Story by Marianne Salza
Sara Campbell, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sara Campbell, Limited, has her 22 women’s fashion boutiques laid out like living rooms. Customers can relax, drink wine, and eat cookies as they browse chic blouses, pants, and dresses created from imported fabrics. Campbell shared her passion for designing clothes that make women feel beautiful during her November 8 Beacon Hill Women’s Forum (BHWF) presentation, “Five Years Later: Story of Pivoting a Small Business,” at the Hampshire House.
“This is one of my favorite neighborhoods,” declared Campbell, a mother of two daughters. “I am grateful to be here on election night with amazing, strong women. You care about collaborating with women. That’s what I built my business on.”
The designer lives by the principle of listening to one’s intuition. She realized at a young age that her path to happiness involved fashioning comfortable dresses that bolster women’s confidence.
Campbell’s love of sewing began at 4-years-old, when she lost her collection of doll clothes on a train ride. After a week of crying from the dramatic casualty, she learned to sew from her sister, and started creating her own doll clothes. Campbell still displays her first hand-turning sewing machine in her office.
“I always made my own dresses. I love to sew and making people feel pretty,” Campbell said blissfully. “When I first started, I made a lot of one-of-a-kind coats.”
Campbell was born and raised in Southern California with three older sisters, and a younger brother and sister. Education was paramount in her family. Campbell graduated from the University of California with a degree in fine arts. She received a Master in Art Education from Lesley University, and a Master of Fine Arts from Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
She met her mentor and friend, Corita Kent, while working at Bazaar del Mundo, a multicultural gallery in San Diego. Kent was an artist, educator, and activist who created the rainbow swash artwork that is painted on the storage tank in Dorchester that can be seen from the Southeast Expressway.
“This was a pivotal moment in my life because when I came to Boston, I met her [Corita Kent] again,” explained Campbell. “In her 50s, she made the brave act of leaving the convent. It was a rebellious time with the Vietnam War. She came to Boston and became a self-supported artist.”
In her early 20s, Campbell sold her wearable art clothing on consignment; and boasted about being the first Vrbo, having rented her apartment to vacationers visiting Cambridge to pay for her month’s rent.
“I learned the power and art of prayer and spirituality, and the importance of service,” revealed Campbell, who has been married for 32 years. “I am a believer of faith. Follow your gut. We are here to serve our community and each other. It’s about listening, learning, and giving back. It is a delicate art.”
Campbell progressed from sewing unique, one-of-a-kind pieces to producing up to 20,000 units a week at warehouses within six years, when she started designing for wholesale accounts like Talbots, Laura Ashley, and Nordstrom.
In 1985, at age 25, Campbell founded Sara Campbell, Ltd. She tragically lost everything in her bank account in 1999 during a $2.5 million embezzlement by a relative she trusted.
“What makes me happy being in retail is that I can connect with people,” Campbell emphasized. “I got into retail because of this journey. I finally got to deliver the happiness and kindness that I had wanted to do for so long.”
Running a business during the Covid-19 pandemic was the most challenging experience of Campbell’s life. Managing relationships with landlords and employees was difficult; but she continued working every day with her Italian pattern-maker of 32 years, Maria Rosa.
“United States manufacturing has died, and it’s starting to come back,” Campbell confided. “We haven’t had one tax break being made in the U.S.A.. The PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan saved us. It’s exciting to keep learning. I have no plans to retire. I love making clothes.”
Sara Campbell, Ltd. produces clothing in Boston and New York, and will be opening a new location in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
“I love making the product and seeing it on our customers,” said Campbell. “There is no easy business; and we are foolish if we dream there is. Never give up. There will be obstacles, but keep going because nobody is going to do this for you.”
Visit Sara Campbell, Ltd., at 84 Chestnut Street, Beacon Hill, to shop for collections of American-manufactured women’s clothing. Attend the next BHWF event, the Annual Wassail Party, on Tuesday, December 13, 7-9pm, at the Hampshire House. Non-member guests are welcome, and can purchase tickets at the door for $20.