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Business Observer Friday, May 19, 2017 1 year ago

Best dressed

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The fickle fashion industry can be tough on startups. Yet Camilyn Beth Leavitt has persevered — and prospered. 'Sales are your oxygen,' she says.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

It all started with “I do.” In a single year, Camilyn Beth Leavitt was invited to 16 weddings. So she took things into her own hands — literally — and started designing dresses for herself and friends.

Soon after, she got her first wholesale inquiry on Twitter from a boutique owner who had seen photos of her dresses. She put together photos of her dresses and created a line sheet with information about each piece. The wholesaler placed a 32-dress order, and Leavitt made all of the dresses herself.

“It's not a typical business startup,” she says of her 2012 deal. “I didn't have a beefy business plan, I just didn't want to say no.”

Today, the Sarasota-based Camilyn Beth clothing line is sold in about 50 boutiques nationwide and on online. And it just celebrated its fifth anniversary in the notoriously challenging fashion industry, where startup attrition rates run high. Leavitt declines to disclose sales figures. She says the business has been self-funded, so far, and profitable the past three years.

Leavitt, 30, hadn't dreamed of being a fashion designer since she was a little girl — like some others in the field. “Not until junior year,” she says. “I made my prom dress, and I thought, 'I want to be a fashion designer.' I always thought I would work for someone else, not have my own brand, but I wouldn't have it any other way.”

After going to high school in Bradenton, Leavitt attended The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and graduated in 2008 with a degree in fashion design. She moved to Sweden, where she was a nanny and worked for a couture fashion designer in Stockholm.

That job in fashion, as well as hours of experience, helped her learn to sew. For the next couple years, she was the creative director for a small clothing brand in Sarasota. But she had an itch to design clothing herself.

Leavitt describes the dresses she designs as classic and timeless. They're a favorite, she says, for women attending weddings, bridal showers, graduations and holiday events. And for women who want something chic to wear on an average Tuesday.

“I wear my dresses every day,” Leavitt says.

Living in the brand helps her create content for social media. It also helps with market research. “I notice when there are more compliments on a dress and how it wears.”

Designing women

When designing, Leavitt focuses on the women who will wear her dresses.

“I think about our core customer and if she would ever wear a design,” Leavitt says. “If I can't picture her wearing it, it's probably not going to sell.”

Leavitt designs a year ahead and is now working on dresses for spring 2018. The company usually releases one to four new styles a month, and the dresses retail from $180 to $375.

A perennial favorite is the Camilyn Beth Go Go Dress, one of Leavitt's first designs. “Everyone needs their go-go dress in business — that product you're confident in,” Leavitt says. “We've seen it sell so many times, it's almost our bread and butter, and it gets people hooked.”

That gateway dress often leads customers to other dresses in the line, many of which are inspired by Leavitt's favorite eras in fashion — the 1960s and 1970s.

After she's sketched a design and created a pattern, Leavitt sews a sample. While she sews, she listens to business podcasts such as “The #AskGaryVee Show,” “Fashion is Your Business” and “American Fashion.” Then she sends the sample to her New York City-based manufacturer.

In good hands

At the Garment District manufacturer where Camilyn Beth dresses are made, more rounds of samples are created and sent to Leavitt to review. After Leavitt approves a top of production sample, the manufacturer scans and digitizes the pattern. The dresses are sewn by hand.

“Finding a manufacturer that specializes in what you do is key,” Leavitt says. “A T-shirt manufacturer won't work.” A good manufacturer is hard to find, she says, and she was lucky to discover this one in New York City through word of mouth.

“I haven't had the desire to manufacture in other countries,” Leavitt says. “The main thing is having people making the dresses treated fairly.”

Although she sees financial value in manufacturing in other countries, Leavitt appreciates the control and communication of having a U.S. manufacturer.

Another benefit? Leavitt's sister, Ashten Wenniger, lives in New York City. She visits the company's facility to try on dresses and make sure the fit is right.

