T-shirt supplier before making their first public sales in May 2015 at the Towsontown Spring Festival.

Over the past two and a half years, the company has donated sporadically to the bay foundation, Ames and Wilmer said.

A few months ago, they decided to increase their donations, in light of increasing revenue. The decision is partly a business one, but is aimed more at stewardship of the bay, Wilmer said.

"It's not a marketing ploy of, 'Buy our stuff because we give to a cause,' " Wilmer said. "It's more a stance we want to take. The bay itself is such a beautiful estuary, and it makes us sad when it's not taken care of."

Chesapeake Collection originally suggested donating $1 per item sold to the foundation, but foundation officials suggested a partnership until the details of a legal contract could be determined.

"The guys have given us more than $2,500 which we're delighted with," foundation spokesman Tom Zolper said, adding that the contract should be ironed out within the next month.

What millenials want

The pair's aligning of their company with a mission is similar to what other lifestyle brands have done, said Tim Bojanowski, the owner of Zest Social Media Solutions, a digital marketing firm based in Towson that is not connected with Chesapeake Collection.

As brick-and-mortar retailers compete with online-only businesses for web traffic in a busier sales space, some companies have turned to a cause to elevate their brand, he said.

"There's a millenial buying behavior of wanting a layer of good," Bojanowski said. "That's a stereotype that has proved very true in terms of large companies being able to reach out and capture millenial eyeballs."

Last year, millenials surpassed baby boomers as America's largest generation, according to the Pew Research Center. The millennial generation encompasses adults ages 18 to 34 in 2015, according to the nonpartisan fact tank.

Millenials have grown to expect brands to showcase their profitable giving on their websites, Bojanowski said, adding that having a cause allows startups to grow a brand quickly and effectively.

"In a generation that has never known anything but saturation of the marketplace, that is something that can be a core differentiator," Bojanowski said

Wilmer said the two have not taken a salary while continuing to grow their brand and focus on school, instead reinvesting their $60,000 in 2016 gross sales into the business.

Over the past year, they have garnered seasonal shelf space at an Ocean City boutique and have a regular spot at Cohen's Clothiers in Cockeysville, where the line is selling well, owner Gilbert Cohen said.

Cohen, whom Ames and Wilmer call a mentor, said he started carrying the apparel from the beginning, after customers started asking for it by name.

"As it came down to it we liked the product," Cohen said. "It was nice looking and had a definite Maryland aura to it because of the use of the crab on their printed products."

Wilmer, who finished classes at Loyola University in the fall, has turned his attention to the business full-time. The plan is to shift all efforts to growing the business slowly after both attend spring commencement ceremonies, he said.

For now, Ames and Wilmer said they will focus on incorporating the Wear the Bay, Save the Bay mission into their brand through messaging on their website and social media, attending trade shows and making more regular donations to the bay foundation.

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