Fashion is a tough business, especially for designers who skew closer to the creative side of the “artist vs. entrepreneur” spectrum. The overhead for well-made, ethically created clothing is insanely high. Getting media attention in a crowded and decentralized media marketplace is tough. Nabbing a celebrity following takes deep pockets, a PR team and/or a lot of luck. And unlike fintech, there isn’t a hot venture capital market salivating to pour cash into clothes.
With so many cards stacked against fledgling brands, many fail — even those with a well-heeled following. One of the most potent examples is the brand Tuleh (pronounced Too-lah), which rose into prominence in 1999 with a hyper-feminine aesthetic that was as edgy as cotton candy.
These clothes were a vehicle for nostalgia for the good old days when a hard day’s work meant perfecting your iced tea recipe — and Manhattan society ladies went gaga for the clothes. “At a certain time in New York when people were making very uniform, monastic, industrial, urban-Zenny kind of clothes,” Josh Patner, Tuleh’s co-designer told the Baltimore Sun in 2000. “And we just thought that it was really dreary. Everybody looked like they were getting ready for Armageddon
Despite being way too young to command the buying power necessary to shop Tuleh, I was familiar with the brand, thanks to my encyclopedic knowledge of every costume on Sex and the City. (Charlotte was a fan, obviously.)
The brand’s beginnings were frothy. When one of its first collections was first displayed at Bergdorf’s, several of the pieces sold out within hours. The designers won the prestigious Perry Ellis Award for Womenswear at the 1999 CFDA Fashion Awards.
Josh Patner, one half of the design duo, was infinitely quotable, once telling the New York Times: “Tuleh is a vehement reaction against techno sport fabrics that look like heat repellent. We believe in violet, aqua and red. No stone, pumice, earth and sky-malt colors. Modern is a pretty dress. That’s our manifesto.”
But that rosiness soon gave way to reality. After the 2001 recession, the company was so starved for cash, it had to turn down department stores because it could afford the fabric to fulfill the orders. In 2002, Josh Patner again as quoted in the New York Times — this time, saying, “We never eat out with friends, and don’t have a summer house, a 401(k) plan, even a paycheck. When you own a business, you say goodbye to your sex life and to a fit body.”
By 2003, Josh Patner had left the company. The company survived for a few more years, but was crippled by the second recession in 2008. By 2010, Tuleh cancelled its fashion show amid rumors it couldn’t meet the demands of creditors. It wasn’t long before it shut down for good.
Now, the company lives on only in our memories — and on re-sale Websites. While I bemoan the fact that this beautiful label is no longer with us, I am positively gleeful that such beautiful, exquisitely made clothes can be found for such wonderful prices. I found a Tuleh blouse that was double-lined in silk so fine, it was transparent. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, and I got it for $50.
The pink top that Charlotte was wearing in the photo above? The black version can be purchased for under $100 at TheRealReal.
While the brand’s fortunes fell, customers are still winners. Let’s observe defunct brands like Band of Outsiders, Built by Wendy and even Juicy Couture (hey, I loved their upscale Bird by Juicy line!). While their back-office was probably a mess, it doesn’t change the fact that these clothes were beautiful, painstakingly made and still deserve an audience. This is one instance in which the resale market is providing a humanitarian service.