Vanessa Ambrose, owner of Cameron Marks Boutique in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a naturally beautiful and business-savvy bombshell. Inspired by her entrepreneurial mother growing up—and continually buoyed by her own intuition as an adult—this Aussie-slash-California-girl has worked incredibly hard to make a lasting mark on the West Coast. Read on to see how Vanessa turned her passion for travel and fashion into a successful career—and don’t miss the info about an awesome giveaway at the very end of the post!
Photography by Carlie Statsky
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
I’m a born-and-bred Australian from a Sydney beach town, and I’ve called Santa Cruz, California home for the last 18 years. I studied fashion design in Sydney for four years after high school, and then I worked in the fashion industry as a pattern maker and designer for roughly eight years. I backpacked through Europe and Morocco for eight months. Like a lot of Aussies, I believe that a desire to roam the planet is in our DNA. When I headed back home, I came down with a severe case of the travel bug. I just wanted to keep traveling the planet. Initially, my stop in Santa Cruz was only supposed to be for a few weeks—but 18 years later, I’m still here.
How and when did you decide to open Cameron Marks?
We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. My best friend Laura and I opened under some pretty unusual circumstances. We didn’t have much money to speak of, but one day I received a phone call from my friend Bob Scales, who is a menswear designer. The proprietor of the store at the time asked me if I would be interested in taking over the store. We pretty much struck a deal on the spot. The offer was kind of hard to resist: We could sell whatever we liked and continue to sell his handmade men’s shirts.
We opened in April 2005. It was a Saturday. I still clearly remember that day—there was hardly any merchandise to fill the space, and pretty much everything was on consignment. Very humble beginnings. It was an extremely rare and lucky opportunity, though—if it hadn’t fallen into our laps the way it did, we would’ve never had the finances to open a store. We have a lot to thank Bob for.
Cameron Marks is technically three boutiques. Why did you decide to expand? What’s your favorite part about each section?
Eventually we needed more room to showcase all the products that we’ve fallen in love with. Expanding was a matter of the timing being right and certain spaces becoming available. To be honest, my landlord pretty much talked me into the latest space we opened!
Each space definitely has a different feel, but there is also a common thread running through all three. I love the cozy dark navy walls of the original space. From there you can walk through a little hallway, which opens up into more of a minimalist space with bright white walls and lots of natural light. The clothing store is going to undergo a major overhaul this January, but it already has a really nice airy feel to it, thanks largely to the gorgeous high ceilings.
Does being based in Santa Cruz influence the brands or items you carry?
Yes, absolutely. You have to know your market, and it definitely took us a few years to understand ours. There are things that we would love to carry in the stores but don’t, because we know that they wouldn’t be right for our locale. After all, this is a business, not a gallery.
Of the makers you’re currently carrying, who are some of your favorites?
Well, ace&jig clothing comes to mind immediately, along with Oakland-based designer Carissa Potter of People I’ve Loved paper goods. Carissa is one talented designer—we all just adore her. Another favorite is local jewelry designer Nicole Rimedio of Variance Objects. We also just returned from a buying trip in New York City, and we’re so excited to officially be bringing in Ulla Johnson next spring. I think her clothing is going to make the favorites list next year for sure.
What was the best business advice you received when you first started out?
Because of how we started, I don’t think we were ever really given any. None that I can remember, anyway. In retrospect, I think we just winged it. However, I will say that my mum has definitely been my biggest mentor and adviser from afar over the last 10 years. Growing up around an extremely independent, driven and entrepreneurial single mum (she has owned cafes and gas stations, and at one point drove a 10-ton truck to make a living) leaves its mark on you in a big way, I think. I see myself in my mum a lot, and I have a lot to thank her for. Another thought: This business has definitely been powered by a hell of a lot of intuition.
What is the most difficult part about owning a business?
The first thing that comes to mind is being a boss. It’s not my favorite thing to do, and I don’t think I’m so good at it. I love everyone who works alongside me—we’re like a family—so when I have to be a bit hard on someone, I don’t like myself for it afterward. It’s very challenging at times!
Can you share a time when you’ve encountered failure?
Whenever I haven’t listened to my intuition. For example: It’s easy to get caught up in the infectious energy and buzz at trade shows, but succumbing to reps’ upselling techniques has almost always led to failure for us. After all the excitement of the show dies down, we’re like, “Uh-oh! What were we thinking?” Remember to stay true to what your business is about—you know your customer best.
What have been your greatest successes so far?
Seeing the hard work and long hours from the last 10 years start to pay off. Being able to step back, more than ever before, to work on the business instead of always working in the business. Having the best team members, whom I adore, on the ride with me (none of this would be possible without their hard work and dedication!). And lastly, reaching a point where I can travel the globe freely, which was my dream from the very beginning. My next stop this month is Cuba. This is success to me.
What’s the first app, book or website that you look at in the morning?
First up, Instagram. And I just finished one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time: “Just Kids” by Patti Smith. Ems Designblogg, a Swedish blog covering Scandinavian style, gets a glance as well.
You have amazing style! How would you describe your fashion uniform?
I would say that it’s clean, simple, timeless, a little tomboyish and a touch unexpected. Also: At this point in my life, my pieces need to be high-quality.
What’s your daily beauty routine?
I’m a very low-maintenance kind of girl. In the morning I just splash water on my face and moisturize with some Jao Face Cream. Next, I put a touch of mascara on my top lashes and apply the same MAC lip color I’ve been wearing for the past 18 years. I love my Jao Goē Oil—I use it all over my face, hair, hands and body (I’m big into moisturizing!). I wash and run a comb through my hair once a week. Pretty simple stuff!
What’s next for Cameron Marks?
A Cameron Marks clothing line to sell in the store. I have a background in fashion design and production, and creating my own line has been a goal of mine—it’s just a matter of finding the time to do so. Running the stores requires a lot of physical and mental energy. We also want to continue building our online store, which we have found to be a whole other business venture in itself. Finally, opening up another store in a place like Brooklyn or Sydney wouldn’t be bad either. With that would come some rather big challenges, but intuition will always get us through.
We’ve partnered with Cameron Marks to give away an awesome goody bag. Here’s what’s included:
- Cameron Marks x Cook & Gates Tote ($125)
- Cameron Marks x Cook & Gates Zip Pouch ($40)
- Molly M pink metallic leather business card holder ($50)
- mud australia sugar bowl and creamer ($52 for the set)
(A total value of $267!)