The Cuyana brand, known for its Panama hats and its leather bags and totes, takes its name from the Quechua word which means “to love”.
Quechua is the language spoken by the Incas in South America, and it seemed only fitting that it was the word chosen by Karla Gallardo, an Ecuadorian who started Cuyana in San Francisco around 10 years ago with co-founder Shilpa. Shah.
The idea behind the brand was that people should buy fewer things that are made better. Both business partners wanted to manufacture essential and affordable luxury pieces in factories close to the raw materials needed to build them. “Our whole supply chain is based on the different materials that we source,” Shah said.
Their very first product was a panama hat made in Ecuador from toquilla straw. Their first handbags were made in Argentina. Pima cotton is used in garments made in Peru. Silk garments are made in China.
At first, the company’s products were sold only online. Over time, they’ve opened six stores in California, Boston, and New York, but 80% 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 stayed at home more, the company started to focus more on clothing, as customers needed less hats, purses and bags, which still account for around 60-70% of revenue. Shah said.
Even totes and bags have evolved from large sizes for carrying things around the office to micro-bags. And their bags change again.
Before Cuyana had two Classic tote bags: one with a structured side and one without. These bags are combined into one Easy tote bag with no structured sides to make it lighter for people who need to carry a lot but don’t want to be weighed down. It’s made of a soft yet durable leather, has two handle lengths, one large and one medium, and will launch on August 2. The company is phasing out its small Classic structured tote and a Classic leather zip-up tote.
The new Easy tote bag is made in Turkey from Italian leather and sells for $248. “We challenge ourselves,” said Shah, who is the company’s chief experience officer. “We felt we could do better.”
Since the brand’s launch in 2011, bags have been a successful product category with over 200,000 units sold.
Another change in the business is that Shah and his family recently moved from Oakland to South Pasadena, California. She and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, both grew up in Southern California and wanted to be closer to their parents.
Gallardo, the general manager overseeing the design, remains in the San Francisco area to lead operations, which has more than 100 employees. Years ago, she left Ecuador to attend Brown University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics. She then earned her master’s degree at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
But Gallardo’s Ecuadorian roots have always remained strong as well as his love of the Panama hat. It’s so strong that Gallardo and Shah started a project to change the name of the Panama hat, which has always been made in Ecuador and not Panama.
The Panama hat got its nickname when President Teddy Roosevelt was photographed touring the construction of the Panama Canal in 1906 wearing one of the Ecuadorian straw hats used by canal workers. Everyone started calling it the Panama hat.
Cuyana started a petition to change the hat’s name. “We are in the process of voting on two more names,” Shah said. These two names are Montecristi, the name of an Ecuadorian town, and La Toquillera, for the toquilla straw used to weave Panama hats.
“Rumor has it that [former President Barack] Obama will be visiting Ecuador in November,” Shah said, noting that they would like him to suggest a name change while there. “We hope that a [former] president can correct the wrong of another president.