Children’s clothing doesn’t have to be merely functional. The pieces can be fun, colorful and unique and should pass the test of time. They can even be something to keep and hand down to a new generation of kids one day. So, if you’re looking for beautiful, creative, quality clothing, perhaps you should first look for an artist.
Tuff Kookooshka is a children’s clothing line that launched as Tuff Cookie in 1999, and is the creation of Anastassia Gonye, a Russian-born American artist and fashion designer. Even before that, Gonye had been sewing hats in her sunroom and kitchen and selling them at craft shows on Cape Cod.
“On the way back from a trip to Maine, we stopped by Malden Mills where PolarTec fabric was made, and found out that you could buy fabric by the pound, you just had to pull it out of these giant bins,” Gonye said. “So we started basically dumpster-diving for raw materials. We would pull out all the colorful material we could find and then make hats from it. Those hats would sell out at the craft fairs. Later we got smarter and spoke to the men who worked filling the bins.”
Gonye made hats and mittens for the children of those men, and asked them to fill one of the bins with the colorful fabrics and give her a call when it was filled.
“Like I said, we started selling wholesale in 1999,” she said. “Tuff Cookie grew rapidly and, eventually, we had to start ordering fabric directly from Malden Mills. I added coats to my line of hats and mittens.”
After a trademark dispute, the Gonyes rebranded the name of the business.
“Kookooshka means ‘baby cuckoo bird’ in Russian, and it is what my grandmother would sometimes call me,” Gonye said. “In the long run, I feel much better about my brand name now, it is closer to my roots.”
Gonye’s children’s clothing became so popular, the line was eventually carried in about 150 boutiques across the country, as well as in Canada, Japan and Europe.
“When we got that big we had to decide whether or not we were going to start having our clothes made in China. Having our production anywhere but Massachusetts was totally against everything that I stand for, and so we decided against it,” she said. “So, with shrinking margins we started to downsize our wholesale business and stopped doing wholesale altogether.”
However, when Gonye decided to try her hand at retail nine years ago, it sent the company in a whole different direction.
“It is crazy, but my first pop-up shop was in the most prestigious pop-up market in the country – the Grand Central Holiday Fair, in New York City. Each November and December for the past nine years, we (she and her husband and business partner, Brian) have lived and worked in New York City,” said Gonye. “It is a big undertaking, but we really enjoy it and there is no busier place on earth than Grand Central Station.
She added that they moved their Massachusetts studio to a great space on Route 28A in Cataumet, which offered plenty of room for design, sample making, small production, ample storage and is a great selling space. Before COVID-19, she said, they would do from 15 to 20 markets each year.
“We love the space and the location (in Cataumet),” she said. “We have a very high percentage of return customers and great response from people who just happen by. For the past nine years, a major part of our business has been participating in juried arts and craft shows – the Smithsonian Institute’s ‘Art2Wear’ show in Washington, D.C.; the American Craft Council show in Baltimore; the One-of-A-Kind show in Chicago; the ArtRider shows around New York City; and the Grand Central Holiday Fair in New York City are all shows in which we are regularly accepted.”
Since most, if not all, shows have been or will be cancelled this year due to the pandemic, the Gonyes are, for the first time in many years, staying put and trying to focus on their boutique and looking forward to spending the holidays at home. Like many other businesses, Tuff Kookooshka was greatly affected by the shutdown.
“Our studio-boutique was closed for three months, so we have had to totally reinvent our business. Our clothing sells best when you can touch it, look at the stitching, have it in your hand and see the workmanship and the art. Online sales have always been between 10 and 15 percent of our business, and we now need to change that to 85 percent.” They are working towards that goal every day and will not be on the road this year so they can focus on their goal.
“When the lockdown started we were actually in Europe, we came back to a world changed,” Gonye said. “All of our plans for the year had changed or been cancelled. We were in shock for about three days. I heard from my sister, who works in healthcare, about what was going on with the PPE [personal protection equipment] and she asked if I could make her some masks to go over her hospital-issued mask, so that it would stay clean throughout the day. I went through several designs before finding the one that worked best for her. Once she started wearing hers, others at her work requested some, and it just snowballed from there.”
Fabrics that had been purchased for their summer line of clothing were used in making masks.
Within a week, Gonye said, she had made around 200 masks and gave donated them
to health care workers, first responders, military personnel and local frontline workers at the places they frequented, such as small bakeries and grocery stores.
“Then we moved on to senior centers, nursing homes, and other social service organizations and charities. Who knew that being able to sew would be such an essential skill in a pandemic?”
She knew, however, that the business could go broke quickly if they weren’t able to get help with the cost of materials and postage. The couple put out a request for customers and were stunned by the generous response.
“Their response was incredible,” she said. “We have the best fans! They purchased clothes, gift cards and masks from our website.”
“At first I was sewing everything myself, but two weeks in I was able to hire my girls back and they have been sewing masks ever since,” Gonye said.
The most rewarding part of Gonye’s business has always been seeing how her customers’ faces light up when they find the perfect piece that speaks to them.
“I love when kids will pick out something and spin around in their new outfit, and giggle with joy. I love walking to work in NYC and seeing kids in my coat, knowing that they really love it, because they are still wearing it when it is two sizes too small,” she said. “I love the relationships that we build with our customers from around the country.”
Even after being in business for over 20 years, Gonye said they are still trying to figure things out. Every day, month and year is a challenge. And while the future is still an uncertain one for all of us, she hopes the business will be able to survive.
“Everything has changed and we have to change with it. Back in March, we seriously thought about closing up shop and packing it in,” Gonye reflected. “But we are giving it a shot, and we will see how the summer season and holiday season works out.
Tuff Kookooshka Studio, 1337 County Road, Cataumet, 508-468-9809,kookooshka.com