Riding the wind: Shibumi Shade has built a coastal following – CNET

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My Shibumi Shade billows on the breeze.

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This story is part of Road Trip 2021, CNET’s coverage of the Biden administration’s push to grow American manufacturing and make more things in the USA.

Patches of brilliant turquoise and rich royal blue sprawl along Kure Beach, my one-traffic-light town on the southeastern tip of North Carolina. Though you’ll notice these colors in the rolling Atlantic waves and the hazy summer sky, they stand out sharply against Kure’s golden sands. 

Look closer and the patches become identical swaths of fabric billowing in the breeze, each one sheltering small pods of beachgoers. Though their setups may look precarious — the only thing stopping each canopy from tumbling into the Atlantic is a single aluminum arch, anchored by a small sandbag — they stay firmly put even as the wind picks up. 

The simple featherweight design is one of a few reasons why the Shibumi Shade has won a devoted following. Pronounced shih-BOOM-ee, it’s named after a Japanese design principle that promotes a simple, understated form of elegance. (Shibumi is also the name of a 2005 cult novel that describes it as “effortless perfection.”) Covering a span of 15 by 10 feet and offering UPF 30 protection from the hot summer sun, the $250 Shibumi Shade can easily shelter up to six people, plus the gear they’ve brought with them. The whole thing is designed to fold into a compact bag that clocks in at less than 4 pounds.

Developed by three University of North Carolina graduates who were tired of windy days toppling their beach umbrellas, Shibumi has done more than just build a new kind of shoreline shade. It’s also a model of how a small company started with a handmade product and Tar Heel State roots has gone on to acquire a devoted nationwide following. The shades are still made in the USA, and as imitators have appeared, Shibumi has defended its design.

“We were born and raised in North Carolina, and it’s always been home for us,” Dane Barnes, one of the founders, told WRAL News last year. “We’re definitely proud that every single Shibumi Shade that has ever been made has been sewn in North Carolina.”

As a North Carolina native myself, I had to see if the Shibumi Shade was as effective and easy to use as its fans say. After one sunny, breezy afternoon, I have to say they’re not wrong.

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Looking in one direction, I saw at least four Shibumi Shades on Kure Beach the day I set up my own shade. Looking the other way, I counted at least five more. 

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Leaning into the wind

What really sets the Shibumi apart is how it harnesses the wind. For most beach umbrellas and tents, the ever-present coastal breeze is a nuisance. On particularly blustery days, it can become an adversary, transforming beach gear into dangerous projectiles. But to the Shibumi’s floating fabric, the wind is a friend. It only takes about a 3 mph breeze to keep the free end of the fabric afloat and provide the shade beachgoers want. The shade does have its limits: Winds above 20 mph are too strong, and calm conditions can prevent the fabric from floating up off the ground. For those Goldilocks beach days, though, the Shibumi uses the breeze to its advantage. 

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Beachgoers have noticed. “The wind finally retired our big beach umbrella after 6 seasons,” read a recent post on the Carolina Beach & Kure Beach Locals Facebook group. “Where, on the island or nearby, do you find beach umbrellas that aren’t designed to last a few days but a few seasons?”

The most common response: “Get a Shibumi instead.”

Since the Shibumi first went on sale in 2016, its fanbase has spread beyond North Carolina, the state where it was born and is still largely made. Through sales on the Raleigh-based company’s online store and at outdoor retailers and Ace Hardware stores, the Shibumi has made its way up and down the East Coast, jumped across the country to California and even touched down in Hawaii. TikTok videos and nods from publications like The New York Times’ Wirecutter — which called the Shibumi “one of our favorite sun shelters we’ve ever tested” — certainly haven’t hurt. 

But when the three co-founders — brothers Dane and Scott Barnes and their longtime friend Alex Slater — started developing the first Shibumi, they weren’t planning on revolutionizing the beach experience. In fact, starting a company wasn’t on their radar at all. All the UNC-Chapel Hill alumni hoped for was to make setting up a shade on North Carolina’s Emerald Isle Beach a little less stressful. 

The problem was that anchoring a traditional beach umbrella to withstand a strong gust had always been a challenge. “And the larger pop-up tents were always heavy to carry, difficult to set up, and also required a lot of anchoring to hold down in the wind,” Slater said.

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You’ll need some wind for the Shibumi to work properly.

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The trio got to work: From fabric, PVC pipe and some rudimentary sewing skills, they built their first shade. And when it started attracting attention on the beach even in its rough-draft form, Slater said he and the Barnes brothers realized that they might have a product worth selling. After swapping out the PVC pipe for tent poles, they took their first advance orders, and over the summer of 2016, the trio spent their nights and weekends making every Shibumi to order on a home sewing machine.

From there, the business grew by word of mouth. Slater wouldn’t discuss sales figures, but in 2019 the Greensboro News and Record reported the company had sold 2,000 shades the previous year, compared with 178 shades in 2017. The company has aggressively defended its design as well. In June, Shibumi sued Apex, North Carolina-based Beach Shade for patent infringement, alleging that Beach Shade products copied the “total image and overall appearance” of Shibumi’s product. (Slater declined to discuss the suit.)

Slater said the shade has made its way to “at least 680 unique beach destinations, all around the world.” In their first four years in business, the founders would call or text every customer to make sure they were enjoying their Shibumi, and they only stopped once the customer base grew too big for the three of them to handle alone. Shipping, returns and replacements are still free. 

“We have a fairly simple approach to customer service,” Slater said. “We want to treat every customer just like they’re a close friend.”

Throwing shade

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My sample Shibumi in its bag, standing up against a 3.5-foot-tall fence.

