It's troubling times

via Seattleite

Following the last post about the price that La Garconne charges for a sweater, I wanted to share some excerpts from an interview with Jill Wenger, the owner of the high-end boutique, Totokaelo:

How do you deal with the cost of raw materials increasing?
If my prices increase, they increase. My customer isn't looking for the best deal, and I don't like working with that customer. If a customer notices the prices are going up, it goes back to educating your staff and your clients. It's important to explain that the cost of gold is rising therefore this gold necklace will be more expensive. The customer understands that.

Has the economy affected your customer base?
The clients that I lost when the economy fell apart were the younger crowd, like my hairstylist or the waiter down the street that relied on tips for that extra money. Our core customer remained the same, but I did hear more things like, 'I don't need another black dress.' Before all this happened, I didn't hear people talk about what they needed. People are buying less stuff and thinking more about their purchases. I can get behind that. I won't let people walk out of the door with a bunch of stuff they won't wear, and that's exactly why I don't pay my staff on commission. Our sales people can't have trust with their client if something is money-motivated. Our selling strategy and open return policy are the reasons why our return rate is so low.

I wanted to share that interview mostly because I wanted to point out that the luxury business isn't really concerned about the middle class. I mean if you think about it, (edited 01.25.2012) retailers can put out any kind of prices they want because there will always be someone buying it. The top income earners (if you make more than US$133, 000, you're in the top 20%) make more than enough to sustain the industry, which explains why Louis Vuitton has raised their prices by almost 50% over the last year even while people are losing their jobs. I think Wenger's statement that she doesn't want to work with people "looking for the best deal" says it all. I'm not sure exactly what she means by the 'best deal' but my over-analytical interpretation is that if you go in to Totokaelo and you're looking for something that is reasonably priced with all the perks, you're not going to get it. They're not a Hyundai dealership - they're catering to the Aston Martin crowd. So truth be told, high-end stores don't really want people who spend the bare minimum, they want people who can throw away $600 for a sweater without batting an eyelash. And that's exactly why La Garconne can afford to have a stupid return policy and bad customer service because someone is always going to shop there for the mere exclusivity.


The state of current affairs is depressing the heck out of me (see this article from The Atlantic), and I cannot, for the time being, allow myself to be sidetracked from reality by talking about shoes, bags and things that cost a three-month pay check. The unfortunate truth is that it's getting harder for the masses to have any form of upward mobility and that America is descending into a banana republic. It also explains why I've been missing from the blogosphere over the last month - I've been sitting and contemplating about my own finances and I've realized that sooner than later, I may no longer be able to afford imported prosecco or small batch raw cheese and I'll be that hairdresser or waiter who is no longer welcomed at Totokaelo.

P/S: Feel free to correct me if you think I misrepresented the interview. I'm probably the most pessimistic person I know and tend to over analyze and rant. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Correction: This article was last edited on January 25, 2011.

50 comments :

  1. I'm pretty shocked she (Wenger) doesn't pay her staff commission, I only hope that she atleast gives them a fair wage if they are selling $1,700 Yohji Yamamoto coats. Although I have purchased from Totokaelo in the past I am also the type of customer who looks for the best deal too...maybe it's time to take my business elsewhere.

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  2. i think it's stupid for la garconne to neglect customer service just because of an assumption of supposed "always-rich" customers. this is just short-sighted and doesn't make the least sense business-wise either.

    but i guess this is could be an "american" thing.. i mean, here in germany people believe in paying a fair price when the quality and customer service is there. and people dont try to "cheat" each other out of that fairness.

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  3. @Anonymous
    I think her reasoning is that if it's commission based, then the staff are more likely to push you into buying something you don't want. To be fair, I've had pleasant experiences at Totokaelo, but all I can say is that I've had one singular experience with Jill. She was nice initially but when the bag I wanted had a major flaw on it, she was pretty unhappy that I thought I wasn't getting a good deal for the price I was paying.

    @Bored
    You would think that an online store would at least have a decent return policy right? I've heard not so nice rumors about the owner, so maybe it's just the employees projecting. Oh well.

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  4. So interesting... thanks for posting this and the link to the Atlantic story! I've bought from Totokaelo and LaGarconne before, but it's pretty obvious that I'm not the target customer for either of these stores, even though, thanks to my Silicon Valley job (not a wealthy husband), I can afford to shop at both of these places. No matter how much money I have, I'll never be the kind of person who doesn't bat an eyelash at dropping serious coin on clothes and accessories. And I'm always going to want the best deal: it's just a matter of personal values.

    This raises the uncomfortable question of why the heck I'm spending my hard-earned dollars at retailers that seem to have such disdain for me as a customer. Or why I'm making frivolous purchases of things that I don't need when the current economy is what it is. The blogosphere definitely has a way of stoking the desire to buy things, but I appreciate the thoughtful discussions on this blog and others about our habits of consumption. It is certainly something I am in the mood to be mindful of.

    Also, one other bit of the interview that stood out to me:

    Who is the Totokaelo woman?
    [...] We get a lot of talented women who moved to the West Coast to raise a family or have a calmer life. Maybe they stay at home with their kids, but they were probably art history majors and worked at a chic, downtown gallery before they met their husband.


