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Seattle boutique owner wants 'to be the biggest luxury fashion brand in the world'

December 8, 2014

Jill 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 in Seattle

SEATTLE — 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 them.

"The 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?’"

It 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 impressive feat.

Indeed, 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.

"She 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.

"Even 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."

Buying 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.

As 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.

On 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).

Wenger grew up in Texas, got her degree in business and spent some time in Australia studying graphic design before following her brother to Seattle.

After landing here in 2001, she did a brief (doomed) stint at Anthropologie.

In 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.

But 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 e-commerce.

"Seattle’s 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 needed to."

She 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.

"She 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 in command.

"We 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?’"

Though 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.

"I 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."

"She is a dynamic creative," said Atkins. "She moves really quickly. If she has an idea, we implement really fast. We move on those things."

While she now has a collection of designers that would make Vogue’s editrix Anna Wintour envious, she started out as a fashion-industry nobody.

"In the beginning, I had to talk my way into the room," she says. "Hell, yeah, I was shaking going into those showrooms."

She 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.

That 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.

She 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.

"The 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 really challenging."

Acne’s du Toit said that Totokaelo is one of the top 20 global independent retailers for the $180 million company.

The 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.

"I 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).’"

"To 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 themselves."

Wenger 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.

"We’re 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."

 

 



Associated Press