From Marketing Exec to (Oscars) Fashion Designer

Camilla OlsonCamilla Olson hit fashion pay-dirt last February, when Betsy Franco, mom of actor James Franco, wore one of her dresses to the Oscars.

Not a bad start for a former marketing executive who recently launched a new career as a fashion designer at age 57. Olson earned an MFA in fashion and textile design in 2010 from The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where her fellow students were closer to her daughter's age than her own. Betsy Franco heard of her designs through a mutual friend and contacted Olson two weeks before the big day, when James Franco would be co-hosting the Oscars.

"I said, 'I just got this email. It's so exciting!'" Olson recalls. "Then I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have to answer it.' It moved quickly from excitement to we have to deliver something."

The result was a red silk gown with a gold scarf that Betsy Franco showed off on the red carpet and in her third-row center seat at the Academy Awards. Michael Carbaugh, one of Olson's former fashion-school instructors, describes the dress as "chic." Olson was thrilled that Franco also ordered three more dresses for related media appearances.

Before flexing her design muscle, Olson (right) -- who holds a BS in microbiology and an MBA in pharmaceutical marketing -- spent 30 years in the health-care industry, including marketing positions at Johnson & Johnson and Becton, Dickinson. After working as a vice president at a venture capital firm, she started four companies, mostly focused on women's health, and then turned her efforts to volunteering in her community.

At 53, after taking her teenage daughter to an open house at The Academy of Art University, Olson decided she'd like to learn more about fashion. Her daughter ultimately gravitated toward finance, but Olson enrolled in the academy. Being around twentysomething classmates was a bonus. "I adopted a bit of their attitude and energy," she says.

In January, with $200,000 from savings, Olson started Palo Alto, Calif.-based Camilla Olson LLC. She employs three people, including two former classmates.

Olson's sophisticated and classic designs feature natural and luxurious fabrics, often incorporating silk layers and a proprietary printing process to create one-of-a-kind looks. The environmentally friendly technique -- called "iron transfer" -- also makes the silk feel light and airy. "We like to dress women who want their clothes to reflect their confidence, intelligence and femininity -- to look beautiful and sexy, but to do it respectfully and intelligently," she says.

Olson's dresses typically sell for $500 to $1,100; her "Identity" collection dresses feature cage-like styling over a sheath and cost about $4,000.

"She has a strength in her designs because she really knows her market," says Carbaugh. "I think she'll do quite well because she has a business sense; it's not just making trend-on designs, it's making things women want to wear."

Six California boutiques are clients, including Silicon Valley's Four Seasons Hotel., which sells her scarves and tops in its spa, and purchased several dresses for its restaurant hostesses. Lauren Gerner, owner of Sustain Inc., an eco-friendly shop in Charlottesville, Va., recently ordered about 15 items during a New York trade show.

"I thought [the clothing line] was really beautiful and different," Gerner says. "I think the style will be great for the women in Charlottesville. They can mix and match with other pieces in the store."

While sales still are "modest," Olson plans to connect with a showroom to increase her visibility and says she hopes to turn a profit in two to four years. Meanwhile, she donates a portion of each sale to Women's Health at Stanford, a research program.

"I never expected to start a [design] company," Olson says. "But here I am, one foot in front of the other."

SecondAct contributor Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.

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