Fast CompanyAn Interview with Jill Wenger of Totokaelo
Totokaelo’s stylistic universe is a quick learn: beautifully designed and thoughtfully curated. In the New York store, there is one room for black clothes, another for white, and upstairs is a room for coloured clothes. You get the idea.
Unconventional. Eccentric. Enigmatic. These are some of the ways I’ve heard Totokaelo founder and CEO Jill Wenger described by friends, colleagues, and journalists. The only thing I’m convinced of after several months of trying to wrangle her, is that she’s very hard to have coffee with. After sporadically trading emails – Wenger crisscrosses the globe like a flight attendant – we’ve agreed to meet at her three month old New York store on a wet, grey morning in December. When I arrive, tattooed employees in expensive sweaters shuffle across the chevron accented wood floors and smile, asking me, “Are you looking for Jill?” I nod. I pace the loft like store, with its white walls, Brutalist chairs, and coloruful area rugs until I’m told that Wenger has called and emailed and “Where am I, anyway?” She now wants to meet a few blocks south of here, at her office.
I take the elevator to the sixth floor of an industrial building and pull open a metal door. “Hi! Over here!” Wenger is shouting my name before I’ve stepped fully inside. “Did you not check your phone?” She brushes a hand across her chopped bangs and pushes back her desk chair, standing to greet me. “Ugh, my back is killing me,” she says with a half smile, half grimace. She’s wearing a version of the slouchy, outrageously comfortable, unapologetically chic look that her store is known for: floor length navy coat, floral silk shirt, and white low top sneakers. She’s crackling with energy.
“I fractured my spine while roller skating a few weeks ago.” She says this like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. “I was trying to show off, you know, going fast and doing this crossover thing.” She bends down to show me the move that did her in.
I immediately like Wenger. A warm, affable aura surrounds her. She whirls into the conference room where we’ll chat, and fields a few first date questions: “I was a consumer who saw the opportunity to sell designer clothing to a whole new set of people who didn’t want to have to deal with going to these elitist boutiques to get what they wanted,” she says of Totokaelo’s conception. “I was watching skate and streetwear brands a lot at the time – a friend turned me onto Supreme and Union in LA – and I realised you needed to do more than sell clothes. You had to create a kind of club that people wanted to be a part of – something they could get behind.” Wenger taps on the edge of the table between us. As far as I can tell she is ever moving, always curious. It’s hard to imagine her doing one thing for too long, even sitting. One of her employees brings her water in a mug that reads: You Have as Many Hours in a Day as Beyonce. “I create spaces that make me want to stay inside them for a while, and hope that other like minded people will have a similar reaction,” Wenger says about her two stores. The arts and media crowd that pays homage with their credit cards is evidence that Wenger has succeeded.
Totokaelo’s stylistic universe is a quick learn: beautifully designed and thoughtfully curated. In the New York store, there is one room for black clothes, another for white, and upstairs is a room for coloured clothes. You get the idea. Most pieces at Totokaelo hang on racks without styling suggestions. One could argue that Wenger is doing her part to make getting dressed an exercise in pure efficiency, requiring little more than tossing an oversized blouse or coat over a slouchy dress, throwing up your hair, and taking whatever life throws at you.
“Trend is a four letter word at Totokaelo,” Wenger says with an arched eyebrow. “We encourage people to find their own way.” Wenger found hers through experimentation. She shed what she refers to as an inhibiting childhood in Houston, Texas and travelled, attending art school in Australia and working in the service industry in Ireland, before landing in Seattle, where she opened Impulse. This designer consignment store would eventually birth Totokaelo, with the help of an investment from her grandparents of 20,000 USD. Totokaelo’s revenue last year was 17 million USD.
“My retail learning curve has always been pretty much straight upwards,” she says. She refers to Totokaelo several times as a “scrappy start up” and points out that the multi-million dollar generating e-commerce site was designed on a whim by one of her Seattle customers. “We do over 60% of our business online,” she says. “We’re a tech company as much as we’re a fashion company.” Like any idea slinging start upper, Wenger isn’t afraid to make high risk, high reward leaps. The five storey, 780 m2 Crosby Street store took just 70 days to build out, a rush job by any measure. “Totokaelo isn’t a company that launches perfect things,” she says. “We launch awesome enough things, and then refine and evolve them.” And where Totokaelo goes, so goes Wenger. Or is it vice versa? Seattle, the not so obvious choice for a fashion empire, where Wenger first opened her airy, gallery-like boutique in 2003, and now New York, where Wenger relocated last year in preparation for the Soho opening. It was a move that almost instantaneously shifted Totokaelo from a second city boutique with a niche following, to an agile fashion player with seemingly limitless potential. Totokaelo’s name is derived from a Latin phrase that translates loosely as “the sky’s the limit”. How convenient.
“There will be times I find myself running like crazy off in one direction,” Wenger says. “And I’ll look back and the company is standing around like ‘What the hell, Jill?’” She laughs and throws her hands into the air in a mock shrug. “But that’s just how I work. I get excited about something and need to try it.” 2016 will find Wenger flinging herself further into the development of Totokaelo’s inhouse collection; an inaugural, monochromatic women’s line launched in 2015, and men’s is on the way in March of this year. “I’m into pure shapes without hidden pieces,” she says about the designs. Wenger also has plans to develop Totokaelo’s voice through some sort of digital, branded content. Perhaps most crucially, she is currently working on securing a round of fundraising – Totokaelo’s first – with the hopes of taking the company she “breathes” to the next level. “All I think about most days is Totokaelo. I want to grow this into a billion dollar business,” she says. And I can’t see any reason to doubt her. In fact, I can imagine, through sheer will, she could manifest almost anything. She wraps her large blue coat tighter around her chest, and places a hand on her tender lower back; it’s the only thing at the moment that can slow her down.