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Home » News » Zürner Oceanic turns old sails into bespoke accessories – and business is booming September 14, 2023

Zürner Oceanic turns old sails into bespoke accessories – and business is booming

How It All Began

John Zuerner launched Zürner Oceanic in 2017. Together with his wife, Jennifer, they upcycle discarded sailboat materials into chic handmade bags and accessories. But what began as a hobby is now a full-blown brand making waves in both yachting and fashion.  John grew up in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, immersed in local sailing culture, where he raced sunfish, lasers and other dinghies at the local yacht club. After college, he worked in 12-meter racing, where he met Jennifer, and later worked for professional racing programs like Rambler, Numbers, Bella Mente and Speedboat, a 100-foot racing maxi that was famous in its heyday.


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photo credit: Maaike Bernström Photography

What John didn’t do was attend design school. Or work in retail. Or anything, really, that would prepare him for life in fashion and apparel. But in his years as a racing yacht rigger, several things dawned on John: he knew he was creative and resourceful, that he loved nautical culture and that there was space in the market for something more authentic than a shirt with a little anchor on it. By 2016, Jennifer had just given birth to their first child and, as a busy new father, John couldn’t travel like he used to. “I was home and needed a way to stay busy,” he says. “The first piece I created was a bracelet made from an old soft shackle, which is stronger than steel.” John had landed on the best kind of idea there is – novel, yet simple. He would make sailing apparel and accessories from discarded sailboat materials. And so Zürner Oceanic was born, inspired by his surname’s original Swiss-German spelling.

The Early Projects

After the bracelet, John learned to make other things, such as backpacks, tote bags and belts. He read. He researched patterns and materials. He took apart finished products to understand their construction. In those early days, John would cut patterns on the floor and sew until 2 AM while his son slept in the next room.

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Word spread quickly, and soon the operation had taken over their home. Jennifer had friends over to shop right in their living room, and every item sold as fast as John could make it. In 2020, when Jennifer lost her full-time job and John’s sailboat work went on indefinite hiatus, they rolled the dice on making Zürner Oceanic a full-time pursuit. At the height of the pandemic, they leased an empty space on Franklin Street in downtown Newport, created an open workshop so people could watch John work and turned the rest of the space into a retail shop.

Original Pieces

One of Zürner’s defining features is that every product is one-of-one. There are established silhouettes, but the details vary from piece to piece depending on available materials. John takes new duck canvas and incorporates vintage sailcloth, rope, clips, grommets and more from local sailboats and makes it a point to highlight what makes the material unique.

For John, things like rust marks and other imperfections are part of the “patina” that gives each piece its unique character. They tell a real story of life at sea. “Sails and lines come in all different weights, weaves and thicknesses,” John explains. “The design must be versatile enough to accommodate these variations, so no two bags are alike, and no two are made in the exact same way.”

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Today, John’s paternity leave hobby has truly taken on a life of its own. Despite the pressures of newfound success and growing demand for Zürner Oceanic’s one-of-one creations, the couple couldn’t be more thrilled – and focused. Future plans include an expanded product lineup to help transition Zürner into a well-rounded boutique lifestyle brand. And if these busy entrepreneur-parents ever get a vacation? “I think it would be sailing the Mediterranean. I’d love to do that one day,” John says.

Visit zurneroceanic.com today to learn more and shop online.

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