How Seattle's Cult Retailer Totokaelo Defined "Young Luxury"

One of Seattle's best shops is NYC-bound.

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For a shop outside of the U.S. fashion capital of NYC (and to an extent L.A.), Seattle's Totokaelo is one of the city's best brick-and-mortar treasures. That's in no small part to founder and CEO Jill Wegner, whose smart moves and sheer ambition have found her expanding into a brand new retail space at 54 Crosby St., in downtown NYC. In a profile from Business of Fashion, the Totokaelo boss discusses her roots; starting as a locally-sourced consignment shop, and evolving into a global purveyor of "young luxury."

It begins with support from her grandparents, who lent her a chunk of change ($20,000 to be exact) to open up a basement shop in a gentrifying area of Seattle. The gravity of the loan was not lost on Wegner, who recognized a valuable lesson: when someone else's money rests on your success, you have to take things seriously. “Failure was not an option. And that’s kind of the mentality I’ve taken into everything. When somebody takes that sort of risk on you, you just don’t let them down," Wegner told Business of Fashion.

Her first shop, which opened in 2003, kept the lights on by selling the wares of local artists and designers, selling furniture and clothing. Aside from picking up some retail management basics firsthand, she also realized that she was making a bigger impact selling clothes. “It wasn’t about the clothes, it was about helping customers dress in a way that made them feel more themselves. More confident, more empowered,” Wegner notes.

After attending market week in NYC (and picking up then-hard-to-find labels like Steven Alan and A.P.C.), she built up her reputation, focusing on selling—not designers—but "personality-driven looks instead pushing individual products." To do this, Wegner hired friends to model clothes, using the Polaroids from dressing room photoshoots to get impressions from her customers.

By 2008, Totokaelo's first physical location opened up, but wound up focusing on e-commerce, using the store's internet presence to draw attention to online editorials that carried the same spirit as Wegner's initial, Polaroid-centric marketing. It's these homespun tactics that didn't just help authentic her store and give the shop its voice, it introduced shoppers to the concept of "young luxury"—brands and styles that would open up shoppers to the idea of designer labels.

TL;DR: her methods made luxury clothes seem accessible and in tune with the attitudes and personalities of contemporary young shoppers.

With a growing web presence, Wegner was able to secure accounts with Marni and Dries Van Noten for her store—legitimizing her shop even further. But before you claim that you can cop these brands at bigger department stores and luxury retailers, Wegner insists that that doesn't mean they'll approach (or buy) the garments with the same mentality. 

“I just pick stuff that I love and I know will resonate with clients. I’m not interested in playing what I call the ‘price and breadth of product game.’ I’m not going to keep gobbling up and launching five new vendors a season. We’re picking up one, maybe two. And it is the best stuff we see in the market. From here on out, it’s more about refining a vision, and about Totokaelo’s point of view becoming stronger.”

It's this focus that's helped spur Totokaelo's growth, especially into NYC. While Wegner is constantly looking to expand her online presence (including an "on approval" system where clients receive a box of curated product and only pay for what they keep), she's keeping her eyes on what helped make Totokaelo so special: relationships and aesthetics.

"Relationships are the backbone of our company. I want to bring that to e-commerce,” Wegner told Business of Fashion. “We’re not the best at SEO or re-targeting, that’s not our jam. But we are going to create the best looks, and help people evolve and find their style.”

Totokaelo's 54 Crosby St. storefront opens in New York on Sept. 12. In the meantime, you can shop the store online.

Read more over at Business of Fashion.

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