    Yow! So not me! But I too have a tendency to overanalyze and rant... so perhaps I'm reading more into this than was intended.

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  5. @Anonymous

    Oh dear, I hope I didn't open a can of worms by implying that Totokaelo etc. doesn't want us as customers, I'm just implying that they don't really need us and so when they have stupid policies and/or nasty or if their clothing cost too much, it's because they can afford to do it.


    There were so many things in that interview that seem wrong even though I think Totokaelo has lovely clothes that you just can't buy elsewhere. It's the attitude that leaves me a little sick...

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  6. To add some further perspective, my husband and I have a HHI of 500K (we have 2 kids as well) and I can say with total conviction that I cannot "afford" a SC bag that costs 5K. Yes, I have the money in my account and I would not have to charge it, but I still view it as a lot of money to spend on a bag and the amount is significant enough that it would require diverting funds from more important things, i.e., savings, home, child expenses, etc. I completely understand the appreciation of pretty things, I used to live in Manhattan and my second home was Barneys ;). I love beautiful clothing and accessories, but the prices have spiraled out of control and I just do not see the value in spending so much on something that you will forget about sooner than you care to admit-- ESPECIALLY in this abysmal economy. My suggestion is to wait and see if you can get the bag on consignment sometime down the road. Presumably it is a classic, so why not wait a while to buy it? Otherwise why spend so much on it, if it is not something you will want a year from now? I am not trying to be a buzzkill, but the reality is that the top half of the top 1% in this country is in an entirely different stratosphere and I have come to accept that I am not one of them, nor will I be, so why should I spend money like they do on fashion.

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  7. Hmm. I'm glad that Jill is so honest and this puts it all into perspective for me.

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  8. @Anonymous
    Thank you so so so much for sharing. I've always want to hear from someone who can give me some sound advice when my lust gets the better of me (and takes over common sense). I'm going to take your suggestions into serious consideration and really start looking at consignment... selfishly and stupidly, it's things like that that make me not want to have kids.

    @leanne
    I wonder if I can find a similar interview with Kris and Karen. *wink*

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  9. Such an interesting discussion you have going on..First of all I find her description of the 'Totokaelo woman' to be very annoying, even though I have minor in Art history it just kind of bugs me haha. I've worked in retail before, and that idea of disregarding the customer who isn't spending huge amounts is really shocking. Before I moved away for University I worked in a Mediterranean imported foods store and my former boss who is an amazing retailer taught me to value every customer even if they never bought anything or never spent a lot, if they have a nice experience they will tell people they know.. and the idea of getting nasty when something goes wrong is something I would be fired on the spot for. Since working there I have realized retailers for even very successful and expensive businesses don’t think this is important. I live in New Zealand and there is this boutique called Scotties that has the same kind of designers as Totokaelo (Ann D, Celine etc). Anyway I had the most awful experience there that really illustrates your point that retailers mostly don’t care about people who aren’t spending thousands. To cut a very long story short, it involved buying an (expensive) Faliero Sarti scarf that developed a hole after two days. Being told to return the scarf. Having to wait 10 days for a response on whether or not I would get a refund. Being given a refund by the SA. Then getting an insulting phone call the next day from the SA who had obviously got in trouble from the manager for giving me a refund. She basically yelled at me as if I had coerced her into giving me a refund, told me she thought the hole was my fault etc. And then I emailed the manager to complain about her awful SA and got a completely awful/rude reply.. I don’t live in America so I can’t really comment on the economic situation there, but I suspect I’m pretty well off in New Zealand, and even though the government is quite ridiculous at times, I have lot to be thankful for (like interest free student loans), and the fact that there isn’t really such an obvious class divide.
    All in all I am pretty much over these kinds of boutiques, I try to think of shopping now as something I do for myself when I have the money. Because I really don’t care about building a relationship with retailers, I just like to appreciate nice things.
    Sorry for the very long comment : )

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  10. very interesting article and discussion. I've only had good experiences with Totokaelo, including with Jill, but it's easy to be friendly and nice to a customer who is willingly handing over their money! The part of the interview about her customers not looking for the best deal does indeed seem to indicate that she caters mostly to people who are willing to pay any amount for something special and unique ... which really excludes a whole lot of people. And the part about the Totokaelo woman makes me shudder. I live in an area where there are a surprisingly large number of households living off one income *very* comfortably, to put it mildly. And honestly, there's nothing wrong with that, it's an understandable choice. But it's not something I can relate to, and the very fact that many exclusive boutiques do not open on Sundays and have limited hours on Saturdays definitely makes me feel like I'm not their target customer!

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  11. I used to follow Wenger's twitter and I found her take on things really off-putting, so I'm not surprised by this interview. I make my own money (and have spent thousands of it at her store) and don't really ever plan on having a life where I'm at home, not using my education and depending on a wealthy husband to buy me expensive clothes. I suppose it's for the best that they sell online, so I won't have to walk into their shop in person and feel unwelcome because I'm only buying the full price APC instead of the full price Yamamoto. The thing is, I actually love their clothes *because* they are tremendously well suited to my lifestyle; I live in the city, I walk and take the metro everywhere, I like to look put together and fashionable but not trendy and I care a lot about quality and want a good piece of clothing to last for quite a few years.

