Stepping into t.a., the newly-opened concept store founded by Telsha Anderson nestling at the corner of W 13th Street and Gansevoort, one could feel an immense warmth and a sense of intimacy redolent of someone’s home. Except here, everything is curated to perfection.
Opening in the middle of the pandemic, t.a. has accelerated itself to incredible success, thanks to Telsha’s keen eye for eclectic designs and her penchant for finding young, exciting designers. Below, Telsha tells us how she built t.a. from scratch, how she curates and pitches brands, and the importance of building a community.
This interview took place over the phone between Duc Dinh in San Francisco and Telsha Anderson in New York.
DD: How did you get to where you are today?
TA: I graduated from Syracuse in 2015 with a major in Communications and minors in both Retail Management and African American Studies—that's kind of where some of the t.a.’s foundation was built. And I am currently at NYU for Brand Management.
Prior to opening t.a., I was working for about 5 years. I did social media at Food & Wine Magazine and HYPEBEAST, and I consulted for Atlantic Records with one of their upcoming artists. Then I left all my social stuff behind and went to go be an influencer manager at a fashion PR company based in New York, London, and L.A.
Working in social, I learned how to connect with audiences, how to build a brand, how to interact with customers, and the media side of things. Same with PR—it's learning how to create content, how to pitch, how to work with different influencers and celebrities, and get a feel for how they operate and what they're looking for.
Can you tell me about how you ended up opening the store?
I started looking for a store that had items from all over the world and there are definitely a few out there but you know, there could always be more. I started writing the business plan during my last job and building out the process for the store. I went to SCORE, which is a place where retired professionals help people build a business. I worked with them for about a year and a half, and they helped me figure my financials out. Then I left my job and went on signing my lease.
Two weeks later, I was on a trip to Paris for fashion week at the time. I reached out to different brands to tell them what I was doing, and where the store would be, and who I was. I went to different showrooms and found all the brands we kind of see today, some by happenstance, some on purpose.
How did t.a. come into fruition? How did you develop the concept for the store?
I am a believer, so I had strong faith [in opening t.a.]. I created a business plan and kind of charged after it. The concept of the store came together prior to opening—as far as the color palette, and who we would feature, and how I want customers to feel when they walk in.
I want customers to either walk into my brain, my closet, or my living room. I was very intentional about the items that are featured. We have a vintage Janet Jackson magazine, or a Basquiat coloring book, or Interview Magazine with Aretha Franklin on the front cover, a freestyle book, or the latest Vogue in the corner. I really wanted it to have pieces of me throughout. I think, because I stuck to that ethos, I was able to build the store in a way that was a representation of me and the women, and the men that come in here and shop.
You mentioned a little bit about doing the business plan with SCORE. What did you do from that point to opening t.a. like the store it is today?
As far as SCORE goes, they really are there to just not only encourage you to continue building a business plan but also to provide a perspective that you probably aren't thinking about. So I went to someone that had opened multiple retail stores, throughout the city and the globe. I was able to then show that, for instance, to the landlord, to a private investor, or different people that were interested in the store.
When you're writing a business plan, it could be extremely boring. But if you do enjoy what you're writing about and what you're trying to build, and if you can make that aspect fun, then it's what you're meant to be doing.
What was the process like after you came up with the concept for the store? How did you basically build it from scratch?
The first thing I would say is: just do it. Building something from scratch is similar to baking a cake from scratch—you have to look for all the ingredients before you can even put it all in one pot.
With t.a., I looked for the brands, then the location, and decided who our target audience would be. I looked for what knick-knacks I would want to feature, and what brands I would want to carry, what my tags, and what my branding would be. And then I got all those ingredients, put it into a pot, and hoped for the best. It ended up growing at a tremendous rate once we opened and it’s something that people connected to.
How did you find this location? Did you visit a lot of other places? How did you end up in the West Village? It’s such a beautiful place.
Thank you! I actually looked at several locations prior to finding this one. I wanted to be in Soho because it's the fashion capital of the world. But I couldn't find a place that would allow me to build out the inside in the way that I had envisioned. And then the relative I was working with suggested that I come to this place—he has had it for a little while and said it could have a lot of work done inside.
So I went, it was this location, and I fell in love. And you know, it was bare-bones. There was no AC, there was no lighting, no color on the walls, there were no racks. It took an immense amount of faith to be able to come in and create the way that I saw fit. And I'm happy that it went really well.
