May 2011

South Beach Street Chic

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2011 / ,

Writer: Terry Pommett / Photographer: Terry Pommett 

On Nantucket, fashion designer Sara Campbell finds a home away from home for her high-end threads.

designer Sara Campbell

Sara Campbell, fashion designer and entrepreneur, poses in the colorful backdrop of her Nantucket store. Photo by Terry Pommett

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.

designer Sara Campbell

Campbell’s style includes bright colors, ruffles, and feminine touches while still keeping with a nautical theme. Photo by Terry Pommett

In July 2010, Campbell opened her Nantucket shop, a charming, 800-square-foot building on South Beach Street with Sara Campbell’s signature black and white-striped interior walls and two rocking chairs outside. Last year was a lesson in learning to run a shop in such a seasonal place—Campbell says she didn’t budget enough inventory to last through the fall. This year, she’s planning to keep the shop open for four-day weekends through the winter. The atmosphere in all her stores combines attentive customer service with the comfort and familiarity of a small boutique. “Basically, when you come into our store, you should feel like you’re coming into your living room,” she says.

In addition to Wheeler, whom Campbell considers a huge and very positive influence on her own design work, Campbell’s team includes longtime co-designers Kay Thread and Amanda Bartlett as well as head pattern maker Maria Rosa Oggianno. The use of color remains a central part of the design process at Sara Campbell LTD. “Being from California, I have a fascination about climates and how to inject color into New England sensibility,” Campbell says.

Campbell’s design styles appeal to women with tastes for clean looks with an emphasis on feminine details as well as vintage-inspired clothing with modern twists. Many of the designs incorporate elements outside the mainstream—chartreuse green, large amounts of small bows, and exceptionally detailed trims. Ninety-nine percent of the fabric Campbell uses is imported.

The designer’s clothing transcends age. “Our fashion is about women who are ageless in spirit,” she says. “I know that sounds trite. But a 22-year-old or a 65-year-old can wear one of our tunics with crocheted pom-poms on it. It’s not about age. It’s about attitude.”

designer Sara Campbell

An employee fixes a mannequin outside of the store whose dress is similar to her own. Photo by Terry Pommett

When it comes to the range of goods offered in her shop, there’s something here for everyone. Summer dresses start at around $100, and the fall collection at $250. Instead of high-end jewelry, Campbell carries quality costume jewelry that ranges from $12 to $350, including vintage treasures, and scarves that range from $25 to $350 Pashminas and silks. In the fall, Campbell’s specialties are coats made of imported fabrics with elaborate details.

A key aspect of Campbell’s business philosophy is giving back to the communities that surround her stores such as hosting functions for charities and nonprofit groups like the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club. In the future, the retailer wants to devote even more energy to the neighborhoods that surround her stores.

“Neighborhoods keep us true to the mission of being a part of the community, not just fashion,” says Campbell. “Feeling good, having fun shopping experiences, and keeping small businesses alive are all parts of the picture.”

Sara Campbell LTD is currently working on a special collection unique to the Nantucket store. The designs will include rubber-stamp prints, nautical-inspired cotton prints, and pieces that demonstrate her ever-present sense of whimsy.

You might be in a sour mood, Campbell says, “but put our clothes on, and you’ll definitely want to have fun.”

Terry Pommett is a photographer and freelance writer based on Nantucket.

Terry Pommett