- Courtesy Of Ryan Bent Photography
- Chelsea Camarata
Chelsea Camarata, the 33-year-old founder and owner of Kaden Apparel in Burlington, didn't have much sewing experience before she launched her own women's athletic company in 2017. As a high schooler in her hometown of Saugerties, N.Y., she'd taken a home economics class and made a teddy bear. She also attended a two-day fashion design class at a tech center, but it involved no sewing whatsoever.
"I tried to make a dress once with my mom," Camarata recalled, "but I gave up halfway."
In 2010, Camarata had just finished an MBA program through Champlain College and Southern New Hampshire University when her then-boyfriend (now-husband), Ryan Bent, invited her to go mountain biking with friends.
She'd never been on a mountain bike before, but Camarata borrowed one from a friend and joined the riders on the Perry Hill trails in Waterbury. Though the bike was too big for her, and the trail they rode was above her skill level, she had fun and stuck with it. Soon, she was tearing up single-track on a regular basis.
But when Camarata went shopping for women's cycling clothes, she was disappointed by the dearth of options that were designed for women's bodies.
"A lot of it looked like you were wearing a cardboard box," she said. "And the stuff that was out there was kind of gross — synthetic fabrics that, as soon as you put them on, smell weird."
Camarata's other big gripe was a phenomenon commonly referred to in the marketing industry as "shrink it and pink it." That is, many traditionally male-oriented brands sell products to women by making them smaller and offering them in pink or pastel colors, rather than actually tailoring them to women's needs and tastes.
In 2015, Camarata embarked on the project of learning how to make her own athletic wear. That included finding blended fabrics that felt soft, held up well and "didn't stink" when she sweat in them, she said.
With help from friends who'd gained pattern-making experience in fashion design school, Camarata started sewing clothes and asking for feedback. She admits she made a lot of bad prototypes.
A 2017 Kickstarter campaign raised $5,000 for Camarata's venture. With that money and some of her savings, she funded her first production run of jerseys at a manufacturing facility in Minnesota.
In early 2018, Camarata began selling Kaden Apparel products directly to consumers online. Today, the company offers three different styles of jersey, one style of shorts, T-shirts, headbands and other accessories; Camarata is working on adding athletic maternity wear. A few Vermont retailers carry her products, including Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington and Ranch Camp and Hitchhiker Bike Shop, both in Stowe.
- Courtesy Of Ryan Bent Photography
- Kaden Apparel’s V-neck cycling jersey
Kenzie Fuqua, who works in the bicycle department at Outdoor Gear Exchange, said that Kaden Apparel has become one of the store's top sellers. She described the products as "phenomenal" because they're soft, lightweight and breathable.
"The fit is the biggest thing for me," said Fuqua, who mountain bikes four to five days a week. "A lot of women's cycling clothes are either made to be super baggy or super straight ... Chelsea has done a really good job of designing clothes to fit a lot of different body types extremely well."
When COVID-19 and an executive order from Gov. Phil Scott forced most retailers to close last year, Camarata said, she had no idea whether Kaden Apparel's sales would continue online or "drop through the floor.
"I ended up putting some of my production on hold," she recalled. "I probably shouldn't have, because I ended up needing it. Cycling really took off."
Since the start of the pandemic, sales of sporting goods associated with solo activities have risen to historic levels, with cycling leading the way. In February 2021, nearly 1.4 million bicycles were imported to the United States, a 74 percent increase over February 2020, according to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
The worldwide surge in consumer demand also boosted sales of active sportswear, which outperformed the rest of the apparel sector throughout the pandemic, according to McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.
Kaden Apparel didn't suffer any major supply-chain shortages of the kind that have plagued the cycling sector, Camarata noted. But by the time she recognized the increased interest, her Minnesota manufacturer had been tapped to shift its production to personal protective equipment such as gowns and face masks.
"When your factory tells you they have to make PPE," she said, "you can't really argue with that."
Because Kaden Apparel has no employees on its payroll — Camarata handles most of the work, along with her full-time job at DealerPolicy, a Williston insurance software firm — the company didn't qualify for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. Camarata did receive a $1,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and a $250 grant from the Restart Vermont Technical Assistance Program. Every bit helped, she said.
After some initial delays in filling customer orders last spring, Camarata saw her sales recover over the summer as Americans moved outdoors in droves. Benefiting from the surge in cycling, she ended 2020 with sales up more than 100 percent over 2019, "which sounds like a lot, but I'm still in the growth phase," she noted. "Hopefully, I can keep that going."
Kaden Apparel's production delay in the Midwest had one unexpected upside: It prompted Camarata to forge a relationship with a local manufacturer. After the Minnesota plant pivoted to making PPE, Vermont Teddy Bear got on board to produce some of Kaden Apparel's jerseys. Though it was just a one-time run — Kaden is again producing goods at the Minnesota facility — Camarata said she'd love to work with the Shelburne company again if the opportunity arose.
Perhaps that teddy bear she made in high school home ec paid off after all.