One year ago, things were vastly different for newlywed Cami Leavitt. She was living with her husband, Christian, at his grandparents’ house in St. Petersburg. It was affordable, and that way, he could be near his unpaid internship, and she could launch her fashion-design business from the clothes-strewn ground up.
The doe-eyed, petite blonde chuckles, “I know we’ll look back and be like, ‘Remember when we started off, me doing this collection with clothes everywhere, and Grandma freaking out, not knowing what’s going on?’”
On April 18, 2012, New Orleans boutique owner Hattie Collins Molls contacted Leavitt through Twitter and placed a 32-piece order. It was the first sale for the 26-year-old’s fashion line, Camilyn Beth.
In the past year, Leavitt, her husband and their ancient white-haired Persian cat, Bob, have secured their own apartment off Lockwood Ridge Road, complete with Leavitt’s own studio oasis. The couple is successful with full-time jobs; Christian Leavitt works for Palmetto Charter, and Leavitt’s clothing line is bustling with more than one sale a day.
“It’s my day job,” she says proudly. Then she pauses, realizing her error. “And my night job.”
Leavitt is the CEO, CFO, designer, producer, art director, marketing director, social media manager, customer service representative and, occasionally, the model — yet, her home is spotless and she’s just baked fresh scones.
Behind the pristine white drawing desk in her studio, the Sarasota native takes a sip of coffee before explaining she first became interested in fashion before her junior prom. Leavitt didn’t want a dress that everyone else had, and she also had a dream dress in mind.
She sketched the image in her head and sought the help of a seamstress, Edna Crowther. The now 91-year-old seamstress taught her how to sew the dress. Leavitt continued taking sewing lessons from the woman through high school. In 2007, she graduated with an associate degree in fashion from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
“I remember the dean stood up in front of my class one day and said, ‘If you want to get a lot out of the program, make an extra garment for every class.’” Instead of the one required swimsuit, Leavitt made two — she did this for every class.
Upon graduation, she moved to Stockholm, to become a nanny. But when her host family realized her passion, they introduced her to haute couture designer Par Engsheden, for whom Leavitt interned. She’d spend hours on particular stitches, and if one wasn’t perfect, she’d re-do it.
“He trained my eye to perfection and to understanding a beautiful garment,” she says as she draws out the “u” in beautiful, “He always said that, ‘Beauuuuutiful garment.’”
In 2009, she returned to U.S. with the newfound independence and confidence she needed to launch her own line. Granted, she had to work simultaneously in retail to support costs. She worked for three years at Shore on St. Armands Circle, eventually managing, marketing and buying for the store.
“I remember thinking, ‘I cannot wait until I’m at one of these trade shows showing off my own line,’” she says.
Little did she know she’d be self-employed at age 26 and launching her third collection, featured around the nation at a handful of boutiques (including Sarasota’s Influence, 474 John Ringling Blvd.).
The young professional is entirely at ease. She’s perched on a vintage chair she personally reupholstered, beneath an artful display of her collection’s tweed and stretch-jacquard fabric swatches. A French cover of the song “The Look of Love” plays in the background. Her shoeless feet are delicately crossed and covered in black ankle-high hosiery to complement the color-blocked mini skirt from her fall 2013 collection.
Leavitt can’t remember the last time she went shopping — she wears her own designs, and she designs them for women like her.
“She wants to look age appropriate, but unexpectedly sexy,” Leavitt says of her target customer. “Maybe she’s dressed nice, classic and functional, but as she turns around you notice, ‘Oh! That’s a deep back,’ or ‘Oh, look at that little button detail.’” It’s the type of clothing that leaves you wanting to know more, and it makes the weaver feel confident and loved, she says.
She specializes in dresses — the perfect type of dress to don for a civil wedding ceremony, which is what one of Leavitt’s French customers is planning. But, her dresses are also great for turning heads at the Kentucky Derby, where two other customers will wear their Camilyn Beth designs. Her newest line, inspired by 1960s mod furniture, has plenty of separates, too.
“If only you were here tomorrow,” she says. “Tomorrow is when my collection comes in.”
They are arriving from the factory that makes her large-order, wholesale products. Leavitt makes dresses to-order from her website sales — although, when things get busy, as they often do, she enlists the help of two local seamstresses. The factory she uses in New Orleans hired women who were left jobless due to Hurricane Katrina. Her line is 100% made in the USA, even though it’s cheaper to outsource.
She believes in American business, because her family is full of entrepreneurs: Her father, Jerry Weniger, is an electrician (he hung the industrial-looking, trendy lighting in her studio); her mother, Jodi Weniger, is a hair stylist (who styles Camilyn Beth photo shoots); and her sister, Ashten Weniger, models (she’s the 5 feet, 9 inch blonde bombshell featured at CamilynBeth.com/blog).
Photos of her designs featuring her sister have circulated the Web, and some have been reblogged upward of 5,000 times.
“It’s crazy how fast it can just blow up,” she says.
Five things that inspire Cami Leavitt:
Travel. “Seeing new people living a different lifestyle that I’ve never seen before, and just being introduced to new artists, a new environment, a new way of dressing and new styles is inspiring,” Leavitt says.
Street style. “Seeing what people are actually wearing on the street inspires me,” Leavitt says.
Runway shows. “I try not to watch too many because I want to be original. But I love Diane Von Furstenberg, Balenciaga, Chanel, Alice and Olivia and Kate Spade,” Leavitt says.
My friends and family. “They are good at observing me and how I design. They give me really great feedback,” she says.
Movies. “I always love seeing different fashion. I can’t wait to see ‘The Great Gatsby’ — it looks really good,” Leavitt says.