Leavitt works with a Sarasota-area European seamstress for custom gowns for weddings, a sales area that has grown lately.

Marketing style

After dressmaking, Leavitt shifts to sales. A key strategy there is social media. “It's crazy how important it is,” she says.

Camilyn Beth has a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. Leavitt says it can be challenging to keep up with the frequent changes social media platforms make, but it's a must. “Original content is huge,” Leavitt says, and she often goes about her day thinking, “That's a good place for a photo.”

Another key sales tool? The chat feature on her website, which allows customers to ask questions and get quick answers, a feature launched about a year ago. “It's a game-changer,” Leavitt says. “It secures a sale. It's almost like a sales associate in the store.”

Blogs have been a crucial driver, too. Sarah Tucker, a lifestyle blogger in Palmetto, has posted about Camilyn Beth dresses several times. She went to high school with Leavitt and has been wearing her clothing since she started designing. Tucker's blog, which has about 60,000 page views a month, featured one post about a Camilyn Beth sweater that led to an immediate increase in overnight sales of the item. “It's interesting to see how blogs can impact what people are buying,” Tucker says.

Leavitt has developed relationships with bloggers around the country through the company's in-house marketing efforts, led by Leavitt and Camilyn Beth Director of Operations Nicole Unger. They also use a public relations firm in Los Angeles to connect with celebrities and other high-profile people.

All the social media, blogs and buzz lead people to camilynbeth.com, the company's website. It sells two to four dresses a day through the site.

Nice balance

In addition to the website, there are the boutique options for customers. Leavitt says people enjoy having the option to shop online or in a boutique. “A lot of brands only do one,” she says. “For us it's nice to not have all of our eggs in one basket.”

Her dresses and brand are big at boutiques in Southern cities such as Louisville and Lexington, Ky., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Raleigh, N.C. “It's the lifestyle up there,” Leavitt says. “A lot of women have events to go to.” And they need dresses for those events.

One strategy Leavitt is focusing on now is to host trunk shows in different cities where Camilyn Beth customers can meet her. The events present a friendly atmosphere, she says, for customers to learn more about the brand. It's also a way to move inventory. “Sales are your oxygen,” Leavitt says. “You need to have sales to do everything else.”

Leavitt also attends apparel markets in New York City, Dallas and Atlanta, which help her connect with potential retailers. Today, 60% of sales come from the Camilyn Beth website and 40% are from wholesale orders.

'Big hit'

The next stage, Leavitt says, is scaling. “We're at the beginning stage,” she says. “I'm looking forward to making the collection bigger and getting into more stores. There's so much opportunity.”

She plans to add more people to the Camilyn Beth team, which consists of just Unger and herself.

There are also plans to grow in the bridal department. “That almost could be a whole other area of the company,” Leavitt says.

Dresses for weddings are available now on the Camilyn Beth website and in some bridal stores. Fondren Watts, owner of bridal boutique Blush Bridal Sarasota, has carried Camilyn Beth's collection of little white dresses for six months. “It's been a really big hit since then,” Watts says. Her dresses are purchased for rehearsal dinners, bachelorette parties, bridal showers and ceremonies. “What really gets people is when they try it on and feel the quality,” Watts adds.

A year from now, Leavitt says she wants Camilyn Beth to be a little bit bigger. “I want to grow, but not fast,” she says.

A couple years from now, there might be a showroom space in New York City to consider. In five years, she'd like to see her dresses in at least one larger department store, such as Nordstrom.

But for now, there's much to be done — emails to answer from wholesalers, communication lines to keep open with her manufacturer, photo shoots to organize for social media.

And then, of course, there are dresses to design. Work often spills into nights and weekends. But, Leavitt says, “I never count my hours because I love it.”

AT A GLANCE
Entrepreneur: Camilyn Beth Leavitt
Company: Camilyn Beth, Sarasota
Year founded: 2012
Employees: 2
Revenue: Declined to disclose

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