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  12. That interview is brutal. I am certainly not Jill's target audience and was actually banned from Totokaelo for having too many returns. I'd had a few returns here and there, but the last straw was when I bought an entire, extremely expensive outfit that looked amazing on Ande, but awful on me. I returned the whole thing and was asked to not shop there anymore. I was terribly embarrassed at first, but I don't really regret it. I don't fit with their styling aesthetic or their ideal customer.

    Also, on a separate subject, I think that Anonymous brings up some good points, and while it certainly is breathtaking to spend so much, I don't think you have to be in the top 1% in terms of wages to be able to afford a $4,000 bag. I'm fortunate to be in a situation where I'm able to meet all of my financial goals, so after a while, what else am I going to do with the money? One of my favorite financial blogs has a saying: "you can have anything you want, but not everything you want", which I think is a good way to look at expensive purchases.

    Granted, I'm a few years away from having kids, so maybe my perspective will change at that point.

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  13. @S
    I don't have anything against people who obviously worked hard to be where they are but to assume that only a "certain" kind of rich person shops at Totokaelo is naive at best. BTW can I please get an invite to your blog? I miss it when it stopped showing up on my Google Reader. *sad face*

    @anna dc
    I completely understand - I'm also drawn to both Totokaelo and La Garconne because they have the both the style and quality that you can't get elsewhere. I guess it's because they are such a niche market that they feel they can pull off whatever attitude they want. To be fair, most of the sales people at Totokaelo have been really nice namely Rasa D and Valery. La Garconne on the other hand, urgh.

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  14. I haven't read the interview yet (somehow the link isn't working for me) but I wanted to thank you for this post. I love what you have to say and feel like we're thinking along similar lines.

    I've been rethinking my spending recently, more from a shift in priorities, but certainly the change in the economy has made me feel that clothing isn't the investment or the fun splurge it appeared just a year or so ago. And I'm sorry, but even when I bought items on sale--which is my usual modus operandi--the stores were making money and I was paying far more than most people, including those in my decent income bracket. I've not shopped at Totokaelo but I'm pretty certain Bird, LaGarconne, etc. all have similar attitudes even if they are less forthcoming. It just adds another reason to an increasingly long list for why I should curb my shopping habits.

    I'd say more but I'm tired after teaching two classes. I'll say more but for now, thank you.

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  15. well sure, I'm a West Coast mom who sometimes works from home (less so lately), and in terms of income, both my husband and I do fall in that 20% bracket (well, me almost, is this per person or per household, b/c it's hard to imagine people making that much per person who don't live in a major metropolitan area where $700K buys you a 900 sq foot shack of a house, lol). So yes, they probably do want my money! But I have to say, I'm not enjoying these stores' overall attitude towards their customers, and it really makes me think twice about where I spend that money. Just because I make good money doesn't mean that $500 for a sweater means nothing to me, you know? Oh, and in terms of my blog, I had a sudden scare about staying anonymous, so I made it private for now ... and to be honest, I'm uninspired to blog, but if you send me an email (leanne, hope you see this comment), I'll add you. I don't know how to add without an email address (mommystyleblog@gmail.com)

    And there are many reasons to not have kids (or have more than one), but don't let financial reasons be one of them! That's the kind of thing you'll inevitably regret later on in life.

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  16. @A
    Thank you for sharing. Sometimes I don't necessarily think that they even care if you are spending money, you have to be spending *enough* to warrant any sort of courteous customer service. I honestly can't see them yelling about returns at Michelle Williams or Sofia Coppola's assistant, can you? (I tried thinking of a Kiwi actress but couldn't pin one down, does Anna Paquin count?)

    @Abby
    Goodness gracious, that sounds awful - I mean they are obviously NOT doing a good job (whatever Jill says) if you're returning stuff that doesn't fit. I honestly think the reason for the low return rates are: 1. people can't be bother because they can afford it or 2.people spend too much of a long time thinking about buying the item to actually make a return. I'm sorry again about Totokaelo, but there are so many other places these days that have equally good things for sale.

    @MoyaBird has actually been pretty nice regarding questions and what-nots, but I was inspired to post this interview in order to stop myself from shopping - why should I give my business to a store that doesn't appreciate it?

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  17. Oh, don't worry about me, I'm not losing any sleep over Totokaelo. I emailed Jill and she agreed to let me buy things but I had to keep them no matter what, so I guess "banned" was a bit strong. I still haven't gone back though.

    For me, online shopping is just too much of a gamble. I found myself convincing myself that an item would work, even when I knew better or clicking "add to cart" when I was still at work at 10 PM and felt like I deserved something nice. All mistakes. It wasn't productive, and I basically just wasted a lot of my time. Since then, I've tried to start shopping locally - I've got a Barney's nearby which more than sastifies any desire I have for fancy clothes, and they've never been anything but extremely nice to me, even if I am a bit picky.

