By Oliver Lazenby
Business owners might not think of moving to Blaine as a way to connect with an international clientele, but that’s one of the factors that led Rawganique here.
The company (pronounced raw-gan-eek) sells handcrafted organic, chemical-free clothing and household products online. Compared to its previous homes on Point Roberts and Denman Island, B.C., Blaine is almost urban, and offers more chances to meet customers face to face, said company founders Qeanu Wallner and Quo Yong Fu.
The company’s first retail store, on Denman Island, was closed in 2015. After selling online the past few years, the company is opening up shop at the now-closed Subway location at 429 Peace Portal Drive in about three months. They also plan to run a café in the space.
“Blaine is just ideal for us,” Fu said. “It’s got a beautiful coastline and really supportive people who are excited about what we do. We just feel so supported and encouraged here.”
The company purchased the Subway building in July, and city officials helped find a space for its headquarters, which moved from Point Roberts to 270 C Street in August.
For an online business, Blaine offers some shipping advantages over Point Roberts.
“Here things are fast, punctual and we’re really getting to know the local shipping system and transit routes,” Fu said.
With the move, the company went from five to 12 employees, and Fu and Wallner say they plan to hire more. The company has often had visits from locals who want to work for the company or learn more about it, Fu said. Rawganique is seeing a growing market for its products – a wide range of clothing and other fabric items including shirts, jeans, socks, underwear, formal attire, bed sheets, curtains, carpet, shoes, other accessories and household products.
Rawganique products are made from organically grown hemp, cotton and flax, and are hand-made and naturally dyed.
Fu couldn’t provide numbers on the company’s growth, but said sales have picked up a lot since 2015, when Rawganique moved to Point Roberts after outgrowing its Denman Island location.
Fu credits that growth to an increased interest in hemp and a growing number of people with chemical sensitivities, or just a wariness of the chemicals and toxins that fabric and clothing manufacturers use.
“Organic clothing is growing across the spectrum, following organic food. Whole Foods used to be an oddity and now the conversation has trickled down to every level of society,” Fu said. “People are starting to wonder, if their underwear is made out of synthetic material and if it’s off gassing volatile compounds and chemicals, what does that do?”
Fewer people thought about the material on their backs when Fu and Wallner started Rawganique 20 years ago on Denman Island, a short ferry ride away from Buckley Bay on the east side of Vancouver Island.
The pair, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, had recently moved to the pastoral island to homestead and live off the land.
“We really wanted to go back to doing things with our own hands and rediscover how to grow our own food, how to live with the elements, how to chop wood for our own fireplace – that kind of thing,” Fu said. “We loved every minute of it.”
Not only were they self-sufficient, their home was chemical free. Homemade bed sheets, towels and socks were their first forays into what became Rawganique. They blogged about their life on the island, and soon readers were asking for help with finding chemical-free stuff.
So in 1997, they started selling organic, chemical-free products under the name Rawganique.
“There was nobody else really doing any of this. We started doing it and then we found we had a knack and a passion for
it,” Fu said.
Their customers were loyal and soon started pushing them to make even more, Fu said.
“’I’m sleeping in your sheets and I’m drying myself with your towel and I’m going to bed in your pajamas; what do I do for shoes and office clothes and curtains?’ customers asked us,” Fu said. “So we thought, well actually, we can make that.”
At Rawganique’s Blaine headquarters, the company handles shipping and customer service. Clothes and raw fabric are manufactured in a few shops in the U.S. and Canada, but its main manufacturer is a partner in Romania that the company has worked with since it began, said Jessica Johnston, the company’s general manager.
Rawganique may have a growing market, but is it enough to support a retail store in Blaine? Fu and Wallner suspect they’ll draw a lot of interest from people passing through. Having a warehouse in town allows them to keep costs down – the store doesn’t have to have any extra room for inventory.
The new Blaine location will be Rawganique’s only physical store, though they used to have a store on Denman Island. While Fu and Wallner have enjoyed meeting people in Blaine, their store will help the company connect with more like-minded people, Wallner said.
“In the store you can connect at a human-to-human level,” he said. “We want to contribute to a community and be a part of it. That can only happen when you have a physical location.”