A Nightingale Alum Sings: Girls, Moms Flock to Dress Shop

When she was in eighth grade at Nightingale-Bamford, Camilla Bradley wrote and sold weekly gossip columns about her classmates and the guys they were hooking up with. Now 28, Ms. Bradley claimed she couldn’t take part in the social scene herself because the boys didn’t like her. “I was, like, scrawny and not cute,” she said.

How did this skinny pre-teen go from selling a gossip column at Nightingale to selling preppy clothing on 74th and Lex?

The business had its genesis in tragedy: When Camilla was just 2, her mother, Marilyn Bradley, died in a car accident. All of Marilyn’s clothing-everything she owned-remained in the Bradley household. By the time Camilla was 5, she had claimed the nail polish and the sexy nightgowns for herself. “I was the woman of the house, and I could do whatever I wanted,” she said.

Young Ms. Bradley wasn’t particularly sentimental about any of this schmatte. “I wanted to throw half of it out,” she said. “I’d be like, ‘ Eeuw !! Why would anybody ever wear that?’ And then all of a sudden, year by year, it would change, and I’d be like, ‘Ooh, this is amazing!'” She had no qualms about cutting up expensive clothes for the sake of innovation, starting with the Lycra tops: “I would chop off the sleeves, sew up the sleeve holes and make them into tube skirts,” she said. There was an enormous supply of high-quality materials with which to execute her youthful visions. “You can not have that mother around,” she said, “but yet she shapes completely what you’re doing …. I know everything about this woman. Everything, everything. “

Going on to attend Trinity College, Ms. Bradley hated the fact that the students all wore the same “uniform.” The sight of endless co-eds in Gucci loafers, Barbour jackets and Brooks Brothers ribbon belts offended her creative sensibility. So she made herself a few daring ribbon belts with animal motifs. Her friends were impressed. “Uhh … that’s great!” said Ms. Bradley in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice, mimicking their reaction.

But she suspected that her classmates wouldn’t pay for the belts, however compelling, if they knew they were homemade.

Then her father came to the rescue. It turned out John Bradley had thousands of labels left over from a college business named Tally Ho Designs. (He had sold clothing and romantic gifts for Princeton boys to give their sweethearts; sample wares included orange bras with black tiger paw prints on them.) Appropriating these labels that barely escaped the breast of a Princetonian’s girlfriend, Ms. Bradley sewed them one by one onto her belts-she later added totes to the mix-then posed as a sales rep. “I would lay [them] out on the lawn in the middle of campus or in the dining hall, and people would come in and place orders,” she said. “I’d have all the different ribbons, and they could put this ribbon on that ribbon and choose their D-ring.” The Trinity students easily fell for the fake/borrowed label.

Ms. Bradley lost money on her venture at school, but it turned out to be well worth it for the P.R. “You know, I had this college campus of Trinity students wearing the stuff,” she said. “So they go to Nantucket and the Vineyard, Maine-da, da, da, da. And then people see it and they’re like, ‘Where did you get that?'” The business picked up steam after graduation, when she packed up her car with belts and totes and headed straight to a store in Newport, where the Bradley family summers. “The woman there asked me, ‘How much are the totes?’ I said, ‘Oh, how much do you want them to be?'” she recalled with a grin. “The next store I went to in Nantucket, I said, ‘Oh, I sold to a store in Newport.’ So that sounded great.”

Operations were based in a bedroom in her dad’s Upper East Side New York apartment for two years because Ms. Bradley couldn’t afford rent (she could have set up shop on her family’s 3,000-acre estate, just an hour up the Hudson, but it would’ve been kind of a schlep. ) “So our living room was just piles of hundreds of totes,” she said. Shipping day was every Wednesday; U.P.S. would show up at the swanky building to cart out 30 huge, heavy boxes. “I’m surprised they didn’t kick us out!” she exclaimed.

Since he adored his daughter, her father willingly went along with the program, but Ms. Bradley knew the business couldn’t be run out of his place forever. After CK Bradley started to take off, (the K stands for Kerr, her middle name) she found a space on 81st Street for $3,000 a month, and then a couple of years later moved to a higher-profile, more expensive spot on 74th. She likes having her office at the back of the long, narrow store so she can see her customers when they come in and hear what they’re asking for. Her accountant berates her for paying the prime retail rate for the office, but she’s attached to the space. In fact, Ms. Bradley can picture staying in this location forever. “We have a little garden and a ping-pong table in the back,” she said. “So we’ll have little mixers in the summer.”

No longer scrawny-very, very cute, in fact-the blond, blue-eyed proprietress circled through her attractive store recently, pointing out various items: a strapless trellis dress in yellow, green and pink silk, decorated with birds; a silk dupioni dress in pink, green and yellow stripes (both between $200 and $300); and a striking miniskirt in an orange, red, pink and green flower pattern ($160). Of special note was the “bitches and hoes” tie, decorated with little female Dalmatians (the bows indicate their sex) and a garden hose. The most consistent and striking element of CK Bradley clothing is the vivid color. “Everybody can wear black, everybody can buy black, everybody sells black,” she said wearily.

On the counter, the goldfish bowl has only one goldfish, and his name is Stewart. The other goldfish, Martha, died recently. “Oddly enough, Martha’s gone,” Ms. Bradley said dryly.

She takes care to hire high-school and college interns, in addition to her six full-time employees, and asks them to keep a scrapbook of their ideas. Ms. Bradley wants to keep closely in touch with customers like the high-school girls from Chapin and Nightingale. Often, the girls bring their moms in to shop and buy matching mother-daughter outfits.

[146 East 74th Street, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, noon to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 212-988-7999.]

A Nightingale Alum Sings: Girls, Moms Flock to Dress Shop