Philadelphia has a rich history of manufacturing. While many of the textile factories are shuttered, there is a new makers movement underway. Leading the way is the brand Cuttalossa, a gorgeously curated textiles and home goods purveyor. Cuttalossa grew out of creator Shannon Retseck love of natural fibers and her dream to bring back textiles that are made with care and built to last. I remember when I first wandered into her shop and loving the feel of all the cotton, wools and linens. I was so excited to get a chance to talk with her and learn about how she started her company. It was great to hear about how Shannon grew her collection and learn about the makers she works with.
Tell us about how Cuttalossa began.
Cuttalossa started in 2013; I was a few years out of art school, managing a holistic spa in Center City. There, I met a woman who was working with a collective of Turkey’s remaining weavers. Beyond these artisans and a few scattered individuals, there is virtually nothing left of Turkey’s once-thriving weaving industry. When I felt the textiles for the first time, I almost had an emotional reaction-- this is how textiles should be! When I was looking to step away from my job at the spa, I reached out to her to see if she needed any help. She explained that she had quickly burned out and was eager to pass the torch. I didn't have any money saved to start a business; I was 26 with student loans. I borrowed some inventory and took it to the Brooklyn Flea Philly in Northern Liberties to see if other people would appreciate the products as much as I did. The reception was great! I quickly quit my job and started bouncing back and forth to DC and Philly selling at markets every weekend to develop the rest of what the brand would be beyond the Turkish wovens. When I showed my brother the products I was selling, he felt the textiles reminded him of how we grew up. My mom was passionate about dressing us in natural fibers; it always had to be 100% cotton, wool or alpaca. He came up with the name Cuttalossa.
Cuttalossa road is a small, mostly dirt road that winds alongside a perfectly preserved creek and mossy forest an hour outside of Philadelphia. Our parents would take us there for a Sunday drive or bike ride. It is a place of nostalgia for us. I quickly realized that there were a number farms and makers that I grew up with that I wanted to bring to the Philadelphia market. I continue to think back to my childhood when thinking of new products and developing the business's offerings.
I was really excited to learn that you are a painter, I would love to know how your artistic background has shaped your business.
Fine art school teaches you how to value your crazy ideas and figure out how to execute it start to finish. Starting and running a small business requires a lot of self-education and acceptance of failure. Art school cultivates that. I would say my studies in painting influences my love for color, interior design, and craft.
PAFA is unique because of their focus on the Masters and process. It's assumed that you paint with oils on pure linen canvases that you stretched yourself, and adhered with copper tacks. Cuttalossa is all about the process as well. We value the materials, the process, and their history.
Tells us about how you first got connected to some of the artisans you work with and how you find and evaluated new craftspeople to bring into your brand.
Grace Glanti of Furnace Creek Farm is someone I have been working with way back when before I started Cuttalossa. We worked together at the spa, and both started our own businesses when we left. She is an incredibly talented herbalist with unique experience in farming, cooking, perfumery, and skincare. She started her herb farm first on a friend’s tomato farm, five mins up the street from her farm. I would drive up and help her plant her first crops. It's so great to see how all of her plans that felt so abstract and far away when she and I would meet for coffee years ago, have come to form. We didn't have any money, so both of us encouraged each other to be creative to make things work.
Now three years later, her farm is functioning, she built a commercial kitchen, she has ever evolving line of herb infused honey, elixirs, root powders, and bottled teas. She sells at Union Square Farmers market in New York City, and we carry her products in our shop. Her products are uncompromising in quality, and potency, with unique and sometimes wild flavor profiles. Her new line from her Summer harvest will be coming to the store this Fall.
One of my favorite new makers is Jannalyn Bailey of Curious Clay. She has masters in painting at PAFA but is self-taught in ceramics. Her style is playful and spontaneous but somehow feels ancient and rooted. She works from home in South Philly and takes her work in the car to fire in her mentor's studio. Her determination and the amount of shuffling around she has to do to have a finished product makes me appreciate her work even more. This Fall she is creating exclusive designs for our shop, and I am so excited to see it.
Cuttalossa started out online and did fair and pop- ups, and now you have a beautiful brick and mortar store on second street in Old City that you share with Meadowsweet. When did it feel like the right time to expand into an actual store?
A store was always part of the dream for Cuttalossa. Not only is it hard to show the complete vision in a 10x10 space in a parking lot but I also wanted the sense of community that comes with running a store in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Selling online is so impersonal. Customers have to see and feel our products to understand their quality and appreciate their uniqueness.
Meadowsweet carried my products in their store for a few years. When they told me they were looking to have another business move in the back of their gorgeous store, I jumped on the opportunity. I felt our customer base were complimentary and we could both benefit from the cross promotion. Overhead costs for a storefront are daunting, and sharing space with another business offered some security and lowered some of the expenses.
