The brand Cuyana, known for its Panama hats and leather bags and totes, draws its name from the Quechua word that means “to love.”
Quechua is the language spoken by the Incas in South America, and it seemed only appropriate that would be the word chosen by Karla Gallardo, an Ecuadorian native who started Cuyana in San Francisco some 10 years ago with cofounder Shilpa Shah.
The idea behind the brand was that people should buy fewer things that are better made. The two business partners wanted to craft essential affordable luxury pieces in factories close to the raw materials needed to construct them. “Our entire supply chain is built on the different materials we source,” Shah said.
Their very first product was a Panama hat made in Ecuador from toquilla straw. Their first purses were made in Argentina. Pima cotton is used in apparel made in Peru. Silk clothing is made in China.
In the beginning, the company’s products were sold only online. As time went by, they opened six stores in California, Boston and New York, but 80 percent of their sales are still digital.
In this rapidly changing world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuyana’s products have gradually changed. When people were staying home more, the company began focusing more on apparel as customers needed fewer hats, purses and totes, which still make up about 60 to 70 percent of revenues, Shah said.
Even the totes and bags evolved, going from large sizes for carrying things to the office to being more micro bags. And their totes are changing again.
Before Cuyana had two Classic tote bags: one with a structured side and one without. Those totes are being combined into one Easy tote bag with no structured sides to make it lighter for people who need to carry many things but don’t want to be weighed down. It is made of a soft yet durable leather, has two handle lengths, a large and medium size and launches Aug. 2. The company is phasing out its small Classic structured tote but keeping its Classic leather zip tote due to popular demand.
The new Easy tote bag is made in Turkey of Italian leather and retails for $248. “We challenge ourselves,” said Shah, who is the chief experience officer for the company. “We felt we could do better.”
Ever since the brand launched in 2011, totes have been a bestselling product category with more than 200,000 units being sold.
Another change in the company is that Shah and her family recently moved from Oakland to South Pasadena, Calif. She and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, both grew up in Southern California and wanted to be closer to their parents.
Gallardo, the chief executive officer who oversees design, remains in the San Francisco area to run the operations, which has more than 100 employees. Years ago, she moved from Ecuador to attend Brown University, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics. She later earned her master’s degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
But Gallardo’s Ecuadorean roots have always remained strong as well as her love of the Panama hat. It is so strong that Gallardo and Shah started a project to alter the name of the Panama hat, which has always been made in Ecuador and not Panama.
The Panama hat got its monikor when President Teddy Roosevelt was photographed touring construction of the Panama Canal in 1906 wearing one of the Ecuadorean straw hats used by the canal laborers. The press started calling it the Panama hat.
Cuyana has launched a petition to change the hat’s name. “We are in the process of voting on two other names,” Shah said. Those two names are the Montecristi, the name of an Ecuadorian town, and La Toquillera, for the toquilla straw used to weave Panama hats.
“It’s rumored that [former President Barack] Obama is going in November to Ecuador,” Shah said, noting they would like him to suggest a name change while there. “We are hoping that one [former] president can correct the wrong [the press misrepresented] of another president.”