Talking Brands, Buying and Merchandising with Totokaelo
Talking Brands, Buying and Merchandising with Totokaelo
- Words Christopher Fenimore
- Date November 28, 2017
If you frequent NYC’s SoHo, you’ve probably seen 190 Bowery—it’s the large building on the Northwest corner of Spring Street that’s covered in graffiti (yes, right up the block from a Sweet and Vicious frozen margarita, the cheapest and fastest way to get drunk in Lower Manhattan). Just last month, Totokaelo reopened at 190 Bowery while their original space at 54 Crosby Street undergoes renovations. Frankly, I was blown away by the way in which they inhabited their new temporary space. Rather than changing it, they worked with the glorious hand they were dealt. While the main floor is decadent and bright, the basement is sinister and dim.
In that basement you’ll find 190 Bowery’s rich history apparent, from its large steel vault doors—beyond this door is a vault that once held money and valuables, but now holds Totokaelo’s footwear selection—to light and dark rooms that photographer Jay Maisel used during his time in the building to a gorgeous wooden room used by women in the ‘20s preparing for the theater with the jewels they kept at the bank.
Totokaelo opened its New York location in September of 2012, but the company began to take off in 2008, when Totokaelo’s original owner, Jill Wenger, opened her first Totokaelo boutique in Seattle after the success of her first venture: a 700-square-foot space, also in Seattle, and sold craft items by local artists and designers. At this time, Totokaelo also began selling online and as that business grew, so too did Wegner’s ambitions. In September of 2016, Herschel Supply Co., who owns a minority stake in Need Supply, purchased Totokaelo and placed Need Supply in an operating agreement with Totokaelo. A few weeks later, Wenger stepped down from Totokaelo and Need Supply stated it would continue to run both Totokaelo locations, as well as its e-commerce site.
A little over a year later, Totokaelo is at its coolest. It has an interesting yet serious brand matrix, boasting some of the best product in the market currently, a new website with strong editorial direction and styling, and a beautiful new temporary space. I talked with Need Supply and Totokaelo’s DMM, Chris Green, as well as Kate Schley, Totokaelo’s Visual Manager, to better understand the direction Totokaelo is headed in, and why and how they chose 190 Bowery.
Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and what you currently do at Totokaelo.
Chris Green: I started at the store level with Need Supply around 20 years ago. Over the years I went from the store level to the merchandising side of things. A little over a year ago, we started operating Totokaelo and now I oversee all the buying.
Kate Schley: I am the creative visual manager at Totokaelo. Previous to this I worked as the creative visual manager for COS in London.
How interrelated is buying and visual merchandising?
CG: There is a really strong connection between the two. We are fortunate enough to work with some of the best brands in the world but our curation, our point of view still needs to be translated and brought to life. Our visual merchandising team really makes that happen. We have a lot of conversations before, during, and after market on how we present collections in store and online.
How do the current buys within the shop reflect the new Totokaelo? Were any of the buys made with the new shop in mind?
CG: Our buying teams always approach each season with our brand vision in mind. That direction isn't
new but more present, more defined. If it feels like it is
new, it is because we are more conscious of it and with a space like Totokaelo 190 Bowery, we are able to display that vision/direction more clearly.
What’s the inspiration for the shop’s new look? What differs here from how you envisioned the shop on Crosby?
KS: Both spaces (54 Crosby and 190 Bowery) naturally have creative history to them, whereby they were each occupied as artists’ homes and studios. 190 Bowery is incredibly special. When the opportunity came up for us to occupy this space we were extremely excited—we would be the first retailers to occupy the space. It was enriched with history and we knew how interested and intrigued people were to see this incredible, iconic, and mysterious building. We wanted to make it our own, be true to the brand but also embrace the characteristics of the space.
What was the process of finding and changing the space like?
KS: When approaching the design phase, we loved the richness of the ground floor in contrast to the basement—the daylight, big windows, marble, wooden and mosaic tile flooring. This helped determine which brands we would place up here and the way in which we approached the design (we designed the whole space whilst sitting in the building), keeping it gallery like with interesting and refined installations and vignettes. We wanted to make sure customers got a true experience and also made sure we kept as many interesting features as possible, we changed the two ground floor vaults into fitting rooms, making them a little less scary by adding carpet, soft lighting, a rich curtain, and mirrors.
How much personal taste goes into buying versus empirical data?
CG: There is a balance between the two and you really have to respect both the aesthetic aspect and the empirical data. I start every appointment with a run through that is purely aesthetic.
What's special about 190 Bowery in relation to the old shop/retail in NYC in general?
KS: One special thing about moving into 190 Bowery is how harmoniously our product works with the characteristics of the space—our collections feel at home in 190 Bowery. We found endless correlations between Totokaelo, the area, architecture, history, and personality of 190 Bowery together with the roots and DNA of the brands that we carry. We approached the design and layout of the store with how we ourselves like to shop and discover brands. We don’t have a distinct men’s and women’s area (like we did at 54 Crosby) because we no longer see these as two disjointed and separated things. We see fashion, we see stories, we see details, and we believe it’s interesting for everyone to shop, explore, and discover in this way. We have also given the product more space to breathe, so customers can really see and touch each piece.
Brands are blurring the lines more and more between men’s and women’s fashion, such as Calvin Klein, J.W. Anderson and Jil Sander; the collections are complete with one another and they tell a better story this way, so it was only natural for us to move as they do. We believe our customers want to see what's available to men and women and want to shop both. Achieving this in a traditional store is quite hard, so taking up residency at 190 Bowery was a great opportunity to do things a little differently.
Did you have certain brands in mind when designing different sections of the new shop, or were they merchandised separately from the interior design?
KS: The basement has no natural daylight. It’s very raw, quite dark and deconstructed, made up of a unique mix of rooms, from vaults to Jay Maisel’s photo studios to 1920’s dressing rooms. We wanted the direction of the interior down there to feel similar (deconstructed and raw), with lots of product to explore, several off the shelf racks amongst moments of interest—which were purely inspired by the characteristics of the space, such as dark black rooms, nooks and crannies which we could slot and place product into, and surfaces we could suspend and hang product from. It really was about embracing this space to make it our own. Our product feels at home here.
Any brand additions you guys are excited about? What are some of your current favorite brands?
CG: We have a lot of exciting things in the works as well as new brand additions for SS18. In terms of my favorites, I gravitate towards Maison Margiela, Comme des Garcons, Our Legacy, Lemaire, Needles and Prada.
KS: We will be returning to 54 Crosby next year, where the customer experience will remain to be as incredible as it is at 190 Bowery; we are making some improvements and updates to the space!
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