Going Lean: One Startup’s Mission to Simplify Ecommerce and Your Closet

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Fashion ecommerce startup Cuyana aims to succeed by streamlining its own operations, as well as women’s closets. Today the female-founded company is announcing $1.7 million in funding to help achieve its vision. 

By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

Doing more with less is a badge of honor for many young businesses. But less with less? That’s special territory. Enter Cuyana, a San Francisco-based maker of luxury accessories that works directly with suppliers around the world to produce its in-house designs. As part of a site re-launch that coincides with today’s announcement of $1.7 million in funding from Canaan Partners, the company is putting the spotlight on simplicity in more ways than one.

“Cuyana’s really about fewer, better things. It focuses on the key pieces in your wardrobe that you’re always going to wear,” says co-founder Shilpa Shah, who joined forces with Karla Gallardo to start the company in 2011.

With a collection of upscale everyday basics such as colorful Argentinian leather totes and infinity scarves of Peruvian alpaca wool, founders Gallardo and Shah are marketing the premise that owning well-made, classic staples is ultimately more rewarding for everyone involved than turning to fast fashion and enduring closets crammed with trendy items worn once and forgotten.

Of course, there’s an obvious danger in asking shoppers to embrace the idea of buying less as you’re simultaneously trying to sell them something. While Shah and Gallardo clearly hope consumers will buy into the idea of fewer, better things by purchasing Cuyana’s products, they’re sidestepping that conundrum and bolstering their anti-excess message in a way that’s both good for the company and for its customers. Starting this month, Cuyana’s “Lean Closet” campaign offers customers $10 in store credit for the unwanted items crowding their closets. A reusable signature bag accompanies each order, and customers can choose to keep the bag or use it to pack and ship a gently worn item back to the company.

“We want you to take all those things that you’ve accumulated and really gift it to someone who can use it,” Shah says.

Cuyana (which means “to love” in Quechua, the traditional language of the Andean tribes) will donate the items it receives from shoppers to non-profit partners such as the Salvation Army.

Streamlining isn’t just an idea Gallardo and Shah want to apply to their customers’ closets. It’s also a philosophy that carries over to their business operations.

Ditching the so-called middleman in favor of the kind of direct-to-consumer ecommerce espoused by tech-savvy apparel and accessories companies such as Warby Parker, Everlane and American Giant has become a popular strategy in today’s retail landscape. Similarly, Cuyana has chosen to bypass wholesale operations and traditional intermediaries in the apparel and accessories supply chain and instead work directly with local suppliers and manufacturers in countries such as Ecuador, Argentina and India to produce limited collections of upscale wardrobe staples. And unlike mainstream fashion brands, Cuyana can turn collections around in as little three to four months.

Without wholesale distribution or shipping costs between suppliers and manufacturers cutting into profits, Cuyana is able to sell accessories made with the same materials used by luxury brands at lower prices.

“We just have to cover our costs and make a healthy margin,” says Shah.

The approach also allows Cuyana to monitor the quality of the materials used in its products and the working conditions of those producing what they sell.

Also part of the company’s ongoing efforts to do away with excess: a pared-down, streamlined web site.

Says Shah, “Everything that we do, we’re making sure we cut out clutter wherever possible.”

Women 2.0 readers: How do you think customers will react to pitches to streamline their consumption?


lorraine-neetis-bach-nyc-11-11About the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a San Francisco-based journalist, long-time blogger, media consultant and author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column. She writes regularly about fashion, technology, retail ecommerce and innovative startups for the newspaper, FastCompany.com and others. She is founder of the blogs Digital Style Digest and SF Indie Fashion and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.

Photo credit: designmilk via Flickr.