Painted chip clips, colorful air fresheners, tie-dye handkerchief headbands and Bohemian pompom scarves — Natural Life, a Jacksonville-based clothing and accessories company, has grown simple arts and crafts into a $20 million company.
Started in the mid-1990s by Patti Hughes, a Ponte Vedra Beach wife and mother of three with a love for creating sentimental photo keepsakes, the company has evolved from a home-based business to commanding a 75,000-square-foot office space and warehouse on Fortune Parkway on the Southside.
Hughes is Natural Life’s CEO and chief creative officer — overseeing about 70 local employees — with products sold from as close to home as her storefront in The Avenues mall and Aqua East Surf Shop locations to being packaged locally and shipped all over the world.
“All of the product ideas come from my head,” Hughes explained of artisan collection trinket dishes, gypsy girl key clips, festival-braided headbands and coffee cozies. “As a kid, I was a shy, observing type of person, but I always had an opinion of what I thought was cool.”
Born Patricia Hanna in 1963 in Tampa, she relocated with her family to Kansas City, Mo., when she was just 4. Her father worked in real estate marketing and development and her mom, an artist, started her own greeting card company.
“I grew up with my mom making things in our basement all the time, and so I kind of got that same itch to do so,” Hughes said in a video posted on the company’s website describing how Natural Life got its start. “Almost everything she made had words on it. The business ended up getting up to about a million dollars.”
Hughes credits her Middle America upbringing and going to public school with keeping her rooted in middle-class values, despite her current Ponte Vedra surroundings. “A lot of the time, I get inspired by things from my childhood,” she said of utilizing material like mattress ticking.
After receiving a B.A. in marketing from Kansas State University, Hughes spent seven years working for Hallmark Cards. In 1989, a year after starting with the company, she was transferred to Jacksonville where a friend set her up with her now-husband of nearly 20 years, Winder Hughes, who is an investor.
The couple has three daughters: Madison, 16; Halle, 13; and Gracie, 11. “Sometimes I can’t tell when Natural Life ends and Patti Hughes begins,” the wife, mother and entrepreneur said.
Hughes’ oldest daughter, Madison, is in boarding school at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. “I never realized until now how impressive it was to form such a successful company out of very little to begin with,” the teenager wrote via email. “I really appreciate my mom’s drive and ambition for going after what she loves.”
Madison, an aspiring musician, will be performing at Natural Life’s upcoming charity music event. The Natural Life Music Festival will feature musicians Martin Sexton, Lera Lynn, Field Report and Swear and Shake. The event benefits Children’s Home Society of Florida, an organization that helps orphans and neglected and abused children.
“I love service and donating to charities, so I'm proud of Natural Life for giving back to the community,” Madison said. “The music festival is an awesome way to unite the Jacksonville folk for a day of crafts, food, music and fun.”
Giving back has always been a central theme for Patti Hughes. In 2001, she started a smaller event, “Crafternoon,” held at Sunshine Park in Jacksonville Beach. “I just felt that I was living the American dream and wanted to give back to the community that helped make this all happen to me,” she said. “Crafternoon was Natural Life’s vision of a perfect day.”
Crafternoon grew from a family-friendly event focused on arts and crafts to a full-blown music festival with food vendors, musical acts and — you guessed it — more crafts. The inaugural Natural Life Music Festival was held in November 2011 (no festival in 2012) at Metropolitan Park. It attracted about 3,000 revelers and raised nearly $20,000 for the Children’s Home Society of Florida through sample sales, vendor sales and craft tables. Admission to the 2013 festival is free. This year, Hughes says they expect a crowd of 5,000.
As with a majority of American companies, it doesn’t make good business sense for Natural Life to produce its goods within the United States. Most people won’t pay $10 or $15 for an item that could potentially cost $5. This doesn’t mean that Hughes isn’t conscious of the fact that her products are made in China.
Upward of 99 percent of Natural Life products — from key chains and journals to nightlights — are manufactured in three main factories located in Dongguan and Guangzhou, China. Hughes has visited the factories multiple times.
“I struggle, because I know there are people here who need help,” Hughes said. “But because many of our products are handmade with embroidery and sequins, it’s not feasible to create them in America.”
Hughes said that the factories Natural Life hires use non-transient labor — people who live and work in the community. “We are producing jobs and wonderful lifestyles through our products.”
She said her company is consciously looking for opportunities to enlist U.S. labor to make clothing and accessories. The first products Hughes ever made under the Natural Life name were black-and-white keepsake photos of phrases like “I Love You” and “Believe” written in the sand. “I would take the picture right when the waves were coming up and wash the words away.” The trinkets are still made in-house in the enormous warehouse adjacent to Natural Life’s company headquarters.
“I’m very involved in the business side of the business as well as the creative side,” Hughes said.
Allison Hall Hillis, creative director at Natural Life, has been with the company for more than 14 years. “I joined when Natural Life had just turned 2,” she said. “I was an independent artist and worked closely with Patti. We came up with ideas for different products together, or she would come up with an idea, and I’d design something to bring it to life.”
The company’s tagline — “give. love. laugh.” — is further explained in press materials as, “We make fun stuff girls love with a free spirit, style and love to inspire girls of all ages to live happy!”
“We appeal to girls all over the world from 8 to 88,” Hughes said.
Natural Life makes roughly 1,000 new products each release, which is about twice a year, Hughes said.
“I constantly look for new ideas and design concepts. I co-direct with Patti, our amazing in-house team of graphic designers,” Hillis said. “I also travel the globe for inspiration, often with Patti. We seek out unusual places because we’re always on the hunt for little gems — the diamonds in the rough that help us keep our line fresh and different.”
Together, Hillis and Hughes have traveled to Guatemala, Thailand, India, Peru, Mexico, Turkey and Hong Kong. “We cover a lot of territory and always seek out places that are kind of off the grid,” Hillis said. “Inspiration could come from a color combination on a road sign to an open-air market to a lone street vendor.
“While we were traveling through Rajasthan in India, on a road that shepherds were crossing with their flocks, we came across a street vendor selling car accessories — all of which were very cool and fun and artistic. We came home and decorated our cars and launched Natural Life’s car accessories line.”
Influenced and inspired by worldly cultures, Natural Life is an easily recognizable brand around Northeast Florida. In October 2012, Hughes and her team opened up a storefront at The Avenues, after waiting more than a decade to open a retail shop.
“I like to do things slowly and organically,” she said. “We can’t believe the power of the brand when it’s all put together.”
Natural Life is also sold in area Northeast Florida shops like Dragonflies Handcrafted Jewelry in downtown St. Augustine, Out Of Hand in Fernandina Beach, House Dressing in Sawgrass Village, Mos in Jacksonville Beach and both Aqua East Surf Shop locations.
The brand also sponsors two local female surfers and consistently donates a portion of sales to nonprofits, including Nest, Taps.org, Guatemala Children’s Project, Pennies for Peace and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). About 3 to 5 percent of the sales of specific products, like the Peace Band and Power of Words bracelet, are donated to these causes.
“I try to get involved in school as much as I can,” Madison said. “It can be very difficult at times being a leader and getting classmates motivated. It makes me understand even more how a person can really do anything that person wants to do. She [my mother] has always told me growing up to never give up, and I still live by that motto.”
“Our culture is really important to us,” Hughes said as she walked around the Natural Life creative department and break room. The office space is decked out in company flair. Inspiration flags hang in cubicles — spelling the name of each employee — and groups huddle together for Monday morning meetings.
“If we can have fun, maintain our core values and still create a successful business, what else would you need?”