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  18. @Amanda True that.. though they aren't as niche as they once were.. I can buy APC direct from APC (and I do), I can get Etoile from Net-A-Porter and Barney's Co-op now and at local boutiques, I bought a jacket from Hu's Wear here in DC and they were very nice. But after reflecting for a bit, I think I'll just keep buying what I like, where I like. Not going to start worrying about whether I match their ideal customer or if I'm wealthy enough to shop somewhere. I suppose according to many measures I'm not, but I don't want a house or a car, I want a nice jacket that I can wear every day.

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  19. I saw that interview. Ugh. I cannot stand going into places like this. I know it's a free country, everyone has the right to target the customer they want, but I find wenger's attitude totally tasteless.
    I remember reading an interview with net-a-porter's Natalie massenet and it made me realise why I shop on her site so much. I started out as a sale-only customer before earning enough to buy products full price.
    In the 2007 interview she described her customer - "Some of them spend £7,000 every time they shop with us, others save up to buy a treat for £100 in the sale. But what they all share is that they love clothes - and our mission is to make them the best-dressed woman in the room."
    The full interview is at

    http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/columns/justine-picardie/TMG3361196/Natalie-Massenet-the-woman-who-dresses-the-world.html

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  20. I was quite surprised by the Jill Wenger interview... she's a bit full of herself and this puts her own for her company. I read the same interview with Natalie Massenet that Ammu mentioned, and even if Natalie Massenet is aiming for the very top-end of shoppers, she has the good taste to show some appreciation for all her customers. Net a Porter has some of the best customer service I have ever encountered, even though I only shop there occasionally - very patient with enquiries and professional with returns, not to mention superb packaging.

    It's rather insulting that a customer takes time to think about whether she's making the right spending decision, and decided to shop at Totokaelo, and then the owner tells you she's not interested in dealing with the likes of you.

    I've been admiring a Celine bag, about 2,400 euros, and while it's perfectly within my means - with a bit of saving haha, I sometimes do wonder why I want to spend all that money on a bag meant for someone with a very different lifestyle. After all, craftsmanship talk aside, what bag is really "worth" 2,400 euros?

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  21. hi there. i read your blog but its the first time im commenting. the first bold sentence is very offputting but reading through the interview several times im inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. there are some valid points made, though arguably she should have considered her tone! its a stupid business decision to say things that can be misinterpreted. i dont shop there nor at la garconne as my rule is there has to be an inflexible return policy, which we have in the uk.
    i do agree totally with your point about luxury not being for the middle classes. it isnt, and it never has been, bar the recent few years of excess consumption. i suspect a lot of labels and retailers will go bust as we rebalance and consumers realise their lifestyle should not exceed their ability to pay for it. sorry if it sounds snide, but its probably the sad reality.

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  22. @Anonymous
    I probably overanalyzed the article but given my experience with her and from other interviews/twitter, she seems pretty consistently prone to being patronizing. But that aside, there are people (like me) who save and save for items that they love, and to be told that "you're just not good enough" is slap in the face. Money is money, no matter where it comes from. You are right though, that more people should live within their means and buy only what they can afford - it's the reason we're all in this mess in the first place.

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  23. I agree with you and anonymous about the middle-classes and luxury--I think we thought we could have it and read it as a form of social mobility. At last we could embody affluence, luxury and riches, making us so close to the images and artistry we might desire. I've retrenched recently in part because I saw a friend who didn't spend on clothes and owns an apartment in central London on an otherwise unremarkable salary. It really made me think about my investments in my closet.

    I think we're already seeing the recalibration of the luxury market as those in-demand brands escalate in price while the lesser companies fade out. I think even J Crew's attempts to reposition itself as a semi-luxury brand (replete with a few very overpriced items) is a response to this state of affairs--it makes those of us who used to buy higher end designers feel like we haven't fallen so far. I've also noticed that Rachel Comey and others have really escalated their prices way beyond any increased fabric prices (and also reused old designs so that cut a few price corners).

    I dislike the snooty attitude that Jill Wenger and others have shown but it just makes it easier for me to keep hold of my money. I'm not going to stop consuming entirely but I'm thinking more carefully about my purchases and saving for greater life goals.

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  24. There isn't really much left to contribute to the discussion! I think nice well made clothes and design (not just clothes but interior design, objects etc) are made for people appreciate aesthetics and the thought and consideration that the designer put into creating it, not just for the very wealthy.. and appreciating design and creativity means you have to own all of it. However, not being in the top 1% doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to save up for a beautiful bag, as long as I'm not being financially irresponsible and buying with a credit card I know I will struggle to pay off. I don't like to buy things that are badly made and I'm pretty much against fast fashion and clothes that fall apart after a couple of washes. I once read in an article somewhere that women are spending more on clothes now than ever before but proportionally less on each individual piece

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  25. *woops I meant to say appreciating design and creativity doesn't mean you have to own it all

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  26. I've never shopped at Totokaleo only admired things from afar. I am surprised at how fast things sell out on there especially the really $$ items. It's funny how she said "My customer isn't looking for the best deal, and I don't like working with that customer." Well then how come when they do mark things down I'm getting emails every week about the great sale and to hurry up and pick up a good deal. Uhh ok. What puts me off about shopping there is the high shipping prices but that's for another time. I guess I'll continue to look from afar but drop my money somewhere else.