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Slater and the Barnes brothers no longer have to rely on their own self-taught sewing: Each Shibumi Shade is now assembled by partner sewing businesses in Asheville and Asheboro, North Carolina — and, most recently, in the mountains just over the Virginia border. 

According to Slater, customers have praised the shades for all different reasons. Seniors say the Shibumi’s undemanding setup process has enabled them to enjoy the beach again. Parents say it’s light enough for their kids to carry. One mom said she can assemble it by herself with her baby strapped to her chest. So, after seeing so many Shibumis lining my hometown beach, I had to try one for myself. Would setting up the shade come as naturally to me as it appeared to be for its raving reviewers?

Things already started to look promising when I found I had no trouble hefting the box that held a loaner Shibumi Shade that Slater had sent for testing. After opening it, I picked up the Shibumi and walked down to the beach on a muggy Monday afternoon at four — not the searing sun of high noon, but still some rays to reckon with. The skinny black bag weighed less than the Tommy Bahama chair in my other hand.

I wouldn’t be alone in seeking shade. When I looked up as my feet hit the sand, the first thing I saw was a Shibumi. And another. And another. And another. The wind was blowing southeast at about 7 mph that day, so the Shibumis were facing the water as the blue tarps billowed. I strolled in search of a less crowded spot where I could avoid the snickers of seasoned Shibumi-ers, should the setup go awry.

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It took some dexterity to put together the pole segments to set up the Shibumi’s arch. 

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Once I found a secluded area, I did a quick mental walkthrough of the setup steps, which I found listed on the company’s website (I didn’t find instructions in the box, though I may have overlooked them). Then I opened the drawstring bag and pulled out the clump of pole segments, all attached by a thin rope that seemed impossibly sturdy for its size. I slid the segments together, forming a long straight line of pole that would eventually constitute the arch. It was an easy process, though I was glad I’d chosen a spot that wasn’t packed with people in case my pole-connecting had taken an awkward turn. (“Sorry for poking your eye out. Wanna sit under my Shibumi Shade while you pop it back in?”)

The next step was to affix the canopy to the pole. Feeling like a magician pulling an endless strip of fabric from a hat, I pulled foot after foot of azure tarp from that little black bag. I spotted an opening by the hem of the canopy’s sapphire-blue section, and I began to clumsily slide it onto the pole. This was a bit tricky for me — I’m guessing there’s an art to it that you eventually learn — but soon enough, the fabric ballooned upward and outward.

Then it was time to form the arch by sticking the ends of the pole into the sand — about six inches deep, as the directions stipulated. I scooped a few handfuls of sand into the carrying  bag (it doubles as a sandbag), which stays attached to fabric via a built-in rope, and plunked it a few feet forward. Stepping back, I noticed my setup lacked the aesthetic grace of the other Shibumis on the beach: It was lopsided and awkwardly low to the ground. As I started adjusting the fabric and narrowing the arch, I watched my sloppy handiwork begin to improve.

That’s when I heard a shout. “Is that easy to do?” Two beachgoers had wandered up to watch me work. I found myself trying to articulate what exactly this big blue thing was. 

“It looks much easier than the umbrellas,” one of them said.

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I managed to glide the fabric onto the pole fairly smoothly, but I’m sure this step is a skill that one has to master over time. 

Mary King/CNET

My final task was to loop the canopy’s two straps around each end of the arch and secure them using the attached metal snaps. Easy peasy. And with that, I pulled my chair beneath the shade, plopped down and assessed my work. 

Illuminated by the afternoon sun, my Shibumi flowed triumphantly in the breeze, cloaking me in a roomy rectangle of shade. The company’s site (and some online reviews) had warned that the fabric makes a flapping sound that gets on some people’s nerves, especially in winds faster than 15 mph. But honestly, it was pretty quiet, and in a way it complemented the crashing of the waves. It was certainly a worthy tradeoff for this wonderful reprieve from the hot sun. 

Then I remembered: While scooping sand into the bag, I had noticed a little red envelope tucked inside. I opened the envelope, and there I found a bunch of Shibumi business cards — probably to pass out to inquiring minds like the ones who had approached me minutes before. But there was no time for evangelizing once I remembered that CNET wasn’t paying me to lounge there all afternoon. So, I packed up — a quick and easy reversal of the setup process — and slung the bag over my shoulder.

On my way home I introduced myself to a group of three Shibumi sitters and asked them about their experience with it. They told me they used to lug a big tent that took two or three people to carry and set up. But the Shibumi? “So much better,” one of them said. “It’s light as a feather, it sets up in less than five minutes, and it provides just as much shade as a tent or umbrella.” Their only complaint was that when the wind changes, it’s necessary to pivot the shade in a new direction to keep it flowing properly.

The Shibumi isn’t invincible — and in some places, it’s illegal. A few beaches have banned tents — most notably, the tourist hub of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which prohibits them during the summer. But after lobbying from Shibumi, in July the Board of Commissioners of Ocean Isle, North Carolina, declared “wind-powered sun shades” exempt from its tent ban. And in the FAQs on its website, Shibumi encourages fans to do some lobbying of their own: “If you visit a beach that currently has rules that would prohibit the Shibumi Shade, please consider calling or writing your town council to let them know you’d love to see the Shibumi Shade allowed!”

The promoters aside, the Shibumi’s $250 price tag is a tough sell for those who don’t hit the shore very often. But now that I’ve spent an afternoon under a Shibumi, I’m convinced it will keep flapping its way up to the top of the beach gear market. It offers a mix of durability, sleekness and ingenuity that you’d be hard-pressed to find in an ordinary beach umbrella or tent. For beach regulars who treasure their time on the sand, the sweltering summer might be best spent riding the wind.

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