I write this in our office in New York, reminiscing on how Nalata Nalata came to be. I wouldn’t say it’s a wild story full of adventure, but it is one of a small business and how it came to fruition. Looking back now, it has the sequence of events that perhaps other small business owners can relate to, along with the ups, downs, and full range of emotions. Telling our story now, with only a small number of years under our belt, feels slightly unfit – after all, we are still trying to make it in the Big City – but now feels like good enough of an occasion to at least begin. Although our story does not yet have an end, it certainly has a beginning – one that we felt was about time to tell…
- Chapter 1 The Early Years
- Chapter 2 Big Moves
- Chapter 3 What's Up With the Name?
- Chapter 4 Something Extra
- Chapter 5 Grand Opening
The Early Years
It all begins in our homeland…
Stevenson, now my husband, with whom I founded the store, was born in Newfoundland. I was born in Edmonton. Opposite coasts. One in a fishing town, the other under prairie skies.
He grew up eating cheese puffs and his
Mom’s famous curry chicken potatoes.
Marrying off He-Man’s to the Barbies of his sisters was a popular sibling pastime, along with weekend jaunts to Cabot Tower with his Dad.
I had the perfect bowl cut given to me by
my favourite hairdresser, Mom.
Slurpee runs were taken all too frequently at the local 7-Eleven with my two brothers and I saw the effects take shape through a mouthful of cavities for most of my childhood. I painted with my Dad in the company, always, of a stuffed animal named Huggy who remained my “best friend” for admittedly too long…
… until I met Steve in University.
We met on the first week of a new semester at the student run art supplies shop at the University of Alberta. He was buying art supplies for the first time and true to his inquisitive nature, was eager to learn from the salesclerk when he asked, “why do I need so many different types of paintbrushes?” I sparked up a conversation, “do you need help?”
Our relationship quickly took off from the foundations of a love for art, friends and travel. We packed our bags every chance we got and took long trips to Europe, South America and Asia.
On one particularly inspiring trip…
…we sat at a café daydreaming of a future scenario in which we ran a block of boutiques, each one a specialist store related to our interests at the time: flowers, books, art, coffee and of course, household objects. It was a faraway fantasy but a pivotal moment in our lives that we would later come back to.
We kept our dreams in our pockets and moved to New York.
We found ourselves starting a new chapter. Our first home was a loft on the corner of 1st street and 2nd avenue above the diviest bar in the city, the infamous now demolished Mars Bar.
It wasn’t clear how long we’d be in the city, but we knew we were there to continue our educational pursuits in industrial design and fashion design.
At last, he graduated from Pratt and I
graduated from FIT.
Throughout the course of our studies we had a blast discovering our creative potentials and helping each other along the way. We made lifelong friends and valuable experiences but inevitably found ourselves as fresh young graduates living in New York surrounded by inspiring people and places, but both flat out broke.
We had to get serious and were eager
to start our own design studios.
Steve started a furniture brand and I launched a womenswear label. We were growing separate business entities and, for the first time in our relationship, doing something independently of the other.
But, we longed for the day we could
work and travel together again.
It was inspiring being surrounded by talented designers and craftsmen but juggling responsibilities alone was a difficult task. On one very challenging day, we sat down to reminisce on how far we had come and realized that none of it was meaningful if we weren’t doing it together. Memories of our daydream at the café flooded back and the idea of running a specialty boutique resurfaced. Not long after, we decided to merge our individual skills and energy towards one direction and the idea of starting a store was born.
What's Up With the Name?
Deciding to start a company together
was the easy part.
Figuring things out on the business front… that was scary stuff. We worked it out slowly, starting with a registered company name. Our families have always been big inspirations to us, so aggregates of their names became a jumping off point. Every option we came up with didn’t quite have the right ring to it, until one morning Steve’s brother-in-law, Dave, called us with a great suggestion. “How about Nalata Nalata?” A combination of the nicknames of Steve’s three sisters Na Na, Lang Lang and Tang Tang. It was perfect and supplied us with all the motivation we needed because every time we looked at our logo, our loved ones were at the back of our minds.
Now that we had a name, we
honed in on our curation.
Our exposure as designers to the world of handcraft production gave us networks to remarkable creators that we wanted to represent, many of which we met during a trip to Japan – artists, product designers, architects, textile weavers, woodworkers, ceramicists, glass blowers. We became obsessed with finding a way to connect our end users with these highly skilled artisans and designers and part of that was to learn everything we could about them through studio visits and interviews.
Some were living legends in their fields and well, probably wouldn’t have spoken to us if we weren’t equipped with a healthy dose of naivety. We emailed our idols directly and booked flights with no itinerary. Just a few addresses on our flip phones and the courage to knock on the doors of our art and design heroes.
