On their second date, Greg Hopkins presented Jennifer Donaldson with a bottle of perfume he mixed just for her along with a belt he had also made.
The gifts were just early indications of what was to come for the couple ─ who married eight months after their first date. More than two years ago, they started East River Trading Co., an online store where they sell their handmade and all-natural soaps, lotions and lip balm as well as one-of-kind clothing designed and crafted by Donaldson.
Their approach to making their products is the same as their approach to life ─ simple and slow. It’s not always the easiest approach, but, they said, it is fulfilling.
“We like people to feel like they’re getting something that is worth more for the value that they’re getting,” Hopkins said. “… We do want to be able to invite people into the simple pleasures or being self-sufficient of enjoying things for themselves.”
Hopkins, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Donaldson, raised in Dothan, met while they were both working in New York’s fashion industry. They lived in an apartment on 59th Street on the East River, hence the name of their company. Donaldson worked in fashion doing designs and alterations. Hopkins worked for a line of motorcycle-inspired denim clothing but had tried his hand at a number of things ─ military service, trimming upholstery, hot rods, culinary arts, tattooing and tanning leather.
But his passion was in making natural products like soaps, lip balms and lotions, a skill born after he was diagnosed with cancer.
“When I got sick, I couldn’t stand the smell of things, couldn’t stand the taste and my skin was so unbelievably sensitive…,” Hopkins said.
He introduced Donaldson to the world of handmade natural products. She was hooked, even when his interest turned to wet-plate photography.
“I just fell in love more and more with it, so I just kept doing it,” Donaldson said.
They hosted dinner parties for friends and taught them how to make soap.
“It’s a great way to introduce people into a more traditional value system to where they start reclaiming things for themselves,” Hopkins said.
They came to Dothan last year to help Donaldson’s father with the design and production of a leak-proof bass fishing bag. They stayed.
Since they moved to Dothan, the couple has been working to introduce their East River Trading products to the Wiregrass. Along with their website, they set up a booth at this summer’s Poplar Head Farmers Market in downtown Dothan and have become one of the vendors with the online Market at Dothan.
Donaldson’s family members ─ including her mother and an aunt ─ have helped the couple sell their products at local markets. The East River Trading Co. products can even be found in local shops like Mollywood Imports and The Vintage Chic.
They want their company to grow, but the couple said their greater goal is to teach others how to live a more natural and simple life. Even their Dothan home reflects their attitudes ─ it’s filled with upcycled furniture and art work. Donaldson said they’ve tried to experience all the things in the Wiregrass they couldn’t do as easily in New York ─ such as selling their products at a market because they didn’t have a car. They dream of a gallery where they can teach people the skills they’ve learned.
They make their soaps from a honey base and sell four types. There’s patchouli with lavender seeds, orange spice with orange peels, rosemary mint with rosemary, and black soap with eucalyptus. They have a line of lotions, misters and lip balm made with bees wax, olive oil, coconut oil, honey, sage, vanilla and peppermint. Along with all of that, Donaldson’s sewn goods include women’s tops, skirts made from men’s button-ups, dresses, scarves, bags and children’s dresses.
Her women’s clothing is not made by patterns, so everything is cut once, draped and then sewn. Pieces are either one-size-fits-all or a small-medium sizing.
“You’re literally getting one thing, nobody else is getting that,” Donaldson said. “The fabric makes more than one piece, but the actual piece is a one-of-a-kind.”
She knits and also makes jackets and aprons. She uses a variety of fabrics ─ upcycled and re-purposed clothing, found fabrics in vintage fabric stores, and even fabrics discarded by fashion houses in New York.
Hopkins said they want to create quality products while promoting the traditional skills that young people don’t even learn anymore.
“We’re an extremely modern couple who lives with extremely traditional values,” Hopkins said. “We like a slower pace of the purchasing, the buying, it’s not all about let’s go out and get the new TV, the new cell phone, the new this, the new that. We don’t live in a world of hand-me-downs anymore. There’s not family heirlooms passed down anymore. Are you going to take your iPhone 4 and pass it down to your great-grandkids? No. Are you going to take your Ford Expedition and park that in the garage and hold that for 60 years? No. As a whole we’re forgetting what heritage means. We’re forgetting where the links to our grandparents come from, and America’s lost its ability to be self-sufficient.”