THERE’S A NEW KID ON THE BLOCK DOWN on Whitehead Street, and he’s about to shake things up. After five years at their Stock Island location, Coast Projects, a hybrid space that defies categorization, and its founder and creative director Billy Kearins are bringing their signature brand of surfer chic to the corner of Whitehead and Petronia Streets. (Perched at the mouth of Bahama Village, Coast Projects had served as a concert venue, artists’ studio collective, T-shirt/screen printing workshop and imported bicycle store.)
This is a smart move for Mr. Kearins, who has spent half a decade cultivating a particular kind of salt-crusted insouciance that simultaneously reads as authentic and curated. The recipe for this might read, “two parts surf junkie, one part skate punk, one part bohemian boat-dweller, a pinch of funky art freak and a healthy handful of old world craftsmanship. This should be served inside a revamped Volkswagen Vanagon, gassed up and ready for a road trip to the beach.
The success of Coast lies in the company’s purposeful ambiguity, best summed up in its tag line: “Coast. Live by It.” For some, the brand represents a kind of youth-approved Margaritaville 2.0, an opportunity for a hipper generation to worship at the altar of island life in all its various manifestations, regardless of proximity to the ocean. For others, Coast represents the sum of its artistic parts: murals, house boats, sculptures and songs created by a rotating cast of studio artists who set up camp in the artfully dilapidated shelter-style studios that make up the backyard of its Stock Island company base.
Mr. Kearins is candid when discussing Coast Projects’ early business plan, or lack thereof. With a bio on the company’s website that begins “Billy got dropped off of a Greyhound bus at the end of the road in 2002 with nothing more than a rucksack on his back and an old skateboard at his bare feet,” it’s clear that Coast Projects wants its visitors to understand that the beachy nonchalance it projects is authentic to the company’s core. “The literal ‘coast,’ meaning that actual line between the safety of the beach and the vast unknown of the waters beyond, for me, is such a dynamic space to occupy,” he explains. “It’s both relaxing and adventurous, and all the while, it can’t be ignored.”
The reverence that Mr. Kearins has for his position, both literally and figuratively, in the ocean-obsessed community of Key West is one that speaks to both locals and visitors. Like Jimmy Buffet before him, Mr. Kearins has a keen eye for the elements of a coastal lifestyle that transcend physical and socioeconomic boundaries. The coast as an archetype is magnetic, thanks to both its universal beauty and the individual symbolism it holds to those who yearn to live near it. “It’s the launching point for sailors and surfers, the inspiration for artists and musicians and the aspiration for many inland and office dwellers,” says Mr. Kearins. “I’m lucky enough to be able to call myself the former few types, but I also understand that the latter folks — those living inland or working the 9-to-5 every day — still have an appreciation for that magical space by the sea. And Coast Projects really is for all of them,” he says. “It’s a brand and lifestyle that everyone can appreciate, no matter where you call home or what you do for work.”
Many of those unlucky enough to call somewhere other than a sandy bungalow home understand that social media can make you feel so awful about the aesthetics of your life that you might find yourself hunched in front of a computer at 4 a.m., squinting bleary-eyed at sheepskin throws and Scandinavian sandals on the internet, convinced one more accessory is all that stands between you and a perfectly styled life. It is a world of artfully arranged and timeless belongings, dimpled toddlers and small pedigree dogs dressed in matching hand-knitted sweaters, spare floral arrangements seemingly thrown together on a morning walk through the forest, of controlled chaos — a world that exists to make the rest of us schlubs feel pathetically inferior due to our lack of coiffed hair and stain-free white linen couches. It is never perfect, always at least one degree from editorial, thus projecting an air of accessibility; this is precisely the trick, to create the illusion that a life so well curated, so enviably arranged, is not only authentic but actually achievable, provided you work hard enough (and cultivate the kind of good taste that results in tens of thousands of followers).
It is the world of those known as social media Style Influencers, a name most likely penned by a masochistic PR lackey. Nevertheless, it has become a real title used to describe a prolific bunch of good looking people whose willingness to share snapshots of their lives has become an actual job — and a lucrative one at that. While an increase in reality television programming is meant to provide Americans with a variety of lives at which to point and feel better about themselves (see: “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “Intervention,” “My 600-lb Life”), the reality performed by social media’s Style Influencers affords the opposite.
There are endless, scrollable opportunities to compare one’s day-to-day life experience to that of another seemingly transparent mortal; to dissect the many differences that make the latter’s life seem infinitely more beautiful and satisfying; and to inspire countless new purchases meant to transform the ugliness of one’s everyday belongings into something worthy of photographing and sharing with the world. This is done in the hopes of accumulating enough “likes” to attract sponsors who will pay you to photograph their company’s spatula lying next to the rustic apple tart you’ve just made in your stylist-approved kitchen. It’s exhausting.
But where other digital taste-makers attempt to pass off deeply staged pictures of picnics and rumpled sheet tableaux as spontaneous moments of undone perfection, Mr. Kearins and his family remain wonderfully, impossibly real. They are committed to sharing a lifestyle that is both as chic and effortless as a pair of broken-in Levi’s. They can be spotted biking around town or hanging out at Coast’s two locations with a gaggle of tow-headed kids on skateboards in the background. Mr. Kearins’ designer wife, Dorthe Thure, specializes in the kind of perfectly imperfect aesthetic that her hometown of Copenhagen has become famous for. The two are so committed to living a life that is authentically mellow, they started a Coast Summer Camp for local kids which seems to carry the theme that childhood should be spent outdoors accumulating skinned knees and seashell collections and learning to appreciate nature. It has, of course, been incredibly successful, the antithesis to the over-scheduled, overprotective reality with which today’s children often contend. Coast kids, it seems, are mini-versions of the adults that make up Coast’s ever-expanding cult of cool. They’re unpretentious, radically present, and interested in living a life that is wild and free, instead of holing up to avoid possible bumps and bruises.
