Sewing up success Global resort wear designer thrives from Mount Pleasant base

Natalia Castillo owns and founded Escapada Living, a growing designer dress line based in Mount Pleasant.

In her print dress and glittery fingernails, Natalia Castillo embodies the fashion industry she has embraced with her own clothing line.

Sitting in the mint-shaded showroom of her Mount Pleasant business, the Escapada Living resort wear designer talks about her recent expansions with excitement and confidence.

“I love what I do,” the Sullivan’s Island resident said.

And she’s been doing well at it.

During the past three years, sales have quadrupled to nearly $12 million a year. She has doubled the physical size of the business to 10,400 square feet, adding a 5,200-square-foot warehouse, a showroom and this month, an e-commerce business.

The number of local employees has more than doubled from 11 to 27. She’s built a factory in Indonesia that employs 75 people. Two other factories already under contract there make the prints, designed in Mount Pleasant, and cut and sew the fabric.

By all measures, Castillo, of Peruvian and American descent, is successful.

“Things are looking up,” she said from her showroom off Long Point Road.

Castillo’s path started when she decided not to be a doctor after earning her college degree in biology.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1985, the Durham, N.C., native changed her mind about going to medical school, not following in the footsteps of her father, a cardiologist. She didn’t know what she wanted to do next.

Her mother prodded her to get a summer job. She started with a training program at Macy’s department store in Atlanta and worked in the junior sales department.

“I didn’t intend to stay,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.”

After a year, she was promoted to assistant buyer and the next year she became assistant manager at Macy’s in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Eighteen months later, Castillo started as the junior buyer for Macy’s South division.

After 21/2 years, she became the petite better sportswear buyer at Macy’s West division in San Francisco, where she spent another 21/2 years.

That’s when she grew antsy, wanting to start her own business. First, though, she took a year off and traveled around the world with a Macy’s vendor, who had a clothing manufacturing company in Indonesia.

When she returned, she went into business with him to form Key Lime Pie, a women’s resort wear company. After five years, she sold her portion of the company to him.

She then founded her own women’s resort wear business called Paradiso, which she ran for seven years before selling it at the height of the market in January 2008, just ahead of the financial market meltdown that fall.

“I felt like I had done everything I could do in the (clothing business),” Castillo said.

She traveled around the world for 18 months, figuring out what to do next.

When she returned, she considered launching a totally different type of business and searched the Internet for options.

With the economy in the tank, she returned to what she knew.

“With a new business, it was too risky,” Castillo said. “I had a wealth of knowledge to tap into about the retail industry.”

Knowing the Lowcountry since she grew up in North Carolina, she moved from San Francisco to the Isle of Palms, where she had invested in real estate before the market crashed.

Shortly afterward, she tried to sell some of her holdings and move back to California, but the houses stayed on the market for two years.

“I decided it wasn’t meant for me to leave the area,” she said.

That’s a decision she has not come to regret. “I never imagined it would be as great as it is,” she said of Charleston. “The quality of life is so amazing. It’s kind of a dream city to live in. There are so many things to do, and it has all the amenities of a big city.”

In the fall of 2009, she started developing products for a new company she formed called Escapada Living. It would serve luxury resorts.

For three years, she sold the products and built the business out of her home, using her driveway to lay out orders and keeping products boxed in the kitchen and bedroom. In 2012, she moved the business to a 5,200-square-foot warehouse off Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant.

Three years ago, she had 1,100 accounts in the U.S. and around the world. Today, the company has 1,700, including the Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Hilton Hotels, Waldorf Astoria and in Tahiti, Bermuda and other exotic islands.

Locally, her colorful clothing line that incorporates pastels such as coral, yellow, aqua, turquoise, emerald and peach can be found at Mary Mojo Boutique in Mount Pleasant, Paisley on Daniel Island, Simply J and Jolin in downtown Charleston and Coastal Palms at Freshfields Village near Kiawah Island.

Made of 100 percent rayon, the soft, breathable, loose-fitting garments sell for between $56 and $128, Castillo said.

She still hopes to expand further into the international market with forays into Australia, Brazil, Europe and South Africa. And her big goal is to see revenues swell to $100 million in 10 years, but she acknowledges it could take longer.

“I think the rate of growth won’t be as strong,” she said. “I think e-commerce will help tremendously.”

Designer Lauren Miller hopes to help Castillo reach her goal.

The College of Charleston theater graduate focused on costume design and was thrilled at the chance to work for a local firm doing what she loved.

“My dream was to work as a designer for a resort wear company,” Miller said. “I always loved prints and bold colors. I love it here.”

Never married because she pours herself into her work and loves to travel, Castillo is in the midst of working on a home accessories line and has been negotiating with a company for about six months to bring it to fruition, hopefully within the next 12 months. She’s even toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant called Escapada with a tropical setting and healthy Caribbean cuisine. But that’s just a thought and, most likely, a few years away should it come to be.

“The plan is definitely to diversify,” she said.

Thinking back to her decision after college, Castillo said she was glad that she didn’t pursue medicine. “I could never have done what I do now. The great thing about my job is I get to travel to some amazing places.”

Always thinking about the business, she quickly adds, “I need to do scrubs for the hospital. They are so dull.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.