I met Shilpa Shah and Karla Gallardo on one of the worst weather days this year and, to be honest, I was in no mood to conduct an interview. I felt tired, cold, and, for lack of a better word, meh.
But as soon as I entered their warm, bright, and very green pop-up shop, I felt instantly lighter. This essence of “lighter” is precisely what Shah and Gallardo strive for when designing the clothing and accessories for their brand, Cuyana.
Cuyana is an online women’s fashion and accessories line that lives by the motto “less is more,” or in their words, “fewer, better things.” Like editor-loved Everlane, the company sources and designs every product in-house, which allows them to cut both the middleman and the cost. So instead of charging you the usual mark-up, you’re practically paying wholesale for this amazing cashmere cape.
And it’s no wonder their business model is so sensible: Before launching Cuyana, Shah held a job at Punchcut, a user interface design company, while Gallardo cut her teeth at Apple and Goldman Sachs. Here, we speak to the savvy cofounders about the true meaning of Cuyana, the challenges of being female founders, and their must-have holiday buys.
Tell us a little about what you were doing before Cuyana.
Karla: I moved to America from Ecuador for school, but my passion was always fashion. Being in school, I moved away from who I was. One day, I just wanted to go back to my roots and pursue the life that I was raised to have: a life of ‘pure, better.’ I moved to New York and started working in investment banking. I acquired more analytical tools and a business mind. After that, I went to Stanford to actually pursue creating a brand that would put consumers back in touch with the products they buy and the stories of how these products are made. I was raised in a home with a father who was in finance, so going to pursue a fashion degree was never part of the plan.
Shilpa: Similarly, I am also analytical and creative. I wanted to be a graphic designer. I went to Berkeley but there was no design program there, so I kind of made it up as I went. I ended up with a degree [in] computer user design and it came at the perfect time. I graduated in 2000, at the height of the Internet bubble in San Francisco and basically just rode the wave. I loved it. I loved doing the technical side and the design side. Through my whole career, if you were to sum it up, I feel like I’ve been a storyteller. I switched gears and went to business school because I realized what frustrated me the most was that I was designing experiences that never made it to market. In the time I was at the agency that I was with for five years, only two of the ideas that I executed ever made it to market. I didn’t know what, but I really wanted to design a product from end to end and translate the user’s experience from an offline world into an online world.
It’s interesting that both of you have the creative side and the financial side. Is there something one of you is better at than the other? Or are both of you just really good at everything?
K: We both have both sides [of the brain], but each has one more than the other. So with Shilpa, I think she is the most creative person I know. When we are really out of ideas, and it’s the worst-case scenario, she’ll just come up with five ideas.
S: And Karla is about the details. I think, in fashion, you have to be very detail-oriented. I’m definitely more of an online person and crafting the user experience and the flow of things. She’s [all] about the collection. She doesn’t actually call herself a designer, but after five years of doing this, I’m like, You might as well take the title.
Is there one girl in particular you design for?
K: She’s a woman who is smart and stylish and between 30 and 40 years old. I think that the two characteristics that are the same through all of our women is that [they are] smart and have a sense of style, whatever that style is. Our [customer] knows this level of cashmere. Then they look at the price tag, and they’re shocked.
Even though you are in fashion, fashion e-commerce is really a male-dominated space. Have you run into any challenges because of your gender?
K: I think it’s mostly been positive. At the end of the day, we really know our customer. And our customer is ourselves, which allows us to be successful. Both of us have worked in very male-dominated places in the past. It always empowered me. At the beginning, the biggest challenge we faced was when we raised capital for the first time. Explaining the [brand] to investors, who were mostly men…it was hard to get [the] concept through, and it was much easier to do that with [female] investors. They got it right away.
S: I think it helps that we’ve come from computer science and math backgrounds. Anytime someone tries to question us, we can always back it up with something tangible. I mean, we did have this moment in an investor’s meeting where it was all women investors and they said, Why with computer science and math, did you guys to fashion? You could have done anything.
And what’s your answer to that?
S: With empowerment, there’s a huge market for making women’s products really wonderful. We’ve had to borrow a lot of masculine metaphors in order to have feminine equality in the workplace; I think it’s time we actually celebrate our femininity as well as be powerful women.
You have this pop-up store, just in time for the holidays. Are there any go-to gifts that you’re stocking up on?
K: For me, it’s the travel case set. It was actually a product idea before Cuyana, because finding a leather makeup case was impossible. The dream was to create an essential for women who travel and [won’t feel] embarrassed to pull this out of their bag. And you can monogram them!
S: The leather tote. It fits your laptop; the quality is great; and it has a double pocket. When I went back to business school, I was 32 and determined not to carry a backpack. I scoured the market and I could not find anything. It’s $150. It’s insane.