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  27. I've never shopped at Totokealo either, but I'm sure I would if it weren't for shipping costs to Europe and an additional 40% in custom fees and taxes! I'm definitely the kind of customer that they don't want or need, always looking for the best deal, haha!

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  28. I'll probably continue to shop there sometimes but while we're on the subject, I have to say, the items they sell aren't really even luxury? I mean, the high end customer can spend tens of thousands on a bag, while Totokaelo wound up putting quite a few of the Chloe pieces they carried on major sale since their customers weren't into it. Isn't this kind of a mid-price affordable store to the people who have serious money, while the folks who are comfortably upper middle class and can afford a thousand dollar piece are the ones she's trying to educate into buying Golden Goose boots, say.

    J Crew is so frustrating with the increasingly poor quality of all their clothes no matter the price point. I have a merino sweater from there purchased around 99-00 for a very reasonable price (around $75, I'd guess) and it's impeccable to this day. Meanwhile a cardigan from just last year looks like a droopy mess after one dry cleaning. I don't shop there any more except for t-shirts, since I'd have to throw out a piece after one season as it no longer looks nice enough to wear to work.

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  30. Your blog always raises thought provoking questions. I saw this interview and found it completely off-putting. It's not the first time that I've found Jill Wenger to be this way. There isn't a lot of humility or grace there. When I think of luxury, I think of someone really taking the time to know me and my lifestyle as shopper. It’s harder for a web based business to connect with customers in that way, but I find that Net-A-Porter is a great example of this.

    The article that Ammu mentioned really is the reason why I shop Net-A-Porter so much. Natalie Massenet has really grown NAP into such a viable business. The customer service is impeccable. Deliveries arrive quickly, questions are answered, the sales staff is always so helpful with sizing and they’ve delivered via messenger same day even after their 1 PM deadline when I had something come up at the last minute. The service really makes a difference to me.

    I wouldn’t say that Totokaelo is a “luxury” purveyor. At one point it seemed more luxury, but at this point I would say a lot of designers could be categorized on the higher level contemporary (although I hate that word). I think a lot of the items can be purchased at many places. When I think of true luxury I think of places like Kirna Zabete, Capitol NAP or Ikram that are collaborating with designers and really bringing in unique items.

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  31. I just discovered your blog and really enjoy it!

    As for Totokaelo, I shopped with them back when it was "Impulse" in Seattle. I had met Jill a few times shopping at the store, and she was talking to me about how she was going to start a web store and even asked for some feedback for the website (she never did follow up with that, but not a big deal) I never had a bad experience with her or any of her staff, personally- no matter if I bought something or not.

    The way some of the answers to questions comes off is a bit off-putting. I hope what she is trying to say is along the lines of "20% of our customers account for 80% of our sales and that core 20% consists of ex-Voguettes who got married and don't work anymore and those are the customers we are focusing on to keep the store open"

    One thing I learned while going to design school is that your ideal target market (for a clothing line or boutique) may be chic 20-somethings with a fabulous high-paying job (or just a normal paying job but who appreciate quality goods, bla bla), but there are only so many of those girls, and they can't sustain a business/line. The reality is that your core customers are often older wealthy ladies spending their husbands' money (HUGE generalization, but you get the drift). I guess with a business school background Jill is just being honest and focusing on the customers that keep her business afloat, but unfortunately I think saying that she doesn't care about those other "fringe" customers is off-putting. I consider myself one of those "fringe" customers for sure.

    When the Totokaelo shop & website was born, I did find it a bit strange that at first you had to sign up in order to view the product/shop. Maybe they were trying to make it "exclusive"? But that has changed now, of course, and it's just a normal web shop. The other distinctive change I noticed was their move to higher-end/ more expensive brands. Sure they carried Y's by Yohji and Isabel Marant (before the crazy hype) and other "contemporary" brands, but I was surprised once they started carrying Jil Sander, Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, etc. I really love their styling and I think that is probably one of the main reasons I go to the website, and I'm sure many others are with me.

    When it comes to shopping online, which I do quite a lot, I always look for the best price. That's just what I do- I don't make enough money to throw it away. If I'm going to order online, I have the luxury of shopping wherever I want across the globe. And that is one of the reasons I don't find myself shopping at Totokaelo. They often don't have competitive pricing, or discounts, and their sale schedule is often later than other stores. The brands they carry are unique for Seattle, but not online. Just about anything in the store I can find somewhere else.

    Just my 2 cents- looking forward to more posts from you!

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  32. hi amanda,

    i am so glad i found your blog! and thank you to everyone for their intelligent and perceptive comments. i think the blogosphere has heightened consumerism.

