Karla Gallardo & Shilpa Shah, Founders, Cuyana
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie Conversation with Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah, the Founders of Cuyana, a globally- inspired luxury fashion and lifestyle brand based in San Francisco. We also spoke with Irene Yuan, their Marketing Director.
Officially launching last June, but with the idea in circulation since late 2011, Cuyana is a wonderfully bespoke luxury brand that finds its foundation based on the philosophy that fewer, better things make for a fuller, better life. They have recently inked a partnership deal and designed a collection with Real Simple, all while continuing to cement their reputation as a true fashion player backed by tech venture dollars.
The idea behind Cuyana is based on two core tenets. The first is the product itself. As Irene, their Marketing Director explains to us, there was, (and one may argue still is) a huge discrepancy in the marketplace between ‘fast fashion’ and ‘pedastalized’ unattainable, luxury brands. To expand, on one side of the coin are the ubiquitous mass-consumer apparel companies that that are affordable and easy to access. On the flip side, there are expensive, high quality goods that most people would need a credit card to purchase. Cuyana set out to cater to the people sat in this discrepancy-gap, the individuals looking for classic, timeless and high quality items, without the traditional investment-piece prices attached.
To help them achieve this aim, Cuyana cut out the ‘middlemen,’ and go directly to consumers via their showroom in San Francisco and online, rather than wholesaling their products through traditional department stores. They also work directly with suppliers and are able to produce fast turn around, custom pieces in batches. Their best-selling leather tote for example, is made in Argentina by a luxury craftsman. Because of their direct relationship with him and overall business model, they are able to retail the bag at $150, rather than triple that, which would have been the case had they have chosen to sell through Barneys or Bloomingdales.
The second key aspect to Cuyana is the lifestyle element infused throughout the label. Their brand heavily promotes the idea of ‘fewer, better things,’ advocating that consumers make purchases they love, rather than filling closets with items that fall apart after a week’s wear.
What makes this brand even more interesting is that neither of Cuyana’s founders have traditional, long-term fashion backgrounds. Karla worked at Apple and Goldman Sachs, while Shilpa is an accomplished UX designer who cut her teeth at corporations including Disney and AT&T.
We headed to their San Francisco showroom to interview the Cuyana co-founders Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah, and Irene Yuan, Head of Marketing, to hear more about the brand whose philosophy ‘less is more’ aligns so well with our own values here at Rverie.
Can you introduce yourselves and what you do?
Karla: I am one of the co-founders of Cuyana as well as the CEO. I am responsible for the overall business and closely manage all product, merchandizing and branding.
Shilpa: I'm Karla's co-founder and CXO. I am responsible for the overall user experience and for business development and partnerships.
Irene: I’m the Director of Marketing at Cuyana. I oversee everything from our marketing copy and collateral, to our website, communications and social media.
Karla and Shilpa, what are your backgrounds and how did you meet each other?
Karla: Before starting Cuyana, I worked at Apple, doing business analysis and strategy, as well as at Goldman Sachs in investment banking. In between Apple and Goldman, I got my MBA from Stanford, and for undergrad I went to Brown where I got a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics.
Shilpa: I received my MBA and BA from UC Berkeley, and have 15+ years of experience in web and mobile interface design, working for companies including Disney, AT&T and Motorola.
Karla: We met when I was in business school at Stanford. Shilpa came as a prospective student to one of my entrepreneurship classes. I had just learned that morning what a UX designer was and needed to find one for a group project I was working on. I recruited Shilpa for the project and after I graduated we stayed in touch and became good friends.
When it came time to start Cuyana, I knew she'd be the perfect co-founder because we complement each other in our skill-sets, yet share the same values.
What was the process of becoming co-founders together, what was easy/hard? How did the two of you decide to make the transition to become business partners?
Karla: The process of becoming co-founders was really incredible and surprisingly easy for us because Shilpa and I have perfectly complementary skill-sets. I love working on branding and product development; Shilpa loves working on the user experience and practical consumer journey that surrounds the brand and product. I tend to focus on details and Shilpa thinks of functionality. I sought her to be my business partner because of these complementary skill-sets, and because we also get along very well and have become great friends.
Shilpa: A perfect example of this is when Karla first showed me our bestselling leather tote, and asked, isn't this product beautiful? My first response was, "Yes! But can we add a pocket?!"
A lot of our readers are entrepreneurs and have experienced, or are in the middle of, raising venture money for a business. How did you go about this and what advice would you have for people embarking on a start up?
Karla: Before going out to the investment community, we perfected the supply chain and product. Building a high quality and consistent offering is the fundamental basis of our brand and we needed to do some work in order to show the potential of the Cuyana vision.
We bootstrapped for a while and cultivated our first key supplier relationships in South America, for toquilla straw and baby alpaca, by being resourceful and getting help from our network of friends and family.
Once we had that in our back pocket, we came out to the investor community to tell the Cuyana story and show what we could accomplish.
Shilpa: Another piece of advice I would give is to be realistic about milestones in the beginning, also to be realistic about a start-up founders' budget. For a while, we were working out of Karla's apartment, sketching designs on her dining room table, having boxes of products delivered to her living room!
We had to set a very tight budget for ourselves, and very strict deadlines based on this budget for reaching goals. This dose of reality helped us keep in check and really drove us to accomplish things very quickly.
Your prices are distinctly low in comparison to similar brands with the same quality and you’ve just pulled together quite an innovatory deal with Real Simple. Can you talk a bit about your general business model?