New visitors to Key West would be forgiven for assuming that the city had recently signed a deal with Coast to outfit locals en masse, such is the popularity of the company’s line of butter-soft tank tops and crew necks, each bearing the company’s tag line in a muted-color-way. In keeping with the company’s trademark lackadaisical attitude, Mr. Kearins says he was surprised the goods took off. “That wasn’t really something I thought would ever make any money,” he said. “It was really like a way for me to subtly let people know that we existed and the original T-shirt started as almost a uniform for the artists and craftsmen who occupied the Stock Island space.”
After teaching himself to screen print, Mr. Kearins purchased a few blank tees and made a limited run. “Fast forward a few years, and I see them all over town,” he said. “It’s just one of those trials that worked. And it seemed like the next step was to head downtown to see if other people would like our stuff, too.”
One month in and it’s clear: They do. Previous print runs no longer in production have become collectors’ items, while the current design — Hemingway’s face hovering above the company’s logo, cheekily altered to the past tense “Lived by it.” — became an instant classic the moment they went up for sale.
By deciding to go with a residential design for its new location at 803 Whitehead Street, Coast Projects is attempting to bring its devotees even deeper into the brand’s deliberately non-corporate embrace. It has traded in traditional retail display racks and shelves for a more casual, wandered-into-someone’s living room style of sales. Visitors get a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of lifestyle that has made Mr. Kearins and his unfairly photogenic family the perfect poster children for the brand, complete with whitewashed beams and a distressed wooden swing that hangs over a postage stamp-sized pool out back. Strolling into the cozy store on a quiet afternoon, visitors can paw through a variety of screen-printed goods, cards and accessories. The effect is so effortlessly relaxed, one almost expects to be handed a beer (served in a Coast-branded koozy, of course) at the door.
Mr. Kearins is particularly excited to integrate Coast’s new location on Whitehead Street into the company’s ongoing concert series at its Stock Island location. Performed outside under twinkle lights and against a backdrop of tanned limbs and correlated metal, Coast’s con- certs have quickly become the island’s most popular events, thanks to a steady stream of big name performers, including G Love and the Special Sauce, Donavon Frankenreiter and Mason Jennings. How an old boat yard on Stock Island became host to world famous-musicians is something Kearins is especially proud of. “The goal has always been to be a bit different, try weird stuff, make statements, learn from mistakes and then hope that it all turns into something better than what we initially envisioned at the outset,” he explains. “The company is called ‘Coast Projects,”’ and that is a definite nod to wanting to experiment and then take the experiments that work and turn them into better versions of the original idea. “From a dilapidated back yard, Mr. Kearins and his band of bohemian handymen and boat builders have coaxed a hippie paradise, complete with a rustic stage, kid-friendly skate ramp and a Rastafarian food truck.
“It’s almost like a playground for adults. Bring your tools and instruments and a six-pack of beer and just (start) making noise. Then see if you can write a song. And if you can write a song, have a concert,” he says. “There’s a bit of literal and figurative truth in that way of thinking, considering our renegade concert series started with a group of friends banging on bongos and has resulted in a bunch of amazing internationally-known performers gracing our stage over the last couple years.”
With its prime position at the crux of a residential neighborhood and rapidly expanding retail and restaurant corridor, Kearins envisions the porch of his new store becoming a kind of stage-stoop hybrid. Nashville singer/songwriter Rorey Carrol recently swung by to play for a few hours before taking the stage at the company’s Stock Island venue, much to the delight of unsuspecting passersby. Mr. Kearins has already lined up local legend Miguel Perez for a porch-side concert on March 31. “I have real love for the concerts,” he says. “They don’t make a dime, but they make me feel good, and everyone else seems to like them too. So, I’ve kind of committed to keeping the music going as long as people still show up with smiles.”
To keep the perfectly distressed roof over their heads, Mr. Kearins and his team are looking toward expanding the existing product line of branded goods in an effort to meet the new demands of downtown business.
Scrolling through Coast’s various online platforms, it appears that the brand’s mellow narrative — one that plays into the fantasy of quitting one’s job to skateboard by the board walk, hang with rock stars, and sell T-shirts by the shore — has not changed since the company’s early days of mucking around with old boats and bongo drums. From an outsider’s perspective, Mr. Kearins and his family seem to continue to live the kind of life an accountant from Michigan daydreams of: a life structured around a continuous respect for, and connectedness to, nature, childhoods free of helicopter parenting, days spent skateboarding or surfing, and nights spent in the company of friends and strangers brought together by music and art.
When asked if all of it — the exponential growth of attention paid to his family’s social media presence, the demands of running a stressful and successful business paradoxically built on appearing to live a carefree coastal life, the increasingly famous names looking to play at his concert venues — has changed the way he lives his life, Mr. Kearins is breezy and perfectly on-brand with his response. He and his family are still the same people whose mellow island living hypnotized the first wave of Coast fans, who stock their closets with the company’s
T-shirts and vie for tickets to concerts.
Mr. Kearins and his family can still be spotted bicycling around town, taking time to smell the jasmine and stare out at the ocean, even as they continue to build what promises to be a successful empire. For these Style Influencers, at least, life informs the brand — never the other way around.
“That space I talked about, the one between the safety of the beach and the vast unknown of the waters beyond, is still where you can find us,” he says. “Just livin’ by it.”
To learn more about Coast, visit www.coastprojects.com, or visit the company’s two locations at 6404 Front Street on Stock Island, Key West, or 803 Whitehead Street in downtown Key West. ¦