    And sometimes I think everyone in my generation is crazy, as I find yet another "Beautiful pictures - i want this therefore i am that - this is my perfect life" blogs, full of rachel comey and apc and pictures of homemade muffins on china plates someone lovingly and not at all accidentally bought in a thrift store.

    Your blog is a breath of fresh air. You seem to have the same ambivalence about all the stuff you want and "must have" as i do, the same reflections on the state of the US (the Occident rather) today as I do.

    I am saving your blog and will continue to take a look to see what

    as for Totokaelo, well, those brands are not, in spite of the prices, knit by my grandmother and there are A LOT of places that sell them. if she doesn't want OUR business,

    And for those of you castigating yourselves for wanting x bag and realizing that it isn't designed for the likes of us, i have to remind you that that is the miracle of marketing. to make things that are just things look elite.

    And as for Ms. Wenger if you open a store like that on the West Coast, in Seattle of all places, your customers are going to be artistic, funky people, some less impecunious than others.

    and anyway last time I checked all the supermodels, Hollywood actresses, Russian nouveau riche and European royalty (ie those she mistakenly deludes herself into thinking are her clients) live in New York, or LA or Miami.

    The rest of us dream and wait for sales. And i don't think any of have to apologize for that. Especially since everyone knows fashion is inspired by the street.

    she's confused, not us! she's the one who opened her store in the city that gave birth to grunge and coffee shops.

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  33. Me again. I'm sorry. Such an idiot when i respond to blogs. i never do and only when very excited by something. hence all the incomplete thoughts.

    What i was going to say about wenger's store is that it's not really needed. there's about 10 other site that sells those brands and worshipful as i am about a lot of them, they are BRANDS. (and sometimes, i wonder how good the quality controls really are. i don't kid myself too much that their quality is THAT much better than ... say... H n'M.

    i have a spotty history with APC, for example. after a year it can look like something i bought at gap in 1995.


    J.crew i am sorry i cannot do it again. 1. it's the most HORRIBLY MADE STUFF EVER. 2. it's private middle school in the midwest where we all came in on monday wearing the same thing, which our moms bought us at jcrew at the mall on sunday. 3. my dad always said the christmas issue of the magazine looked like joyous aryans, austria, 1938. and that kinda ruined it for me. it really is so painfully anodyne.

    i think that no matter how much they try to glam it up, they will only succeed in glamming down a lot of the brands i actually like. furthermore you wear all jcrew, you look all jcrewed out. kind of like buying ALL your furniture at pottery barn. you can't buy taste.

    defining yourself as an APC girl is like defining yourself as a Land'o'lakes margarine girl... i do feel a certain amount of pressure from the blogosphere to define myself by my possessions.

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  34. @emily in paris
    Emily, thank you for your comments! You are right, a lot of times expensive brand names do not correspond with higher quality. Your example of APC is spot on. I like APC a lot because they make aesthetically pleasing basics, but sometimes I do wonder if $200 for a sweater that pills like crazy within a few months is really worth it.


    To be fair, Totokaelo's main clientele are based online from Brooklyn and the East Coast, but I think Totokaelo may be a little too frou frou for the likes of us who are decked out in TNF 3/4 of the year. Saks & Barneys are jumping on the contemporary bandwagon now, and I think that the only reason people still shop at Totokaelo or La Garconne is for the mere exclusivity (and I guess ease of purchase).


    I'm quite torn on whether or not to continue blogging - particularly about clothing. I know a lot of people come here mainly to look at pretty things, but I feel like a fraud and a hypocrite if I both espouse less consumption but still post links and pictures of pretty clothing that in some for or another inspires others to consume.

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  35. This is really interesting commentary. I wanted to jump in specifically to speak of Totokaelo and about Ms. Jill. I've been shopping with her since her boutique opened up in Fremont, way back in the day.

    My experiences with Jill have always been super pleasant and helpful. When I started shopping there years ago, I could easily be classified as a looky-loo and if I did buy something, it was majorly on sale. My career has taken off since then, and though I still mainly hold out for the sales 95% of the time, Jill has been nothing but helpful (she has awesome styling suggestions!) and courteous even if I flip over a million price tags and walk away. That's why I still visit the store and their helpful staff over the past 4+ years - she's gotten to know me over time, remembers where I work and what I like to do in my free time. That level of shop awesome-ness is not easily found anywhere.

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  36. @Monica
    Thanks for your input. The few sales associates they have at Totokaelo eg. Rasa and Valery are fantastic. I guess we all have had different experiences depending on how much and how often we spend. I've been spending there more over the past two years, but I'm in no way part of the ideal shopper based on the article. Anyway, I'm glad you enjoy shopping at Totokaelo, they certainly to have a knack from aesthetics.

