A quick glance at the Maho Shades Instagram page shows beautiful people sporting sunglasses that reflect the sea and sky, living adventurous lives on exotic beaches. The company’s founders, Kris and Alex Anderson, have been there, done that – which is what led them to start their own business making sturdy, stylish yet affordable sunglasses.
Until last November, the couple had kept a relatively low profile on their company’s social media pages. They live in Orange Beach, Ala., where he’s a lawyer and she’s an interior designer, with their two young children, a son named Whit who is four and a daughter, Ari, 18 months.
But one day just before Thanksgiving, Kris made a post asking his customers to read a frank and detailed letter he posted on the company’s website, in which he shared some personal and professional challenges he and Alex had faced during 2020. As the year began, he experienced some odd symptoms for a person who had always been athletic and healthy: migraines, blurry vision, stomach cramps and swollen ankles.
At first, he received the scary diagnosis of lymphoma, or lymph node cancer. But after two months and hundreds of tests, lymphoma was ruled out and Dr. Dana Rizk, a nephrologist at UAB, determined that his illness was an extremely rare and incurable type of kidney disease called fibrillary glomerulonephritis (FGN), which typically leads to end-stage renal disease within six months.
Kidney failure was simply not an option for Kris. “I resolved to do everything and spend as much time as necessary to find a solution,” he wrote.
He was diagnosed with common variable immunodeficiency (CV10). It was “not a good time to suddenly become immunodeficient during a global pandemic,” he wrote. His treatments would include Rituximab, a $60,000-per-year medication for FGN, and weekly immunoglobulin infusions for CVID.
Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2020 was “an absolute nightmare” for Maho Shades. Between trying to figure out how to save the company and how to save his own life, Kris had the weight of the world on his shoulders. But his wife, Alex, helped relieve some of the burden even though she was used to him being the one taking care of their family.
“Kris is the most determined person I know,” Alex, says of her husband. “There were a few months where he was frustrated, and insomnia hit like crazy, but we saw a light at the end of what was once a very dark tunnel. Kris was and still is so positive and determined to make sure he got the right medication to help him get to where he is now. He set his mind in a way that I’ll forever be grateful, and that is to be here with me and our young kids.”
By the end of the year, he was feeling “more confident than I have been for most of 2020 that I’ll live to see my kids grow up,” he wrote. And Maho Shades was on the upswing, too.
‘Crisis breeds opportunity’
Kris, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., went to the University of Kentucky on a swimming scholarship, followed by law school at the University of Alabama. Like a Crimson Tide-themed fairytale, he met Alex, a native of Arab, Ala., who was an undergraduate studying interior design, on the quad during a tailgating party.
After they graduated, the couple lived in Birmingham, where Kris practiced law and Alex worked at an architectural firm. Eventually, they “got burned out on the corporate lifestyle,” he says, and moved to the Virgin Islands for a few years.
While there, the story goes, they were out paddle boarding one day on Maho Bay when both Kris and Alex lost their expensive sunglasses. Their exasperation led to an idea: They could take something they used every day – sunglasses – and start their own company that would make them better and for a more reasonable price. After spending several months doing research and developing prototypes, they founded Maho Shades in January of 2015.
When Alex was expecting their first child, they decided to move back to the States and settled in Orange Beach, where Kris took a position with the Clark Partington law firm. “It was the perfect opportunity to keep enjoying the lifestyle we enjoyed and build our lifestyle brand,” he says.
Now Maho Shades offers more than 25 American-made frames, all with lifetime warranties and “the best lenses you can buy,” according to Kris. The sunglasses are named for places the Andersons “have visited and been inspired by,” from close-to-home locales like Fairhope and Charleston to far-flung places like Cabo, Catalina and Positano.
Then came the pandemic. In March and April of 2020, Maho Shades lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in orders as the retailers who carried the sunglasses closed their doors or did a fraction of their normal amount of business. “We pivoted to focusing on advertising online and expanding that business as much as we could,” he says.
In May, he and Alex opened a Maho Shades popup store in a renovated Airstream trailer, parking it directly across from the Flora-Bama Yacht Club that straddles the Alabama-Florida line. Throughout the summer, the Airstream provided a perfect opportunity for customers to try on their shades outside in a safe, open-air setting.
Suddenly, things were looking up for Maho Shades. The company debuted a new grip system designed and patented by the Andersons to hold more tightly as the wearer sweats. “It’s an awesome product for being outside,” says Kris.
In November, they took a risk and opened the first Maho Shades store at The Wharf in Orange Beach. In addition to offering their sunglasses, they are selling their own new clothing and accessories brand, which will include T-shirts, shorts, hoodies and hats. “We’re testing that now and will launch the full spring and summer line of Maho apparel in March,” he says. The store’s official grand opening at The Wharf is set for March 19.
The Airstream pop-up will open again at the Flora-Bama in March. And if all goes as planned, the couple will open a second Maho Shades store on 30-A in the Florida Panhandle and maybe a couple more brick-and-mortar shops in the future, while continuing to add new eyewear models.
All that growth during a pandemic was fueled by Kris’s own sense of urgency in the face of his sudden illness. He became determined to be “the David that takes down Goliath,” he wrote in his letter. “Crisis breeds opportunity.” When operating in crisis mode, he says, he was able to think more clearly and make decisions more quickly.
Alex admits that 2020 was one of her most difficult years, personally and professionally. “Every day – well, almost – I want to break down and cry,” she says, “but Kris reminds me daily, ‘Alex, everything is great. Life is good. We have so much to be thankful for.’ He’s my light during this trying time.”
Meanwhile, Kris says he “feels good” now and continues to be hopeful and optimistic about the future. He continues to work at home for the law firm, and he meets virtually with the Maho Shades team every day. “It’s been a year that I wouldn’t trade because most people don’t get the opportunity to spend so much time with their kids – especially lawyers,” he says.
Alex continues to admire her husband’s strength of character. “He never gives up,” she says. “He always finds answers. Kris spreads hope, encouragement and optimism to those around him. He gives me comfort that better days are ahead.”
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