Phil Tursi was studying to become a dentist at Wagner College on Staten Island, New York when the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season smashed into the East Coast. Hurricane Sandy killed 233 people in eight countries, damaged his family’s Staten Island home, and knocked their power out for about 2 months.
“There were cars floating down my block, that’s how much water there was,” Tursi said.
His studies came to a halt. He missed a crucial exam that was given only once a year. “I kind of had to cut that short and focus all my time and energy toward rebuilding our community and getting back on my feet.”
When the storm damage cleared, Tursi decided to change course like a cyclone. He began preparing for a new career based on one of his childhood passions: clothing.
“It was something I always enjoyed as a kid,” he said. “When I played sports, I had to have a certain pair of cleats, or a headband, or wear my clothes a certain way. It was always fashion. But I never actually went to fashion school or studied under a designer in Paris or any of that. I basically had to learn from the beginning, and that was just basically getting my hands dirty.”
He spent hours and hours researching the clothing manufacturing industry till “the crazy hours of the night.” In 2015, he and his partner Rick Campos launched Cloth & Caviar, an online clothing store.
Designed by hand, made in America
Tursi designs his entire clothing line on pen and paper, which eventually makes its way into Adobe®Photoshop®. Initially, he had his clothing manufactured in China, but he has since adopted a Made in the USA credo and has it manufactured in New York City. His fabrics are American made, and he’s experimenting with creating his own supima cotton and micro-modal blend. He sells his men’s and women’s clothing on the Cloth & Caviar website and in a few New York boutiques.
Cloth & Caviar is on a mission to create comfortable, high-quality clothing that actually fits today’s bodies. “A lot of times clothes are either too tight or too big; it’s just never the right fit. So I’m pretty much solving my own problems I have with clothes. I’m sparing no expense right now. I’m importing the zippers from Switzerland. They’re like the Rolex of zippers. I want to have something that I can stand behind and put my name on without having to worry that it’s going to fall apart.”
“I want to inspire people along the way to do stuff out of the box and do the impossible.”
He’s also designing to accommodate our ever-growing smartphones. “I have a very large phone, an iPhone 6+, so when I design the clothes, I make sure that the back pocket is big enough to conceal it completely. It might be the smallest little detail, but it’s something that bothers me, so I’m trying to solve that.”
Cloth & Caviar is more than a clothing line; it’s a lifestyle brand, Tursi said. “I want to make quality clothes that I actually want to wear, made with the best fabrics we can get our hands on. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s a brand that’s going to be built on living life, to motivate people to do the impossible and do more of those things that make you feel alive.”
Tursi’s flannel shirts, camouflage joggers, and baseball caps are selling out on the website, but he’s working on another 50 or 60 pieces that he will be releasing over the next year or two. That line will include shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatpants. And in spite of “caviar” in the name—a nod to the finer things in life—his men’s red plaid hoodies are selling for $44, and his women’s Camilla skirts are going for $24.
Running a business from a smartphone
Tursi finds it hard to imagine how anyone could have launched a business before smartphones and the Internet. “I was definitely that person who was glued to his phone 24/7. I’d go to sleep and I was still on my phone. I always liked researching stuff. I needed to know everything about this business.”
Now that he’s up and running, technology helps him doing everything including design, marketing, selling, and bookkeeping.
He posts his ideas on Facebook® or Instagram and then listens carefully to customer reactions. “I would rather my followers tell me exactly what they want. If they don’t like something, I don’t think I really want to put it out there. I post a sample, and based on the feedback, I’ll know if I’m heading in the right direction.”
He uses his iPhone to research the competition and different kinds of fabrics, to print shipping labels, or to text his manufacturer. It’s also his key to customer satisfaction. “I try to make sure customer service is topnotch. I have my phone with me 24/7 so I can respond to notifications as fast as possible.” And he uses his smartphone to ring up sales using a PayPal Here mobile card reader, which accepts major credit cards.
“Working on something on your own is extremely rewarding. It’s having the slightest taste of freedom. Especially when people tell you that it can’t be done.”
He uses Skype and Apple® FaceTime® to collaborate with business partners. “When I am in Staten Island and the manufacturer is in New York City, sometimes it saves a lot of time if they can just FaceTime me and show me the clothes that are being made and what problems they’re running into, and I can just say, ‘fix that, change this’ real quick without having to actually go there and pay for parking.”
“It gives me goosebumps”
Perhaps the most exciting part of the business is getting his fashion samples back from the manufacturers.
“You may have the design, and yeah, it may look cool on paper, but then when it actually comes out and it has your label on it, and you hold it in your hands, you made it from scratch, it was your creativity that brought this to life, that would be the one thing that will make the hair on my arms rise. It gives me goosebumps.”
Tursi has big dreams for the future. He hopes to open a traditional brick-and-mortar store some time in the next couple of years and eventually build his company into a recognizable brand with multiple store locations.
“I want to continue making clothes the way I want to make them without having to answer to a big powerhouse that has a million different designers working for them. I want to stay true to myself and inspire people along the way. It’s more than just selling clothes and making money off it. I want to inspire people to go out and do what they want.”