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Up Close: In Conversation with Cuyana’s Karla Gallardo

Today's fast-moving fashion industry demands an agile, consumer-led retail model, but how do you get there? Join our webinar "Consumer-Led Retail: Optimizing Assortments at Speed" Sept 28th, featuring experts from MakerSights and DTC brand Taylor Stitch.

Up Close is Sourcing Journal’s regular check-in with industry executives to get their take on topics ranging from personal style to their company’s latest moves. In this Q&A, Karla Gallardo, co-founder and CEO of sustainable direct-to-consumer apparel and accessories label Cuyana, explains the opportunity for timeless fashion and how the brand’s pre-pandemic choices have helped it weather Covid.

Karla Gallardo Cuyana

Karla Gallardo, co-founder and CEO of Cuyana

Name: Karla Gallardo

Title: co-founder and CEO

Company: Cuyana

Which other industry has the best handle on the supply chain? What can apparel learn?

One huge problem the fashion industry must reconcile is waste created by brands overbuying relatively inexpensive inventory in order to capture every sale possible. In fact, 60 percent of garments end up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. This is because once brands are no longer able to offload unsold merchandise through discounting, they end up throwing it away or incinerating it—neither of which are climate-positive solutions.

I love how Apple pays close attention to efficient design and decreasing waste in their production. They are incredibly innovative in that way and have been ahead of their time for decades. We can learn a lot from tech companies that are finding new ways to better their supply chain. They are the future!

How would you describe yourself as a consumer?

I pay close attention to quality, and I prefer to own fewer items that are made to last. That desire is the foundation of Cuyana—it came from a personal longing to find items that are versatile and timeless. I look for items that I won’t grow tired of and that exemplify quality craftsmanship. It’s special to own items that are carefully made by hand by skilled artisans. Plus, buying fewer items that last longer leaves a decreased impact on our planet, as it requires less waste and energy output.

As a consumer, what does it take to win your loyalty?

For me, a fantastic customer experience is key. I really appreciate when a brand takes the extra step to ensure the experience is easy, enjoyable and personalized. As a DTC brand, we are not just aiming to deliver accessible price points. Delivering an exemplary customer experience is key to our business. It’s one of the reasons we have our own retail stores and never outsourced our distribution and fulfillment services. We own every step of the process so that we can ensure a wonderful experience.

What’s your typical uniform?

I’m a big proponent of our pima cotton and often wear these soft pieces seven days a week. Depending on the day, I’ll pair our pima tees with a pair of our french terry pants, linen wide leg pants, or denim. Living in San Francisco, there’s always a need for a sweater. Our recycled cashmere is what I’m reaching for most right now!

Which fashion era is your favorite?

I love the free-flowing cuts and fabrics of the ’70s. That is when women really started wearing looser, softer fabrics and more comfortable yet still sophisticated looks. It was a big turning moment in fashion history and definitely an exciting time to look back on.

Who’s your style icon?

Michelle Obama’s outfits are always inspiring. She seamlessly blends timeless silhouettes with pieces that feel so true to her. It’s always inspiring when someone dresses in a way that is expressive or reflective of what they truly love.

What’s the best decision your company has made in the last year?

We’re really proud of how we’ve structured our business thus far, because it’s allowed us to survive in unprecedented times and ensure the availability of jobs on the other side of this challenge. Being able to continue promising business to our suppliers and service to our customers right now is really important to us, and we’re committed to continuing to make that happen.

How would you describe your corporate culture?

The Cuyana team is a family, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. As a lean team, most of us work cross-functionally with each other every day, which yields close relationships—and even some fun banter. We find that many individuals with interest in working at Cuyana share similar values and care about our impact, and that commitment lends itself to a shared vision. We’re really grateful to be able to have that. Cultivating a community and close-knit team is, hands down, the most rewarding part of building a business.

What can companies learn from Covid-19?

We think that the pandemic and subsequent slower way of living has shed light on ways we can lead more sustainable lifestyles. While quarantining, many have realized, “I don’t need all of this!” and have been buying less, which is leaving brands with even more product that needs to be exited. Our approach to our supply chain has always been a bit different from many other brands. We focus on minimizing our carbon footprint by manufacturing in close proximity to our material sources whenever possible. During Covid, our tight supply chain has allowed us to be extremely flexible and nimble, which translates into less unsold inventory and a higher sell through rate—despite a natural slowdown.

What should be the apparel industry’s top priority now?

Unequivocally, our top priority should be minimizing our impact on the planet. And that does not just mean using sustainable or recycled materials, although it’s a great start. Reducing our impact means reevaluating the entire product lifecycle, minimizing waste and carbon emissions where possible, and then extending the product’s life to ensure it does not end up in landfills. We’re asking ourselves how to make it easier for customers to recycle or donate their products, and how we can continue to be a facilitator in a products’ second life. We hope to see other companies continue to or start to do the same.

What keeps you up at night?

Two things: people and the planet. I stay up thinking about how we can deliver the best we can every day, and how we can continuously reduce our impact on the environment.

What makes you most optimistic?

Seeing customers ask questions about how something is made, why it’s better for the environment, and how we are going to keep improving gives me a lot of hope. Observing that gives me a lot of hope for our future. If there is a lessened demand for fast fashion or wasteful products, hopefully we will eventually stop making them.

Tell us about your company’s latest product introduction/service:

Cuyana recently rolled out a campaign to champion one of its hero materials: pima, a special type of cotton made from the fluffiest part of the cotton bulb, making it not only softer, but 50 percent longer lasting than regular cotton. All of Cuyana’s pima cotton is sustainably grown, spun and made into finished garments all in Peru. Through the initiative, Cuyana encouraged customers to test the quality, versatility and longevity of its pima pieces with a 100 Days, 50 Wears, 2 Pieces challenge. Cuyana created this challenge because the average consumer buys 68 items of clothing per year, but only wears each item an average of seven times before it is discarded. It is no wonder why fashion is a major contributor to climate change!

By consistently delivering on quality products that can be worn again and again, we are able to build a relationship with our customer and become a go-to source for essentials, which is a large opportunity. Gaining trust and thus overall share of wallet in the category of core essentials is always our goal, which is only achieved through staying true to our mission of designing quality products that last.

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