These early studio visits in Japan are amongst our most cherished memories but it was our time wandering the streets and experiencing the culture that was also illuminating. The people, food, tradition and innovation. Even the simple things. It all quickly became intoxicating and before we even landed back home, we were making plans for our next trip.
First things first…
After returning home and gathering our research, we enlisted the help of our friends in Edmonton, Overhaul Media. Matt Janzen, the mastermind behind this digital design agency, made our ideas into an internet reality. Matt understood our goals, making sure the site was programmed in a way that gave each product individual personalities while browsing. His team worked hard to give us the backbone to our first online store. In fact, many people did.
Our good friend Armando Rafael Moutela came to the forefront as our photographer. His eye for detail and styling remains inimitable. After landing on a photography style, we put our first products online and started the descriptions with “I am”.
Although we already knew our incredibly supportive siblings were going to be our first customers, it’s hard to describe the feeling of being notified that you’ve received your first online order – but its one we’ll certainly never forget.
We packed each order at our studio in Brooklyn and included handwritten notes to thank our siblings and, as time went on, a growing base of clients.
The online store was picking up speed
and so too were our travels.
We loved updating our Journal with insights to our studio visits and newfound roles as curators. The only element missing was the face to face human interaction we so desired from our clients – a place to foster community and bring new dimension to our online world.
The first step was to
find a location.
It was time to explore opening a physical space to showcase the works in person, and a pop up for the holiday season was an ideal test period. We spent weeks searching for the perfect place. One day, weary and losing hope, we took a break from location hunting and wandered to our first apartment where our life in New York began. Along 1st, we sat down on a side street called Extra Place when lo and behold, noticed an empty retail space on the corner… number 2 Extra Place.
There was a phone number posted on the door for the leasing agent, and when we gave the number a ring, the voice of Grant Holden answered. I swear to God, it sounded like the voice of an angel. After weeks of pounding the pavement, we knew this was our big break, and the guy on the other line was the one to give it to us.
After getting our finances in check and
maxing out several credit cards…
… we opened our first pop up shop! It kickstarted with an exhibition entitled Yukari, which means “connection” in Japanese.
Our friends from all over the world including our honorary guest, designer Oji Masanori, flew in to help us celebrate the opening. The room was filled with love.
The month-long pop up was a success but ended too soon. We knew a temporary space wouldn’t cut it. We moved out all our temporary fixtures and spent the next few months doing everything in our power to secure a permanent lease in the same location.
With a long-term lease, we were
in over our heads.
How do you start a brick and mortar in Manhattan? The answer involved everything from heavy construction permits to real contracts and permanent fixtures. This time we knew we needed more than just our friends, so we called upon my Dad, an unconditional guardian and contracting wizard, to help with the build out. He flew to New York and spent three months with us day in and day out building the store from the ground up.
We definitely needed a lot
of helping hands.
To help with the buildout, we commissioned Steve’s Pratt peers and professors – Jacob, Ari, Gary and John – to name a few. Jacob and Ari did the millwork for our fixtures, Gary helped install our slat roof ceiling and John, custom built our first shop chair that stood proudly behind our checkout counter for many years.
We were also beyond lucky to have our talented friends Sujin, Aimee, Natalie and Riza for help finalizing details like stamping logos onto bags and handwriting price labels but, mainly for moral support during those long yet memorable nights of preparation.
To commemorate the buildout process, we traced the outline of our hands on the concrete before laying down the hardwood floors as reminders of the people that helped make our dream come true and wrote hidden motivational messages on the wooden slats of the ceiling in case we ever needed encouragement down the road.
Steve’s parents came from Canada
to perform a special spiritual ceremony.
In the moments before our first opening hours, Steve’s Dad bestowed prayers to every corner of our new storefront inside and outside, extending good energy to our space and neighbours. And just like that, we were ready for our first day in business.
On December 12, 2014,
we quietly opened.
An individual named Reid walked in shortly after opening. Although we previously had the pop up, Steve and I had little experience in retail. We checked him out clumsily, and told him he was our first client. He gave us an additional $1 bill and said, “Here for good luck! Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do?” I remember thinking, “I have no idea”. In reality we had no idea how to do much of anything related to running a store but had to learn quickly.
At the end of the day, we mounted the bill in a frame, placed it in our back office and began closing up for the evening. After tidying the floor, turning off the music, and locking the door, we took a deep breath and looked around in amazement at all the hands involved in helping us achieve this dream in none other than New York City. We’ve been repeating that process ever since and although our small team of two is growing, we are still learning every day.
we forget how far we’ve come.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running of our small business that at times we forget how far we’ve come since we started and all the people who helped get us here. Heck, we might even forget why we are doing this whole small business thing in the first place.
We’ve been telling stories about the brands we represent since day one but rarely sit down to reflect on our own journey. Doing so is a powerful and empowering process of remembrance and appreciation – a process we hope to carry through into the next chapter of our story.
To be continued…