What was it before, an empty lot?
I want to say it was a yoga studio, maybe a lot of years back. Then they cut it in half. And now we're here.
Walking in there, it feels like such a special place. It’s funny to say but one of my friends says, “we're living in a vibes economy,” and it’s very much like that for your store. You just feel really good energy, very homey. What were the inspirations behind the store and what keeps you inspired?
I think for me, of course, you know, my mother’s style, and my grandmother’s—everyone in my family has their own go-to style. But I'm inspired by a little bit of everything. I'm inspired by my faith. I'm inspired by a stranger walking past the store, by a random Instagram post, or a crazy explore feed image. A little bit of everything.
I don't think there's one thing but growing up, I was introduced to a lot, thanks to my parents—dance, music, television, and movies. Because of that, I guess it encouraged me to continue on that quest to find what's cool, what's new, what's vibrant, or what has life in it.
You talked a bit earlier about going to Paris Fashion Week and visiting showrooms and looking at different brands. Can you tell me a little bit more about that experience? What was the pitch idea that you give them to have them work with you?
I think the biggest pitch was letting them know who I was and where the store would be. I had to find brands that weren't already featured in this area—we're around a Theory and a Marni and we're in a great area of Meatpacking. That was the main pitch.
Then I reached out to different brands. I showed them my style and who I was looking to target and what I was looking to accomplish with the store and provide them with an opportunity to showcase their art and their perspectives through their clothing. I think people really gravitated towards that. As well as the store is just a place that’s fresh and new and could have a different perspective on what fashion is. And like a family, we can grow here together—encouraging them, and letting them know that was a possibility as well.
What are the criteria that you have for the brands you want to work with?
A really big thing for me was finding brands that would complement each other but also stood strong on their own as individual pieces.
Are there certain benchmarks that they have to hit for you to choose to reach out to them? Or is it more like an emotional connection?
It's more of an emotional connection. I request to see line sheets, product images, and editorials. And if I'm really drawn to something, it's really easy for me to connect to it. If I'm looking at something, and I'm still trying to figure it out, and I'm forcing myself to find something I like about it—that's kind of hard. But every brand that’s in the store now had sent a line sheet, an email, or something that I immediately connected to. And that's something I want to continue to have throughout the store.
You have a real specialty in curating the brands. They're all very special, and they belong to a really strong identity. How were you able to create that? What helped you to decide that “cool factor” that they have?
For me, I think it was always a feeling honestly. I'm a visual learner, that's what they told me in second grade. So I'm able to kind of look at an item and piece it together in my brain to see if it'll work with my taste. But there's also a lot of items that I took risks on, brands that I'm not sure if I would wear but I'd love to see it on another type of woman or man. I try to create a balance between what I would want to have in my closet, and stuff that even if it somehow stuck in my closet, I would still find a way to wear it.
Speaking of working with brands, what was your most exciting project or collaboration?
The biggest one so far is Ashya. We have an in-store exclusive bag, we had only 10, in cherry red, and there’s only one more. I love working with them. They're two wonderful African-American women who stand by their brand and what they provide for the store. And I was able to name the bag after my mama—paying homage to her, all she does for me, and how much she's inspired me.
I'm excited about new collaborations and what's to come in 2021. 2020 has been incredible and very unexpected. So it's been a good ride and I'm excited to stay on the train.
That bag is so beautiful. I kept seeing it on Instagram. How did that project come about? Did you reach out to them first?
I reached out to them when I was first thinking about opening the store—before I even had a store, before I had brands sign on, before I had a concept. I met up with them and told them about myself and they told me about their brands. They were very encouraging and supportive. I asked them if I could sell some of their bags in stores and they suggested an exclusive. That's kind of how it went from there.
That's usually how the process goes, I reach out or I'm reached out to when it comes to carrying brands or we'll both be in love with each other and it's just a no brainer.
I know opening the store by yourself this year must have been absolutely insane, but what is an average day like for you?
I have to get here first as we're open 11 AM – 5 PM. I go through inventory, or I'll check to see what online orders we have. We share inventory with e-commerce and with our store. So I'll pull what needs to be pulled, and send it out.
