Jill Wenger, the founder of the boutique Totokaelo, described her former customers like this:
“Mature. Women that were not interested in doing what everyone else was doing and looking like everyone else. They definitely had a distinct point of view. A lot of them were old punk rock.”
These were the shoppers in the early years, 2008 to 2012, when it was still just a store in Seattle and an online presence known for its discerning taste. Then Totokaelo began offering men’s wear, in 2013, and opened a location in New York, in 2015; in 2016 Ms. Wenger sold the company to Herschel (like the backpacks) Capital Corp.
But in many ways, Totokaelo customers never changed. They are still luxury shoppers and fans of brands like Acne Studios, Marni and Yohji Yamamoto — all consistent top sellers during the Wenger tenure. They are drawn to idiosyncratic neutrals and quality construction and the word “curation.” They are also entertaining for writers to describe.
Spotted by The New York Times in Totokaelo’s men’s section a few months ago: “someone who looked like a rogue K-pop star on the lam, a young stylist for rappers, three men (shopping separately) wearing heels.”
And in the women’s, five years ago: “The average female wore no makeup and steeply expensive shoes that could be mistaken by the uninitiated for inexpensive shoes.”
At Totokaelo’s peak, Ms. Wenger said, sales were doubling year to year. ”At the time, I did think it would go on forever,” she said.
It didn’t, of course. The retail industry has been contracting for years, but the pandemic has made the financial situation of clothing companies, particularly those in the brick-and-mortar business, even more dire.
So it wasn’t a shock last week when news broke that Totokaelo was shutting down, along with Need Supply Co, a fellow multibrand e-commerce darling, based in Richmond, Va. In 2018, the two businesses began merging to form the joint venture NSTO. (Herschel Capital Corp, now called Cormack Capital Corp, but still making Herschel backpacks, which also owned part of Need Supply, is still in business. Simple backpacks can have complicated back stories.)
The retailers have several brands in common, but aesthetically Need Supply Co. casts a wider and generally more affordable net, leaning further into color, patterns and bared midriff — the fashion most likely to make your finger pause, reverse and hover for a few seconds while quickly scrolling Instagram. It was the first North American company to stock the breezy Danish brand Ganni.
The writing may have been on the wall for both stores — frequent emails about 60 percent off, then 70 percent off, then 80 percent off sales are never a good sign. (A spokeswoman for NSTO declined to comment on how long the websites would be operational.) But Ms. Wenger, 43, was still shaken when she learned about the closing.
“It was the thing that I loved the most in the world for 15 years,” she said.
When she started her company in 2003, she sold only local designers on consignment. D.I.Y. fashion, the kind parodied on “Portlandia,” was the defining trend of the moment. “I sold so many sweatshirts with birds on them,” she said.
It was her customers who drove Totokaelo’s expansion; they kept asking her about bringing in specific designers — indie brands from across the globe. It seems like a pretty big pivot now, but to Ms. Wenger, a craftsman was a craftsman.
“I didn’t see that big of a difference between someone that was carving wood in Tacoma and Dries Van Noten,” she said. “Those are both small-business owners that are extremely hands on — touching fabrics, making decisions. To me, it made sense.”