“I see a store as my canvas and the merchandise as my medium”

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By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Amara Bessa is helping to make Ventura County a more fashionable place, one customer at a time. The groovy stylist, designer and entrepreneur offers up an eclectic array of clothing, accessories and jewelry at her Kariella boutiques (named after her daughter) in Ventura and Ojai, all selected with an eye for quality, originality and style that rides the edge of trendy and timeless. Alongside the name brands you’ll also find some Kariella originals, such as Bessa’s graphic-and-embroidery tees with a funky, retro vibe. Her goal: fashion that’s both fun and effortless, designed to make a woman feel both comfortable and beautiful. Bessa took time from her business and a recent move to speak with Ventana Monthly about her passion for fashion, the magic of merchandising and more.

Tell us a little bit about yourself — where you grew up, your family, etc.

I grew up in Ojai on South Padre Juan Avenue in Mieners Oaks. I am the oldest of four girls. I am a single mother of two; my son, Taylen, is 20 and my daughter, Kariella, is 13. I have always been a very ambitious person and even though I had my son at the young age of 19, I never stopped pursuing my dreams

When did you first develop an interest in fashion? What designers or styles of
clothing appealed to you at the time?

I developed an interest in fashion at a very young age. My mom used to sew and when I was about 8 years old she taught me the basics of how to use the machine. In my free time I would sew dress-up clothes and accessories for me and my younger sister with my mom’s scrap fabrics. We also had this old vintage cash register a neighbor had given us, so on warm summer days I would hang clothes outside in the back yard from the trees and on fences and have my sister come pretend shop my store. She dreaded it, but I loved every minute of it! [Laughs.] I think I really had the entrepreneurial spirit running through my veins from a very early age. I always loved being creative, but I think my end goal always involved making money while doing it so I could continue to buy my supplies and keep creating new things.

When did you decide to make a career in fashion?

As a young mother, my original career path was one I fell into in high school. I was a [computer-aided design] CAD drafter/graphic designer for many years for a mechanical engineering company. It was quite the opposite to what I was passionate about, but I was good at it nonetheless. I would work retail on the weekends to fulfill my longing to work in the fashion industry. My first fashion industry job was at BCBG. I actually had to audition for the position. They gave me two hours to sell a certain amount of clothing to get the job. I remember I styled two women and within an hour I had made my goal. I was only 16 at the time, so I was elated! After that day I was hooked. I knew I absolutely wanted to be in fashion and one day own my own stores and be a designer. I actually did my senior-year career paper on Donna Karan and becoming a fashion designer and I got the best grade in all three classes. I remember being embarrassed because my paper was the only one the teacher read out loud to the entire class; I was pretty shy and definitely still can be at times.

According to the bio on your website, you switched from retail to visual merchandising for Donna Karan (and others). How did you make that transition? And can you tell us a little bit about what a visual merchandiser does?

When I moved onto my second retail position at Donna Karan, I was given the opportunity to merchandise. At the time the store didn’t have an onsite merchandiser, only a district merchandiser, so I was chosen to work with her every month when she came to do a new floor set and that’s how I learned how to merchandise. I think I’ve been blessed enough to always have a natural eye for merchandising. I would consider it one of my strongest assets. It’s always come easy to me: I see a store as my canvas and the merchandise as my medium. It’s actually quite fun and something I always look forward to doing in my shops. It’s like being able to breathe new life into the store every few weeks. It makes everything feel new and fresh and it really ties into styling. By making everything easy to shop for the customers, they can put together outfits with ease.

As a buyer for Angel, what kinds of pieces did you look for?

As most people know, Angel is a very established store, so as the buyer I had to honor the original concept of the store and its devoted customers while also bringing some fresh life into the space. Ideally for that location, I was always on the lookout for unique, inspiring dresses, high-quality yummy knits and basic and not-so-basic denim. In this particular position I learned that the foundation to any successful clothing retailer is to stock desirable go-to basics complimented by fun specialty pieces. It can’t be all one or the other.

At one point did you start designing your own clothes? What kinds of clothing did you make?

Designing is a very recent accomplishment. I spent some time in sewing classes at Ventura College and always modified my patterns and took creative liberties with the assignments. It was fun and challenging at the same time. I was very excited to launch our new tees in December 2019; I really wanted to bring something local to the table for all the people who love Ojai and Ventura with our ’70s-inspired embroidery graphic tee collection. We have some more styles coming out this summer that will be even more embroidery driven.

Are you self taught, or did you attend a particular school for
design?

I only took some sewing courses at Ventura College back in my early 20s.

What designers have you drawn inspiration from? And has that changed through the years?

The very first designer I really fell in love with back in early 2000 was probably Marc Jacobs. I just loved his retro style. Over the years I’ve always loved Free People, I remember I bought my first piece from them back when I was 16. I’m still obsessed with their line and it’s one of the
top-selling brands in my shops.

Tell us a little bit about how Kariella came about.

I started Kariella back in 2010 in my garage in Bend, Oregon. I took a leap of faith and moved up there not knowing anyone, so I joined a moms’ group, as Kariella was 2 years old at the time. It was the perfect way to meet women and make new friends. At every event, the women always asked about where I got my clothes and complimented my style. They said they wished they had somewhere to shop for things like that in town. I knew in that moment that it was finally time to have my own store, so I drove to LA, bought a bunch of goods and had a shopping party in my garage when I got back. I invited all the women from the moms’ group and their friends and after a few hours I had sold almost everything I bought. A week later, I found a 400-square-foot retail space and officially started Kariella.

When did you move to Ventura County, and why?

I moved back in 2015 after living in Bend for seven years. I had a store location in Ventura for almost three years and wanted to be present to manage that location. I was also ready to get back to family, as everyone was living here in Ojai and Ventura.

Today, you operate two stores — in Ojai and Ventura. Is the aesthetic the same? And if not, why?

The aesthetic is generally the same, our Ojai location just has slightly higher-end goods and some dressier styles at times.

My understanding is that you stock original works of your own design as well as top brands. How do you decide on the right mix?

I definitely like to mix it up. I think it’s important to offer a variety of styles and price points so there’s a little something for everyone. On occasion we’ve even had three generations find something in our boutiques, which is a big feat for such a small space. Most of the brand labels I carry I’ve had from the very beginning. They’ve been successful for me so I’ve stuck with them. I always introduce a little something new every now and again to mix it up and keep things fresh.

Do you have a particular customer in mind for your designs? What kind of customer does Kariella serve?

The Kariella customer believes, like us, that fashion should be both fun and effortless. She doesn’t follow the crowd, she likes to stand out in a subtle, sophisticated way, but she does it with ease. She breathes positivity. She might be a college student or a mom or even a grandma. One thing for sure is that she appreciates beautiful clothes — the touch, the feel, the silhouette, they all make her feel like a confident woman.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge for you, personally, as a
designer, and for fashion design in general? 

Always being ahead of the trends but not so far ahead that people don’t get what you’re trying to do. It can definitely be a fine line. It’s also a lot of pressure to always come up with new ideas. Fashion is fast and consumers want to see new things all the time. It can be a lot to keep up with.

What are your favorite things about what you do?

I love helping women feel beautiful. Styling is still one of my favorite parts of what I do. There’s no better feeling than helping a client find the perfect outfit for a special occasion. A warm smile that radiates from within because she feels like the most beautiful person in the room is why I do what I do.

What do you envision for yourself and Kariella in the future? What exciting things are on the horizon?

Right now I am working towards starting my own swimwear line. We are also working on developing our own fragrance for candles, lotions, perfumes, etc. I’d love to continue cultivating the brand and really growing our online presence.