Sometimes I get pitched by brands. During market week, I'm going through line sheets with my fiancé and figuring out what works in-store, and he gives me his input since he's a costume designer in film and TV. He’d share with me what he thinks would work, especially when it comes to on-camera—he's also a photographer. So I collaborate with him on that.
I mean, every day is different, like I can be cleaning the floors one day, or I could be on calls all day like today. And I have Maren [Hannah], she's our graphic designer and social media girl. So I'll talk with her a little bit about what we have planned to post and what our outreach is, how we are positioning ourselves.
No days are the same. I think that's my favorite part about all of this—in-store, what might work on Tuesday might not work on Friday. So it's just learning to adapt in the best way possible, especially with COVID.
What skills do you think are most important for the role you have now, as the owner, the buyer, the merchandiser, and everything else you do for the store?
I think the biggest skill is being able to build a community and connect with others. In the midst of doing all I just listed, I'm also talking to people that come into the shop. And it’s usually very busy. When I'm here, I'm always talking to someone new every day and learning about them and finding a connection, not necessarily to make a sale, but just to meet people. The mission here is obviously also to create a safe space outside of just selling fashion—creating a memory and encouraging someone to come back.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to open up a store, a little corner of their own? How to be a great buyer and have an all-around successful store?
As cliché as it sounds, I’d say go for it and start building it out outside of your head. Once you start putting pen to paper or fingers to an Apple or Dell, you can really see, “Okay. How does this make sense? How will this work for me?”
Once you start doing that, it's also a form of manifestation as well. If you know the universe, and God wants you to have it, it will work in your favor.
So that's what I'm saying, to get it out on paper, or to type it out is really big. I think that helped me because then it also makes you accountable. Like I wrote this, now I'm really thinking about it and what I have to do next to make it happen.
You mentioned a little bit about working with your fiancé and Maren. But if you were to have another employee or an intern, what would the perfect intern/employee look like for you and your brand?
My fiancé and Maren, they’re both very different people. So I don't know who the perfect employee or intern would be. I get a lot of people that reached out and honestly, for me, it just has to be a good fit. It's not necessarily how you dress or who you know, or what experience you have, it's more so how do you connect with others? And how do you connect with me?
What other kinds of characteristics would you be looking for, as a boss?
I think it has to smack me across the face, metaphorically. When I meet that person, I can't say who I would want them to be or who or what I want them to be into. It's more so similar to the buys, it's the gut feeling. So it's not necessarily like a character trait, more so of a human trait, like how are you as a human?
What has been one of the biggest challenges that you've faced since opening the store?
COVID has been the biggest. I mean, it's ever-going, it's different in each state, there are rules everywhere. Everyone's trying to make it work for them and their business and for the safety of other people. There haven't been too many others that are too crazy. Every day feels like a challenge, but that comes with opening a business.
What keeps you motivated during this time. And if you're not motivated, what would you do to get out of the funk, per se?
I'm emotionally motivated by my friends, my family, and different people that are around me. I'm usually not ever really in a funk unless I have to wake up at 3 AM for a flight. But other than that, I try to remain positive and grateful for the opportunity I've been given. I think the people around me are the same type of people. So we pump each other up, really.
What do you love about the fashion industry at the moment?
I love that right now we're there showcasing black designers and black creatives. And I can't wait to see it continue in years to come.
The fashion industry, as we know, still has a long way to go. What are some improvements you would like to see in the future?
I think not so much improving, but just continuing to feature artists and designers of color, and continue to put their arts at the forefront of their stores, websites, marketing campaigns, editorial pulls, and magazine covers. That’s been shown a lot in the past couple of months—I would love to see that continued. And to see more designers of color—putting people on the map and showing what it is that they have to offer, or what they've been offering.
As a buyer and an owner of a store, what are your thoughts at the moment on fashion week and how brands are showing themselves to get exposure these days?
I don’t have too many thoughts, but I think the best thing is that people are reallocating their resources. Instead of putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into who's gonna show up [to a fashion show], they're really just putting it into the clothing and into the marketing.
I think it's exciting to see people trying new things with fashion shows—visually or digitally or on Instagram, or create different bots. It's super cool to see people do something different. I'm looking forward to being in person again. But it's always nice to have a pause and figure out something new.
If you can't make it into the store ASAP, play these tunes and imagine you're there:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Flo Ngala + Telsha Anderson + Ella Jayes