You have a really interesting business where you sell online and in your store, but you also do wholesale. I would love to give our readers insight into what this is like managing all of these and any good sales insight you can share.
Trying to maintain all three channels myself is challenging, nothing is ever as perfect as I want it to be, and everything moves slower than anticipated because it's essentially building three business. But I think it's important to pursue it for a number of reasons.
Part of the fear of having a brick and mortar is sales can be overly dependent on what the weather is on a given day. Having a comprehensive website and larger numbers coming in from wholesale can support cash flow during a snow storm. However, profit margins are much smaller with wholesale, and I need the combination of the online and in-store retail sales to support further investment in the business. Cuttalossa's mission is to expand customer's access to products like these and scale up our artisan's manufacturing, so they can do what they love full time and can pay their bills. Wholesaling their products on their behalf under the Cuttalossa brand to other retailers helps to achieve that, while we work on building more traffic to our retail outlets.
Running a small business is both very hard but also incredibly rewarding. I would love to hear any awesome milestones you are proud of.
This October will be one year for our brick and mortar, which is huge. I had moved into the space about eight months before officially opening for retail. I used the space for inventory storage, a place to take meetings, design and fulfill orders, I had part time gig at the time, and I was not able to hold consistent retail hours. When I felt my business needed all of my attention and I couldn't maintain working for someone else, that felt like a milestone as well.
In May, we made some small improvements to the store and installed custom shelving for display. Before that, I was using my mix of Ikea and storage shelves to display our products. Once the new shelving was installed, I finally felt like the bones of my business were finally starting to set. The infrastructure of the store was built and the business had a home I felt proud of.
You work with a third generation Alpaca farm in New Jersey, what is this like and how has this business evolved?
I grew up going to this farm with my mom, and now I have a company that works with them, which is really cool. They have been practicing low impact manufacturing methods way before it was cool. Most of their sales came from selling at farmers markets around the New Jersey. I thought it was crazy that local food farms come to sell in the city, but fiber farms do not. Farmers have so much work to do-- running the farm, caring for the animals, making the products-- that marketing and sales are often pushed lower on the priority list. Part of our goal at Cuttalossa is to bring them enough business that they don't have to spread themselves so thin, and can continue to make high-quality products. Our challenge is getting the customer to appreciate the benefits of domestically raised fiber and invest in it. When I first started selling their products some customers didn't know what an alpaca was, or that they were raised locally. But each year that I have been in business, more and more people seek products made with alpaca.
I personally have been getting more into home design, but it can also feel really overwhelming. Do you have any home styling ideas?
Decorating seems to intimidate a lot of people. I think people feel like there are rules about it that they don't know, and whatever they choose for their home has to be permanent. But when it comes to textiles for your home I think it makes more sense to think seasonally. Just like we change our clothing from season to season, adjust our decor as well. Summer; lighten up bedding and towels, swap out heavy rugs for light-weight flat weaves, bring in fresh colors, and cotton pillow shams for the sofa. In Fall/ Winter, bring in warm rugs to help insulate the house, heavier flannel bedding, alpaca blankets and plush textures to make the house feel cozy and warm.
You and I have talked about how Philadelphia has a rich history of textiles, but sadly many of these businesses do not exist anymore. There does seem to be a new generation of weavers, many of which you are working with, tells us about some of your experiences with the textile community.
Philadelphia's textile industry was bustling around the turn of the century. Unfortunately, there were huge human rights violations in many factories that caused the industry to fall when higher standards in working conditions were established. As we all know, these problems continue in the textile industry; it might not be in Philadelphia anymore it's just moved to other countries. It's up to all of us to bring the industry back but do it right, so it's more sustainable economically and environmentally.
The 'makers movement' has brought a resurgence of independent makers working from home or in small studios that are passionate about manufacturing ethically. We work with a sew rooms in Germantown that pay their entry level workers $15 an hour, small batch dyers like Riverside Tool and Dye, Honest Alchemy in North Philly. Weaver, Claudia Mills and Molly Ward Pillows in West Philly. As the business evolves, we've increased our offerings from local makers, and utilize more local craftspeople in stages of our manufacturing.
Eventually, we want people to come to Philadelphia because of our amazing textile community and our unique style.
You have done some really awesome collaborations I would love to hear about your most recent projects.
Molly Ward Pillows is putting together an exhibition of handcrafted throw pillows and cushions for October. She has a unique aesthetic and creates versatile pillows that work from a modern living room to a boho bedroom. For her exhibition she will be using our Turkish wovens, some over dyed by our local dyers, and vintage fabrics. I'm excited!!
Photos from the Cuttalossa website and and photographer Louie Kovatch @louiekovatch