Wenger, founder, managing and creative director of
Totokaelo, a high-end luxury fashion boutique on
Capitol Hill, poses for a portrait on Nov. 3, 2014
— When she was 7, Jill Wenger, the proprietor of
Totokaelo, the high-end fashion boutique on 10th Avenue,
would steal flowers from her neighbor’s garden. Ever
the entrepreneur, she’d sell the bouquets back to
games I played were booking appointments and answering
phones," says Wenger. "The business came
really naturally to me. The filter that I see the world
through is: ‘How can I maximize this opportunity?’"
is a gift that has taken her far. From her perch on
Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Wenger, 38, has been able to
gain an unlikely foothold in the one of most exclusive
and impenetrable industries: luxury fashion. It’s a
difficult world to breach even from New York. But from
fashion-challenged Seattle, it’s a particularly
Wenger’s unique point of view has gotten her a cult
following. The austere store, with an all-white interior
and clothing arranged against the walls by designer
(noted on the floor), has a gallery-like presentation.
It’s fashion-as-art-object, exuding a pretension
rarely seen in a city that reveres REI and raincoats
over Barney’s and Louboutin heels. Her sensibility is
refreshing, a grand statement, even if Totokaelo’s
wares sometimes bring to mind a "Sprockets"
skit on "Saturday Night Live," and a simple
black cotton shirt can run over $500.
just has a different way of looking at everything,"
said Louise du Toit, the wholesale director of North
America for Acne Studios, the Swedish fashion house that
has had accounts with Wenger for nine years.
"Clothing-wise and furniture and the way she’s
built her store and the kind of people she hires. When
it started, it wasn’t like anything else. Today it’s
not like anything else.
though, technically, the skinny jeans are the ones that
are going to sell, she buys the opposite direction and
that’s the reason why she’s had so much success. She
doesn’t buy safe, she doesn’t buy commercial. She
buys like Jill."
like Jill has worked so well that she is making the
ultimate jump: moving herself and Totokaelo’s
operations to the Big Apple, bringing her core staff
while she looks for a retail space.
she walks through the store’s gleaming white interior,
picking out her current favorites (a long sleeve shirt
with quirkily geometric patterns by Anntian, two
designers from Berlin; a pair of spike platform heels by
Ann Demeulemeester; fluorescent pink prism sculptures by
Phillip Low), it becomes abundantly clear how Wenger was
able to go from her first shop, Impulse, a tiny basement
space selling local designers, to a mini-empire
featuring world class brands like Dries Van Noten, Comme
des Garçons and Issey Miyake. A whirl of energy, moving
and talking faster than those around her, Wenger whisks
around the massive space, simultaneously brash and
bubbly, owning the room.
a recent day Wenger was dipped in head-to-toe Totokaelo,
an all-black ensemble that likely cost several thousand
dollars, including a fringed vest by Zero + Maria
Cornejo, a mock turtleneck by Nomia, cropped, oversize
pants by Yohji Yamamoto, and a pair of Maison Martin
Margiela boots with a split toe. "These are my
velvet ninja boots," she says. (Cost: $825).
grew up in Texas, got her degree in business and spent
some time in Australia studying graphic design before
following her brother to Seattle.
landing here in 2001, she did a brief (doomed) stint at
2003, she borrowed $20,000 from her grandparents and
opened Impulse. She didn’t have any money for
inventory, so she sold clothes on consignment.
Zero-dollar days were common.
Wenger quickly figured out her customer, and local
designers couldn’t keep up. Soon, she switched to
bigger brands. By 2008, she changed the name (Totokaelo
is a Latinate mashup that Wenger says roughly means
"the sky is the limit") and launched
extremely practical," she says. "If you try to
put a bunch of high heels here, people don’t respond.
What Totokaelo is touching on, that people have
responded to, is this way to look powerful and sexy and
dressed up. But you could still dart out at a run if you
describes herself as a tomboy, and her tastes are
reflected in Totokaelo’s look: the shapes she favors
are boxy and unorthodox; the models on the website are
less Gisele than Tilda Swinton.
tells a great narrative through the way she curates
product, about who she is and about who she perceives
the customer to be," says Philip Atkins, Totokaelo’s
senior director of merchandising, and Wenger’s second
don’t love the word ‘trend’ at Totokaelo. That’s
a four-letter word here," Wenger says. "I like
fashion as a tool of self-expression. I think at
Totokaelo fashion is an intellectual pursuit ... ‘What
do you want to say to the world?’ and ‘How are you
using clothing to do that?’"
her style is the antithesis of Seattle, in a way, she
perfectly reflects the entrepreneurial city she lives
in, name-checking tech innovators as her inspirations
— Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos figure highly — and
using startup jargon like "early adopters" in
speech, instead of designer lingo.
don’t read fashion magazines, I don’t look at blogs,"
says Wenger. "I’m actually more interested in
technology. The conversations that I’m having are
about technology and entrepreneurship."
is a dynamic creative," said Atkins. "She
moves really quickly. If she has an idea, we implement
really fast. We move on those things."
she now has a collection of designers that would make
Vogue’s editrix Anna Wintour envious, she started out
as a fashion-industry nobody.
the beginning, I had to talk my way into the room,"
she says. "Hell, yeah, I was shaking going into
convinced brands like Steven Alan, Jane Mayle and Yohji
Yamamoto to let her carry their wares by bluffing. An
early major get was A.P.C., the esteemed French
ready-to-wear brand. Soon, others followed.
age-old maxim, "fake it till you make it," has
served Wenger well. She learned e-commerce on the fly:
Totokaelo’s original online store was members only, a
patched-together custom site inefficient for mass sales
("we were hand-keying in credit cards," she
says), and still had a homey local feel, with pictures
of locals like restaurateur Linda Derschang and her
daughter modeling the clothes.
refined the website, and by the time she moved to her
current location on Capitol Hill in 2012, Totokaelo’s
online sales had exploded. Last year, she added a
basement level men’s section, Totokaelo Man.
next thing you know, we have this 7,000-square-foot
space and our online orders are up three times and our
heads were spinning," Wenger says. "It was
du Toit said that Totokaelo is one of the top 20 global
independent retailers for the $180 million company.
aggressive work ethic that allowed her to expand so
quickly has garnered her a tough reputation; a glance at
the site Glassdoor, sort of an anonymous Yelp for
employers, reveals harshly critical reviews of Wenger.
think I’m hard to work for, if you just want a
job," she says. "But the people that would say
I’m the best boss they ever had, are the ones that are
like, ‘Finally. Someone who gives a (expletive).’"
work for Jill you need to be adaptable," says
Atkins. "You have to be motivated by a higher
belief that what we’re doing has huge meaning. We’re
not just a store or a brand or a web space. We are an
idea about how we think people can express
is betting that people will want more of what she’s
got to sell. In addition to expanding operations in New
York, she wants to start her own label.
leaving so we can globalize," she says. "I
want to be the biggest luxury fashion brand in the
world, and the most coveted and the most beloved."