Career 180: From finance to fashion

After spending her days in the finance grind, Sarah Carson would stay up late at night working on her true passion: sewing dresses. In her seven years in investment banking at UBS, the compliments she received on her creations spawned an idea. Carson, 35, abandoned finance in 2010, and in early 2011 debuted Leota, a women-run clothing company. Leota dresses are manufactured in the Garment District out of a European wrinkle-free jersey fabric. We chatted with Carson, a Prospect Heights resident, about her career change.

How did you get into clothing design?

I always loved design and it was always a major hobby for me. I would spend all my free time sewing dresses. So I would have piles of polka-dot fabric and be on my sewing machine until the wee hours of the morning because I love it. And I definitely was getting so many compliments on my dresses that I thought, “well maybe there’s a market for this.” And professionally, I was really looking for a way to combine my love of business and my love of design.

Why did you leave investment banking?

You only live once and I wanted to do something that I was really passionate about, where I could combine my love of design with my business skills.

How did you go about starting a clothing company?

I started small. Since I don’t have any experience in fashion, I really had to find creative ways of getting information. I had no contacts in the industry at all so I’d be in the Garment District in New York and I was following delivery guys into buildings to find out where the factories were and where I should be buying fabrics. And over time I learned the ins and outs of how to produce clothes in New York and even though my company’s grown up fast, we’re still committed to ethical production practices and making every dress here in New York’s garment center.

Where’d you get your initial funding?

My business is entirely self-funded. I saved money because I thought, “well, I’m either going to go to business school or start my own business,” and I realized I would rather invest that money in starting my business.

Why the devotion to New York?

Because I want to run my business the right way. One benefit of having your own business is you can do the right thing and I think it’s important to have fair labor practices and fair production practices. And our factories are kind of like family at this point. And believe it or not, you can mass-produce apparel in New York. There’s no limit to the quantities you can produce here and it’s a profitable business. You don’t have to go overseas. I live here so it’s a little more convenient [than other U.S. cities]. I think that New York is really the center of apparel manufacturing in the U.S. and it’s the center of fashion. I think in any industry you’ve got to be in the center of what’s happening in your industry.

Why the name Leota?

The company’s named after my great grandmother Leota. She was the epitome of a lady and really the inspiration for my personal style and the spirit of the line. She would say, “good manners and effortless glamor never go out of style.” And so I really set out to create a uniform that would offer a little bit of glamor without a lot of fuss.

What sets Leota apart from other clothing companies?

The line is sophisticated and flattering, but it’s also comfortable and versatile. So with Leota, you really look good and you feel good. Our dresses are all made of a European jersey fabric that we custom produce with our mills and they don’t wrinkle. So it’s the type of thing you can toss in your suitcase and arrive at your destination and pull it out and it still looks perfect. And they’re also really easy to care for. You don’t have to take it to the drycleaner or anything like that. So it saves you a lot of time.

What’s in the pipeline?

We’re developing a collection of party dresses to launch next year, and also have handbags and jewelry in development.

What is your favorite item of clothing to wear?

I love dresses. The thing about dresses is they’re basically an adult onesie: You don’t have to coordinate with anything, you just pop it on and you’re ready to go. And then with Leota dresses, just reapply your lipstick and change your shoes and you’re ready to go out at night. I really love jersey dresses because they’re so versatile and comfortable and I guess I wanted to achieve this kind of fashion-forward ladylike look in a fabric that isn’t typically used for that kind of thing.

What is a pro and a con of your new job?

It’s so gratifying to see someone out and about wearing Leota. She chose to wear our dress out of the thousands of choices available to her, and I never lose sight of that even as our volume grows. As thrilling as it is to develop a brand, there is a significant risk in starting a new business. I’m always asking “where could we be wrong?” in order to build a resilient, world-class organization.

Looking back, do you wish you had gone into this originally?

No, I really wouldn’t trade my finance experience for anything. I think there’s a lot of business decisions that really come naturally to me because of that experience that if I hadn’t had it, I just can’t imagine.

Any advice for readers considering a career 180?

Do it. You can’t put a price on feeling fulfilled in your career and any effort or lifestyle change or risk is worth it if it means you can be passionate about what you’re doing and really making a difference.