Karla: Our business model is all about transparency and quality. We are able to deliver meaningful products -- and by this, I mean products made of the highest quality materials and craftsmen, and designed with a timeless, feminine style. We are able to achieve our price points because we work directly with vertically integrated suppliers and we sell direct to consumer. Our new partnership with Real Simple is also a model of directness -- by going direct to the publisher, we're able to reach a huge audience that perfectly aligns with ours, and leverage each of our core competencies (Real Simple for a strong editorial voice and lifestyle content, Cuyana for product development and design expertise).
Irene: To take a step back, there has recently been a big intersection of content and commerce. A lot of traditional content providers like print magazines are losing subscriptions and are trying instead to monetize online by expanding into commerce. On the commerce side, the best way to engage customers is to build great content. So, everyone is trying to figure out how to do this and it has been really tricky, which is why our connection with Real Simple works so well!
You’re all about lean closets and embracing- and maximizing- simplicity. Imagine an average woman stood in front of her wardrobe about to embark on a mass edit. What items would you say to keep and get rid of?
Shilpa: We would tell her, overall, to keep what she loves and get rid of what she no longer wears! Our Lean Closet Movement is a mission to create more intentional buying. We want people to focus on investing in key pieces that they're always going to wear and encourage them to take all of those forgotten things that they've accumulated and gift it others who can use them.
It's not a message of minimalism: there's no judgement or guilt associated with having more. In fact, if you love designer jeans and have 20 pairs that you regularly wear, that can be your own version of a Lean Closet! Rather, it's about just buying and keeping pieces you love and wear -- being thoughtful, and intentional.
Irene: Earlier in January we did a huge campaign called the Lean Closet Series and invited editors from top lifestyle magazines, including Real Simple and InStyle, to write guest pieces on what it means to have a lean closet. It was very practical- how to organize your closet, how to shop for what looks good on you etc.
We’d suggest you ask questions such as, is this made from a good quality material? Is it something you’ll wear throughout the years, beyond one season? I think the most important is, do you love it and do you feel comfortable in it?
Do you design or source first?
Irene: We technically design first, but it also depends on our supplier relationships, the season and if we can find the the supplier. Last holiday we focused on cashmere from Scotland. When we knew we were planning cashmere we also knew that we needed to find the right supplier.
What is the difference between style and fashion for you?
Karla: Style is eternal and essential; fashion is trend-based and fades.
Your products are cemented in story. Where did the love of narrative come from and why do you think it is important?
Shilpa: Story is crucial for our brand, and each one of our products. It is intrinsically tied to this idea of intentional shopping, meaningful buying: we want to share the stories behind the material, craftsmanship, design of each of our pieces so that these pieces can, in a way, serve as conversational elements for our customers.
It's the opposite of the fast fashion trend; with conscious consumption comes a consumer desire for transparency and story-telling behind products.
Our hope, with Cuyana and the story behind our brand and each of our collections, is to encourage individuals to shop intentionally, own fewer, better things and consequently live a fuller, richer life.
Irene: Our products are not available in every department store around the country, and because we are sold primarily online, there needs to be the story element to really connect with people. There is a lot of story around a material for example. We seek to find the best material and really help customers understand what high quality fabric means. When we launched Alpaca there are so many amazing things about it. For one, it is sustainably shaved from the baby alpacas right before the summer to cool them off. It is also hypoallergenic which is a great attribute as well.
If you could dress anyone who would it be?
Karla: I would say Kate Middleton, she feminine, classic and sophisticated.
Shilpa: It’s Kerry Washington for me. Aside from being a huge Scandal fan, I just love how classy, classic, elegant she is!
Cuyana means to love. What are your top loves: people, products, places? They can be within Cuyana and outside of it!
Karla: I absolutely love our leather tote. We describe it as perfect because it's designed with a classic, timeless style; it's made from the best Argentine leather; and it's roomy enough to fit my laptop and everything I need on a daily basis. As for places, I love Napa locally; it's the perfect weekend getaway from San Francisco (and the wine tasting isn't too bad either! My home will always be Ecuador though; my family still lives there and I love returning to visit whenever I can, which is much too infrequent, unfortunately.
Shilpa: I agree, I love my totes! I have them in many colors monogrammed with my initials. I also love our baby alpaca infinity scarf; it's super easy to just throw on, I love traveling with it, and it's timeless design will never go out of style. As for places, I was born and raised in LA, so despite settling down in the northern part of the state, I will always love Southern California.
What advice would you give to someone with their own idea or dream?
Karla: Don't think anything is impossible, resilience is key. Neither Shilpa nor I had traditional retail backgrounds but we had a vision for this fashion brand, and we made it happen!
Shilpa: This sounds trite, but it's really true for us: "No" is just the first step. I never accept no the first time - especially as a start-up founder.
Rather, it just makes me more determined to push through!
Lastly, what do you dream for Cuyana in the future?
Karla: We dream for Cuyana to be the lifestyle destination for all things fewer, better. The go-to resource for living a life of fewer, better things -- whether that's in fashion, travel, art, or anything else.
Shilpa: We also dream for Cuyana to change consumer behavior towards fewer, better. We want to become synonymous with intentional buying, mindful living -- in shopping, but also more broadly in life.
We think it's time for this change to happen, and we hope to be the drivers and fulfillers of it.
For more information visit http://www.cuyana.com
Images courtesy of Cuyana