Karla Gallardo of SF-Based Fashion Brand Cuyana on the Importance of Social and Environmentally Responsible Clothing Manufacturing

Drawing on the values instilled in her as a child growing up in Ecuador, Cuyana founder and CEO Karla Gallardo has created a San Francisco-based premium women’s clothing brand that champions simplicity, social responsibility and a reduced footprint on the planet. Beyond her rewarding work building a sustainable fashion brand, Gallardo — fresh off of a move from San Francisco to Marin — is also embracing family life in Kent Woodlands, where she and her family are renovating a home. Read on to learn how Gallardo is setting a sustainable example for other clothing manufacturers, and how her family is taking advantage of all of the natural beauty, and newfound sense of community, that Marin has to offer. 

Cuyana Terry Gusset Neckline Top and Terry Split Front Skirt.

Mickey Nelson (MN): How did you get into fashion design, and what inspired you to launch Cuyana?

Karla Gallardo (KG): “I’ve always had a passion for fashion and giving back. The idea came about as a customer. I had recently moved to the United States and realized that I had grown up in a way in Ecuador that was very different from how many of my college classmates grew up — particularly in how I was taught to shop. One of the biggest, most shocking moments for me was on a particular Thanksgiving weekend, Black Friday, when I learned that people would sleep outside of Macy’s to be able to get in and buy products at a discount. Most of those purchases would end up being unintentional and only bring dissatisfaction in the long run. I’d never seen something like that before.

The idea of building a brand that actually helped customers buy better and that exposed the stories of how products were made, that actually taught customers what my parents taught me when it comes to buying products intentionally, was something that I thought needed to exist. It would just make people happier. My friends’ wardrobes were full of “stuff,” but they were actually empty of things they loved. I wanted to change that.” 

Karla and her family in Hawaii.

MN: What does it mean to buy intentionally, and how does that make people happier?

KG: “When it came to bringing new items into our home, my parents taught me to think of purchases as investments; not as something we would quickly dispose of. This mentality forced me to think about quality, longevity and versatility as musts in every purchase. Impulse buying was not welcomed at home. When I think of the objects that we surround ourselves with, they were objects that made us happy in some way — they either brought back a memory or a story, or they overall brought us satisfaction because we could use or wear them often. Good investments bring you that type of satisfaction. Impulse buys eventually bring you guilt.

“When I first moved to the United States, I realized that the culture of repairing and mending products didn’t exist. Donation and landfill quickly became the next stop for most products. In Ecuador, we don’t dispose of our belongings in that way; caring for our products was as important as the thought process behind the purchase of that product. Seamstresses, tailors and repairmen are abundant and affordable. If the vacuum cleaner breaks, you take it to the electrician and get it repaired. If your jacket zipper breaks, you take it to the seamstress to get it replaced. If you lose weight, you take your suits to the tailor to get them altered.  

“I particularly love remembering how proud my father used to be of his shoes. He had purchased a handful of pairs in Europe before I was born. He would always show them off to me and say, ‘See, 15 years and they still look like new!’ Whenever the soles ran out, he would take them to the shoe repair shop and get them replaced. I must admit, his shoes always looked great.”

MN: What are your goals for Cuyana?

KG: “My North Star is to build a global brand that becomes the destination of intentional shopping — products that have luxury, quality, heritage, lasting design and are sustainable, a place where customers know that each product offers that, and where they are guided to buy only what they love. I also look forward to the rest of the retail industry using Cuyana as inspiration for their own practices.”

MN: How does Cuyana practice ethical and sustainable manufacturing?

KG: “We’re rebuilding local industries that were forgotten by luxury brands as they moved to China to produce at lower costs. We’re rebuilding the best leather factories in Argentina and Italy, the best for cashmere in Scotland and Italy, the very best for alpaca in Peru. Through this, we’re re-employing tens of premium craftsmen who were let go. We also focus on sustainability and making products with better practices that minimize our impact on the planet. And ultimately, our motto of “fewer, better” pushes customers to buy less, but better. If we all buy more intentionally, fewer products will be demanded, and ultimately, the entire retail industry will have to shift to produce less and reduce its footprint on the planet.

MN: What do you notice about the “style” or aesthetic of Marin? Is it consistent with our culture and lifestyle here? 

KG: “Yes, the style is consistent with our culture. I observe women wearing brands that are casual, yet that have values of sustainability and simplicity. I see the Marin woman as a woman who appreciates ‘quiet luxury.’ Quiet luxury is not about the logo, the focus on celebrities and the hype on trends. Quiet luxury focuses on an understated lifestyle — one that emphasizes less is more. The quiet luxury customer asserts her status in subtle ways; she invests in quality, beauty, craftsmanship and sustainability, but shifts away from the loud and extravagant.”  

MN: Tell us about your family.

KG: “My husband, Mickey, and I work a lot, and we both like to do it! We also really value family time. Our weekdays go by very fast as we focus on our work, but we always make sure to have breakfast and dinner together as a family. The weekends are the moments when we disconnect from work and have fun. Moving to Kentfield is our way of maximizing our free time — we love the sun, nature and space. We’re homebodies, so having a big backyard and trails just around the corner is something we cherish. We also host our big Montenegrin (Mickey’s family) and Ecuadorian families many times throughout the year, so having the space that we didn’t have before in the city is very helpful!”

Karla and her children.

MN: What is your home in Kentfield like?

KG: “We’ve spent almost two years remodeling our new home. It will be done by the fall of this year, and it will be like a modern farmhouse. The spaces for hosting are key, as we look forward to constant gatherings and sharing. Inside, we used a quiet palette that allows the large windows to display the nature of the woodlands like art. Each furniture piece is intentional and many of them are custom made.” 

MN: What does your family do for fun?

KG: “In the summer, we love to spend our entire day by the pool and outside. We love to have friends over and throw barbecue and dinner parties. In the colder months, we like to stay inside hosting our loved ones and enjoying puzzles, board games and movies with our kids. We like to host our families for extended periods as well, so our routine never really looks the same. When we go out locally, our favorite places nearby are Marin Country Mart, Guesthouse and Roma Antica.”

MN: What do you love most about living in Marin so far, and what are you looking forward to?

KG: “The fresh air, wild animals, space, silence and the promise of community — we didn’t have that when we lived in San Francisco. We look forward to contributing to the community of Kentfield and becoming a part of it.”  

This interview originally ran in the June 2022 issue of Kentfield & Ross Living.

Mickey Nelson

Mickey Nelson is a longtime book editor living in the Kentfield/Ross area of Marin County. She has worked in the editorial department of the San Francisco Chronicle, a number of reputable magazines and two book publishing houses. She now edits Kentfield & Ross Living magazine, as well as tutors in writing and reading.