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  37. first off, everyone's comments here are immensely interesting and i'm glad you shared this interview to get this discussion going.

    second, i'm glad i'm not the only one who thinks that la Garconne's business model of crap customer service is rather pervasive. i thought i was disgruntled after a particularly bad experience there, but thankfully they're democratically offering crap customer service to everyone, it seems!

    third, i think it's a tough call on the matter of customer base vs higher end/luxury retail. i think j.crew is doing a brilliant job of bringing the luxury to the middle class, for instance, and the quality of their items are still excellent and well worth a bargain hunter's time. there are quite a few interesting interviews with Jenna Lyons and Mickey Drexler on this issue. given that Totokaelo is a single boutique business, i can understand why Jill's blunt perspective is the way it is, however un-PC it is in this recession. i've shopped occasionally at Totokaelo and every time the shop girls have been excellent and wonderfully helpful. my experience is that i alter my expectations when i shop at a small boutique versus a larger chain store (like j.crew).

    i'm not expecting super competitive prices on items at Totokaelo, nor a super indulgent return policy, because that's not how a small boutique business is sustainably run. (bad customer service, though, in the case of La Garconne, is just inexcusable.)

    for really great sale hunting on chic and good quality pieces, i go to Club Monaco and J.crew.

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  38. Hi,
    I read in the comments you feel a bit conflicted about blogging, I really hope you do continue though! I know what you mean by posting pretty things that might encourage others to consume, whilst discouraging it at the same time through your posts. However, I think it is so hard to find blogs that address the types of issues that your blog does. I don't think there is any perfect or ideal way to blog about fashion and style. And it would be near impossible to do it without there being some consumer aspect. I think the balance lies in the discussions that your posts encourage and the fact that they draw attention to the conflicts that exist between loving style and clothes (the more positive aspects of fashion), and the more negative aspects like consumerism, finances etc..
    I hope that makes sense, but I really appreciate that you don't seem to be afraid of looking at things more critically and realistically : )

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  39. basically, I mean't to say, feeling conflicted isn't necessarily a bad thing

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  40. I'm sorry if this is a too much a personal question, I know you are at grad school, what subject area are you in? (I'm just really interested to know)

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  41. @A.
    Thank you for your comment! I don't intend to stop blogging entirely, but I may change directions a little bit without spreading my pessimistic knack to my readers. I'm trying to use the blog as a way to disprove the notion that style bloggers are vapid. :D

    @Anonymous
    Hi, I'm studying climate science. If you're interested in knowing more, feel free to email me.

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  42. Thank you for a fascinating blog post that provoked excellent comments. It helps explain why the SAs in a Totokaelo-like store in my city are a little snooty, and why a couple of things I've bought there on sale just haven't worked for me after all despite their expense and seeming coolness at the time. I hope you keep blogging about clothes. More thought, less stuff, is a great theme, and I'll look forward to reading what you come up with. You certainly aren't being hypocritical to discuss clothes in a complex way.

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  43. It´s amazing how people carry on buying things in these shops that have so bad customer care and in the top of all they are more expensive. Let´s use them as inspiration and look for clothes somewhere else or just reuse what we have.

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  44. @lunadayYes, exactly! I am now only looking online, thinking and trying to reuse. In retrospect, I am shocked to have been so easily dazzled by the shop. Blogs like this are an education I didn't know I needed!

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  45. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness. I like your comment about the visual stimulation of pretty things causing indiscipline and downright stupidity. I can relate completely. I'm a graduate student also, and I think the points you raise (particularly luxury brands that cater to a very small, "elite" group) are all good. I used to save, simply to buy a garment at Totokaelo or LaGarconne, but upon further contemplation and honest thinking, this kind of spending is irresponsible and to some extent, it feels unethical. I just came back from Somalia where entire villages had no water. Watching a community put all their limited financial resources together to survive a famine really puts things into perspective, and causes me to seriously re-asses my lifestyle and priorities. Thanks for the post-I hope you keep these thought processes going, and continue exploring what constitutes real beauty and meaning in life.

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  46. PART ONE

    I was just messaged via facebook about this post by a disappointed client. It was the first news I had of this post. My apologies for not responding sooner.

    “My customer isn't looking for the best deal, and I don't like working with that customer.”

    I worded this poorly and my apologies for not being more clear. Reading this post has been a lesson on watching my wording and providing more clarification in interviews. I am truly sorry for any misunderstandings and hard feelings my words may have caused.

    I am a huge proponent of quality over quantity. I support fashion as art and as a creative form of self expression. My words were intended as a comment on consumerism, and not classism. By those seeking the “best deal”, I was referring to a consumer valuing quantity over quality. A shopper that chooses three items they kind of like, over one item they really love, simply because they want to own more stuff.

    In stating that the Totokaelo client isn’t after the “best deal”, I was referring to their tendency to save up to buy that one special item they’ve been dreaming of for months.

    In stating that I “don’t like working with that customer”, I am referring to my own discomfort working with clients who’s mindset is one of valuing quantity over quality. Someone purchasing two things they kind of like, over one item they really love, because they’d rather have more stuff. This happens at all income levels and is no way linked to class or status. I was referring to consumer behavior and that is all.

    In regards to the authors comment that the luxury industry discriminates against the middle class…

    First off, I want to be very clear that these were the bloggers words and in no way represent my values or belief system. I judge fellow humans on characteristics such as honesty, integrity, inspiration and ambition.

