South Beach Street Chic
On Nantucket, fashion designer Sara Campbell finds a home away from home for her high-end threads.
Last summer, Sara Campbell opened a shop on Nantucket. Like many of the island’s visitors, the proprietor of Sara Campbell LTD was looking for a way to get away from things every once in a while. “Opening a store on Nantucket was sort of a way for me to legitimize my spending time over there,” jokes the Boston resident. And on an island that prides itself on original boutiques, her designs have found an eager audience at the island shop’s South Beach Street location.
A native of La Jolla, California, Campbell says she has always been drawn to vintage fashions from the 1950s. She earned a degree in design from the University of California Davis, and then made a leap over to Cambridge, Massachusetts to study art education at Lesley University in the 1980s. While working on an artist’s profile project at Lesley, Campbell landed at the feet of the late Corita Kent, an artist and activist icon from the 1960s and 70s. Kent’s 150-foot Rainbow Swash painted on the National Grid gas tank in Boston is an unmistakable landmark to commuters who travel daily on the Southeast Expressway. “Corita became my teacher, my mentor, my mother, and my best friend,” Campbell says. “I can still remember the shopping list of groceries I was entrusted to buy for her every week.”
Kent and Campbell started a mail-order catalog for women artists in 1983 called Sisters: A Gallery Without Walls, which contained limited edition women’s art including Campbell’s one-of-a-kind, signed-and-numbered wearable art pieces. “It was all about texture,” Campbell says. “I was passionate about textiles and design.” The pieces quickly grew into a cottage industry, with Campbell producing clothing designs with the help of a small factory in Fall River. “I had been getting some help from sewers in Vermont, but the clothes would come back smelling like wood burning stoves,” says Campbell.
The designer secured her first wholesale account in 1985, and quickly hit it big. That same year, the Hingham-based women’s apparel company Talbots picked up and sold the Sara Campbell label in their stores. For 23 years, Campbell and her design partner, Peter Wheeler saw their work distributed in more than 500 specialty famous stores including Talbots, Nordstrom, and Laura Ashley.
After most of her clients either went out of business or brought all the designs in house, Campbell struck out on her own. “If you’re tenacious and a risk taker, you can ride out an economic storm,” she says. Since 2002, she has run a small retail shop out of her office in the South End in Boston, which was her first retail outlet and destination shopping store, containing everything from full-price to bargain alley items. “This brought us closer to the customers,” Campbell says. She has opened five more retail stores since 2009, including the latest in Newport, Rhode Island.