Putting Happiness Into Patterns
Natalia Castillo is building a joyful clothing empire from her Sullivan's Island haven. By Stratton Lawrence Photos by Hunter McRae
There's more than rayon and spandex to Escapada Living's bright, tropical clothing: to founder and Sullivan's Island resident Natalia Castillo, the thread that holds it all together is happiness.
Castillo has grown her retail line at a rapid clip, fueled by hard work and a buoyant, sunny attitude. She sold her previous clothing line, Paradiso, just before the market crash of 2008, and took off to explore India, Brazil and Vietnam. She had successfully escaped and was free to pursue whatever she pleased.
Sitting on a French Riviera beach at that yearlong trip’s conclusion, with the world of retail clothing behind her, Castillo opened a magazine to see the words, “Escapada Living.” Something clicked that would soon bring her back to clothing, and to Charleston. The timing of Paradiso’s sale proved fortuitous, but the purchase of an investment and vacation home on the Isle of Palms would change her life’s trajectory.
A Full Circle Journey
Castillo grew up in Durham, North Carolina, but she’d planned her escape to California since she was 9 years old. “I had family from Edgefield and we went to Myrtle Beach for summer vacation, but the one place I knew I didn’t want to live when I grew up was in South Carolina,” she admits. “I knew California was where I wanted to go.”
A career sourcing new clothing lines for Macy’s accomplished that goal and introduced her to the designers and entrepreneurs that would eventually help her launch her own companies. But when she visited a friend in Charleston in the mid-’00s, the relaxed vibe called to her. It was close to her childhood home, and compared to the Bay Area, it felt underpriced. She bought a house on the Isle of Palms and another on Goat Island, as investments to vacation in and gather with friends. But when the market turned, the logical solution was to move here — just for a little while.
“I really thought I was living in the most beautiful place,” says Castillo of San Francisco, her home for 17 years. “I was forced to stay here [Charleston], but it has been such a blessing. Now I could never imagine going back.” Castillo has made good use of her first decade in the Lowcountry. Immediately upon arrival in July 2009 — fresh off her round-the-world adventure — she launched Escapada Living.
The pieces fell into place. Paradiso had faltered under new ownership and she bought back the factory she’d built in Java, Indonesia. Controlling production gives Escapada the flexibility and freedom to do small cuts and produce new items quickly. Their catalog now includes over 200 colorful prints and 80 styles, made with either 100% rayon or a flexible, breathable “stretch knit” blend of rayon and spandex.
Castillo’s previous retail partners loved her new designs and wearable, accessible materials. Escapada rapidly grew to over 800 retail accounts around the U.S. and opened a flagship store in Mount Pleasant.
But as quickly as Escapada Living grew into a national brand, the world of retail began to change. Each time someone purchases a shirt on Amazon, it’s another shirt le hanging on a store’s physical shelves. For a business based on relationships with boutique shops, that’s required nimble pivots.
At its Belle Hall retail store, Escapada offers pop-up events like candle- and tassel-making workshops. “We’re creating fun experiences that give new customers a reason to visit the store,” she explains. Concurrently, twenty percent of the company’s sales now occur online, argue that Castillo hopes to quickly grow. “Everybody wants everything instantaneously,” says Castillo of today’s market. “We’re going through a major transformation to build the best business model going forward.”
Castillo’s vision for the future of Escapada Living includes far more than sundresses, pants and tops. “I want to figure out how to sell happiness — to focus on making people’s lives better and using Escapada to do that.”
How does a clothing company transform into a more encompassing lifestyle brand? “People have such busy lives. What do they want in their life?” she asks. “They want more time and more great experiences. What can we do to create that? How can we create that feeling of happiness through people buying our product?”
The details of a brand based on happiness may have more questions than answers right now, but in Castillo’s personal life, cultivating joy begins with a growing focus on philanthropy. In addition to the company’s Children’s Fund in Indonesia (see sidebar), Escapada has also contributed funding and clothing to the MUSC Health Heart & Vascular Center, the Red Cross, and to the Florence Crittenton Programs of South Carolina that support low-income single mothers.
The shift in her business also reflects changes in Castillo’s personal life. Just as giving away clothing makes the recipients and the givers happy, she’s learned that sharing her time can accomplish the same enact. To better manage that infinite resource, she’s begun a morning meditation practice and refocused her daily priorities to weed out unnecessary tasks.
“I used to go out nearly every single night. I was never really fully present with people because I was so tired,” she explains. “Now I make plans with people I want to see two nights per week, and it’s made a huge difference. It makes me happy to be rested and to feel good.”
Another piece clicked into place when she found her home on Sullivan’s Island, near where Middle Street terminates into Charleston Harbor. “‑ e second I saw it, I said, ‘that’s the house,’” Castillo recalls. She’d bought her ranch house on IOP to invest, not to make it her home. At the Sullivan’s house, she saw through the taupe walls and traditional kitchen that blocked the view across the marsh, immediately removing cabinets and opening sight lines to improve ow. “Now it’s bright and contemporary and colorful and cheery,” she beams.
When friends come to town, days are spent lounging in the open-air cabana by a pool that’s lined with palmetto trees or hopping on the golf cart to relax on the beach or enjoy brunch at High Thyme. When the mood strikes, she borrows a friend’s boat to cruise the creeks from the landing just outside her door. “When people visit me, they just want to relax,” says Castillo. “We spend a lot of time cooking out and just enjoying the lifestyle on the island. ‑ e great thing about living here is that you don’t really need to go anywhere.”
On Sullivan’s Island, Castillo found close friends, a home filled with sunlight, and a perfect hub for a brand based on meaningful priorities. “I really wanted to be part of a community,” says Castillo. “This is a place where you can just enjoy life for all the amazing things it has to offer.”