    For me, one’s income is completely irrelevant in regards to connecting with or valuing them as a person. I am an egalitarian. I do not look at the world in regards to class, nor is it a factor in choosing who I include in my life.

    I do not agree with the statement that the luxury industry does not care about the middle class.

    Like all businesses, the luxury industry is concerned with and focused on their audience. If you are interested in their product, it cares about you. If you aren’t, it doesn’t. In the same way that AT&T isn’t going to direct marketing dollars towards those who are not interested in a cell phones, the luxury industry isn’t going to invest in pandering to those that aren’t interested in their product.

    I know from first hand experience that people of all income levels splurge on luxury items. I know wealthy individuals whom could care less about fashion or the luxury industry, just as I know struggling artists that value the craftsmanship of the luxury industry and purchase a piece of it whenever their income allows.

    Businesses don’t discriminate based on income level. They merely cater towards those who are interested in their product. By definition, the luxury industry is characterized by exclusivity. Which means that it’s not trying to create products that everyone could or should own. I don’t think linking this to a class-based discrimination is accurate. I don’t care for tennis, but does this mean I discriminate against tennis players? No. It’s just not my thing.

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  47. PART 2

    A note to the comments on my decision not to pay my staff a commission. As mentioned above, I value quality over quality. Commission based sales reward employees for higher sales (ie. selling more stuff, not less of it). This goes counter to my philosophy. It is my goal that people only purchase what is perfect. Incenting my sales team with commissions would do the opposite. My pay structure decision was made to align with my philosophy and that of Totokaelo, not to exploit my team members.

    One final note on stores being able to “put out any kind of prices”. This is entirely not the case. Retail prices are provided by the vendor, and apart from slight variation between different retailers with regards to rounding and shipping rates, we’re all very close. There are no summit meetings where retailers are talking about how much we can charge for stuff. This is called price fixing and is illegal. We’re all trying to compete on price and get consumers the best price possible, while still making enough to cover our rent, payroll, operating expenses and a profit margin.

    The fashion industry is based on percentages. The vendor takes their raw material cost + labor cost and then does a markup – that is how the wholesale price is determined. As a retailer, I take the wholesale cost and multiply it by a set markup that is provided to me by the vendor. The attitude among vendors and retailers alike is one of trying to keep prices low so that more units can sell. I’ve never heard a vendor say anything to the contrary. Price fixing is illegal and this business is so saturated that really, a retailer or wholesaler just can’t get away with falsely inflated prices. The web is the consumer’s best guard against price gauging. Thank goodness for it! It keeps everyone in check as pricing becomes an open book for comparison between different online outlets.

    For those of you that showed support and understanding of me in the above comments, I thank you. I enjoyed reading the conversation.

    I appreciate your willingness to post my feedback. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if further clarification is needed.

    Best,

    Jill Wenger
    Founder and CEO
    Totokaelo

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jill, thank you for taking the time to clarify about the article and to provide feedback. I'm going to move your comments, in the next couple of days, into a full post by itself so that readers/commenters can see your point of view.

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  48. While I thoroughly enjoyed this important discussion, I think a larger point needs to be made... And this is coming from an individual who is nowhere near the top 1%. A deep appreciation and commitment to quality over quantity transcends annual incomes; it's a personal choice that few people understand in a culture that's obsessed with owning more.

    My mom, for example, spends just as much money on shoes as I do each year, but she's more interested in getting more pairs of shoes for her money while I'm more interested in getting more shoe for my money. For every three pairs of shoes she buys, I buy one pair. This is something that she simply cannot wrap her head around.

    For some, the 'more' isn't about the number of items that we can stuff into our closets, the 'more' is about supporting independent designers whose creations are thoughtful, interesting, high-quality AND supporting the independently owned retailers who are bold enough and passionate enough to support those designers. We hear enough complaints about a lack of jobs here in the U.S. who, exactly, are we supporting when we make purchases that are seemingly a 'great deal' when they carry the ubiquitous 'made in China' or 'made in Mexico' tag? We are supporting CEOs of major corporations who, guess what, are in the top 1%! I'm pretty sure that Ms. Wenger was trying to convey this message to the readers of the original, full-length interview, which I read shortly before I stumbled upon this analyses of her interview. And while I love buying second hand, I feel it's extremely important to support independent designers too.

    I feel completely and totally comfortable supporting the economy when I can also feel good about the purchases that I make from independently owned shops throughout the U.S. We should applaud those individuals who are passionate enough about art and design to take a chance on opening a brick & mortar shop- always a risky endeavor. Thanks Ms. Wenger for your intelligence and amazing taste!

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  49. La Garconne have the WORST CUSTOMER SERVICE known to man.

    They don't send emails when they ship items.

    They don't describe items accurately or give solid size and fit recommendations.

    They have a horrible return policy.

    I've gotten into not one but three email-fistfights with them. I once was ever called back by the owner (so he told me). It was a man by the name of Don. This only happened because I sent an outraged letter of complaint to every single email address that I could find online. He was nice, but he appears to be oblivious as to what constitutes fair treatment for online shoppers -- doesn't he know about net-a-porter?

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