June 23, 2005 – Terry McKoy, 57, and Barbara Alperen, 55, are living many people's tropical dream. Their Sloop Jones hand-painted clothing studio and shop sits on the peaceful East End of St. John, near lovely Hurricane Hole.
The couple moved to St. John in 1989 just after Hurricane Hugo tore up the island.
Their story is one of happenstance. McKoy was a manufacturer's representative in the Boston area when a shipment of out-of-spec t-shirts from El Salvador arrived. Making the best out of a situation that could have cost him money, he hand painted them.
"I had been a photographer and did water colors on the side," he said, referring to the art experience he used to create colorful designs.
The t-shirts sold well. He soon shifted gears into the artistic side of the business. McKoy and Alperen began planning a move to a warmer climate, with the intent of making hand-painted clothing.
McKoy and Alperen, who was a physical therapist tired of her trade, first moved from the Boston area to Tortola, where McKoy was hired to teach the business of arts and crafts at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. After staff at the work permit office treated him badly and he realized he would never be able to open a business there, he and Alperen hopped the ferry to St. John.
McKoy had been here once back in 1972 (and Alperen never had), but that didn't deter them. They met a tight housing market. The only place they could find to rent was way out on the East End, an area that soon began to feel like home.
They first worked and lived in a couple of rented homes, finally buying a two-pod house at the entrance to Privateer Bay Estates to live and work.
With Alperen running the business end of the operation and she and assistants doing whatever else needs to be done, McKoy concentrates on painting. He paints 5,000 pieces of clothing a year as well as notecards.
"Yoga tops are the best seller," he said, referring to pieces of clothing worn by people practicing yoga.
McCoy said Sloop Jones, a name that harks back to college days when McKoy was called Sloop and his roommate Jones, shifted its focus from wholesaling to mainland retailers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The retail environment wasn't so good," he said.
While Sloop Jones continues to wholesale to some mainland retailers, he and Alperen now concentrate on selling from the shop at their studio and to the five shops around the Virgin Islands that carry Sloop Jones brand clothes.
McKoy said many of his customers buy an entire summer wardrobe in one fell swoop. Others know what colors look best on them, so McKoy conjures up a custom wardrobe.
"Somebody in the public eye," he said, describing the typical retail customer with a hefty clothes budget.
He also creates custom shirts for local restaurants and does wedding attire white with a splash of tropical color that reflects the colorful gardens around their home, studio and shop.
"People getting married in the islands want a tropical theme," McKoy said.
McKoy said that over time, St. John has grown to the point that it's become easier to find employees, and infrastructure problems have smoothed out, both problems that plagued Sloop Jones in its earlier years.
While McKoy appears to be a keen businessman who honed his skills selling cars, he credits a lot of the company's success to the fact that Alperen knows the value of what McKoy produces.
"That and getting up and painting every day," he said.
To shop at Sloop Jones, venture all the way out on Route 10 until almost the very end of the road.
"Two hills after Vie's Snack Shop," Alperen said.
Look for signs directing you to the shop. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. In the winter, visit 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Call 779-4001 or visit www.sloopjones.com.
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