Life by design

Longtime venture capitalist takes a different career path, becoming a fashion designer

When Camilla Olson took her daughter to check out the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2007, she expected her daughter, who likes sewing, to be the one interested in attending the fashion school there.

Her daughter was less than thrilled about the school. For 56-year-old Olson, however, it was love at first sight.

"I wasn't selling her on the school. I was sold," said Olson, a retired Palo Alto venture capitalist and pharmaceutical marketer. Despite starting several companies, she has always told her friends that she does not have the creative gene. "Then I just saw all of the patterns on the wall (at the Academy), and it just felt like home to me," she said.

It has now been three years since she first enrolled in the Academy, where she double-majored in fashion and textile design, focusing on 3-D textile design. She graduated in June with a master's degree in fine arts, and in September her spring 2011 collection was shown at Fashion Week in New York City.

Her line, inspired by samurais and the movie "Blade Runner," features laser-cut silk under-dresses covered by a top "cage" layer of open, grid-like lines of cloth, giving an edgy 3-D contrast to the layers of soft silk.

Looking back at what prompted her to make this major career change and follow her passion, Olson said that following her curiosity has always been a part of who she is.

"I changed majors three or four times in college," she said. "I worked washing glasses in a lab and would ask the guy there what he was doing using the scanning electron microscope. I took advantage of what was around me," she said.

She ultimately got her bachelor's degree in microbiology from the University of Maryland.

Olson's interests in fashion go back to her childhood. Her mother was a tailor in Virginia and would make her clothes. Later in life, Olson herself began sewing, encouraged by her own daughter. She started out trying to teach herself how to make a couture jacket.

"It just looked handmade," she said. "I kept thinking about how I could make it better."

She added: "I was trying to make clothes for myself because I couldn't find good stuff for moms my age, baby boomers. Things out there are too old or too young."

Her detailed dresses were very time-consuming to make. After she learned how to make them, each "cage" took seven days, 15 hours per day, to make. The under-dresses consist of four layers of detailed laser-cut silk. Completing each layer of small cutouts in the silk took about three hours.

About Fashion Week at Lincoln Center, Olson said: "That night and the next day were some of the best days ever. You know you've got it as perfect as you can, and you're there with such smart people."

But later the high from the show went away. "I didn't like waiting for people to review my line. Nobody likes to be talked about."

She said the other designers talked about how they go into a depression after the show. "I understand that now," she said.

Olson had started drawing concepts for her collection in June 2009. In December she made her collection for the first time and began modifying them in January of this year. "I can't tell you how many changes I made: Move this seam, add sleeves, move this."

She spent much of time her at the academy, often staying in San Francisco overnight during the summer so she could be there every day getting her collection ready for Fashion Week. By her last year of school, Olson was meeting several times a week with instructors on her collection.

"Nothing goes on the runway that they don't approve of," she said. "The program is like an apprenticeship; they help you solve problems."

Her 3-D dresses are complex in their look, as well as their meaning. The silk represents the soft inner nature of women while the cages represent women's strong exterior, Olson said.

"We are very tough as a gender," she said in her home design studio, which was formerly a guest bedroom. Her studio consists of a large counter for laying out fabric, surrounded by wall shelves holding numerous bins and binders containing her materials, tools and design sketches. Many finished designs hang in a corner.

Glancing over a sample box of brightly colored silk scarves that she had hand-printed, Olson said her designs are intended to provide women like her with sophisticated clothing. "I try to make things for women 35 and up who are intelligent, educated and in a position of leadership."

She pulled out a pair of black pants with strips of fabric running down the legs, creating 3-D pinstripes. "I want to do things because they are interesting," she said, running her hands over the pinstripes that give a modern spin on a classic look.

When asked what advice she had for people searching for that something they are truly passionate about doing, she said it is important to be curious about the people and things around you.

In following her own interests in electron microscopy and pharmaceuticals, after college she wound up working at Johnson & Johnson. She earned a master's degree in business administration in pharmaceutical marketing from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

Then Olson moved into venture capitalism and started five companies of her own. "I loved venture capitalism and meeting people with new ideas. The downside was when things don't work out. You have to be tough," she said.

Olson founded the biotech software company Camitro, and Pharsight, a company that provides the pharmaceutical industry with software and services to improve drug development.

She said that the entrepreneurial world had its challenges. "It was hard for me to strike a balance of compassion, decisiveness and profiteering," she said. "Now people are ordering my dresses from my collection, and I'm thinking this is starting to look like a company."

She hopes to continue focusing on the design aspect of fashion. "I thought the venture-capitalism aspects would be gone, but there are negative aspects to every career, seeing if people will like it and buy it."

Because of Olson's background, it might have been easier for her to study fashion merchandising at the Academy of Art. But she said she purposely reached out of her comfort zone. "I put myself in design because I couldn't draw or design," she said.

She added: "It took me by surprise: All my life I had used the left side of my brain. During the time I was getting my M.F.A., I could actually feel my right brain, the designer side. It was a huge eye-opener.

"I've always been a curious person, wondering how to make things better. What I didn't know is that you can do that in the artistic world."

Simon Ungless, director of fashion at the academy, praised Olson's work. "She is really challenging herself with 3-D design and laser-cutting textiles. She was really like a sponge, soaking up information as much as she could," he said.

Ungless agreed Olson was making a big shift in her abilities.

"Her background was in careers that had all clear goals. Fashion is very subjective, and it is a challenge coming from the other side. She's very patient. Drawing a design is one thing; when you create the design in 3-D is where things change from paper," Ungless said.

While Olson's line is not currently available in any boutiques, she is selling individual pieces and will soon fly out to New York to fit a dress for a socialite.

"I hope to have satisfied clients, whether I have four or 4,000," she said.

More information on Camilla Olson's designs is available at

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Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Van Dusen
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 28, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Refreshing all around. Bravo, Camilla!

Like this comment
Posted by Mac clayton
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 29, 2010 at 9:17 am

Paris beckons.

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Dec 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The comment below was moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Sunaina, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Dec. 25, 2010, at 6:19 a.m.:

A mere 3 years ago, my friend Camilla and I were on flight to San Miguel de Allende, MX and she was practicing very basic drawing skills. Naturally, her passion trumped my reservations about her new endeavor. She's a walking testament and inspiration to us all that it's never too late to persue new interests and the power of curiousity. Another timely PA Weekly article as we close the door on one year, and step into another.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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