Three years ago fashion industry pro, Alysha Cassis-Shaw and her husband, migrated west to the San Francisco Bay Area from New York. She left behind a successful career in fashion working for Finesse, one of the premier embroidery houses known for their hand worked embellishments for high-end designers. Alysha handled the embroideries for Carolina Herrera among other designers, it was there that we first met. From the beginning I was impressed with Alysha’s strong sense of personal style. With the life change the move west spurred, Alysha decided to follow her passion and founded the company Neutral Ground, a highly curated vintage site and store focused on quality pieces in a neutral color palette. Alysha’s fierce Instagram feed piqued my curiosity on what she’s been up to leading to this interview.
Jolain Muller How did you conceive of and implement Neutral Ground?
Alysha Cassis-Shaw It was definitely something I had in my head even when I was still living in NY. I knew that with my experience and expertise it certainly would be difficult to do the same kind of work. The Bay area is not a hot bed for fashion, it has The Gap and Levi’s but those were not the kinds of companies I was interested in working in, I just didn’t have that experience. I knew I was going to have to do a little bit of reinvention and so the idea of doing vintage or consignment was appealing to me. Then it was a matter of getting out here and figuring out what were people in the Bay Area going to be receptive to. I started working in retail, managing a local women’s lifestyle boutique just so I could meet with potential customers. Initially it was about getting in, trying to understand the bay area customer and what her needs are.
People here are into sustainability, they’re very eco friendly. If it can be recycled or up cycled they’re very much into it. Vintage started to become something that I thought more and more about. I started to go back to my experience, which was working in high-end fashion and how do I bring high-end fashion to the bay or bring vintage that I’m not seeing enough of. Then I just started to think how do I fine-tune it? I thought well why not curate around a certain color palette, for me it was neutrals. So it didn’t get very boring I injected metallics into it, there are golds and gunmetals and things with sparkle. My idea of how people should wear vintage is mixing and matching it with something you have in your closet. You can take a 1980’s scarf tie blouse and wear it with a contemporary pair of high-waisted jeans and mules and all of a sudden you created something that’s very different, it feels very fresh and you don’t look like you stepped right out of 1980.
JM Did you always have a feeling for vintage or has this come up as you made a lifestyle change?
ACS It’s always sort of been there. I had a mom who was very fashionable in her day and didn’t really throw away much. She kept a lot of things in really great condition. I was pretty much the same size so I inherited a lot of her clothing from the 60s and 70s. We’d go through pictures and I’d say do you still have that and she’d be like well actually …
One of my first fashion jobs was working for Halston in the early 2000’s. Part of the initial design process was doing research. We’d go to the Halston archives in FIT and they’d bring out samples and the old patterns for us to look at. We also would go vintage shopping. In those spaces I developed an interest, an appreciation for vintage, the quality and the craftsmanship and just realizing that many things were made a lot better than they are now.
JM You seem to take a more curated approach to vintage style.
ACS Coming from a design background I thought about creating a collection and creating things that work well together, creating a story. For me Neutral Ground is obviously a color story but it’s elevated, it’s lady like, it’s romantic so always trying to choose pieces that fit within that narrative.
JM Tell me about your business model, you have a brick and mortar store and an online shop.
ACS I’m in a collaborative space right now called Concept Forty Seven and it makes a lot of sense for me in terms of being able to enter the market with relatively low overhead. I certainly don’t think I would have been able to open a store in August on my own having just started things in April. Ideally I see the brick and mortar Neutral Ground expanding to more contemporary pieces that work together with the vintage. I could really show how to merchandise these pieces and bring in scents and lifestyle items, jewelry and other things. I’m excited to make this happen eventually and grow the online business. It’s very difficult to exist being a brick and mortar especially with the way retail is changing. The brick and mortar gives us exposure to let people in the bay area know we exist but it’s important to have people buying from all over the country.
JM You have a store, marketing, finding product, which must be time consuming, and then somehow you manage to squeeze in these amazing photo shoots where you look fabulous. How on earth do you split and manage your time?
ACS What’s great about the brick and mortar is it’s a collaborative I own with two other women. We’re open 6 days a week and we each do 2 days in the shop so I don’t have to be there everyday. Mornings generally I’m up 7:30-8:00, I drop my husband off, get my coffee, and go through my emails and Instagram to see if I made a sale. Often I have a lot of inquiries. The first hour of my day I deal with all of the online interactions that I’m having with people.
At least 2 or 3 days a week I get packages that come in. I try to immediately photograph the pieces, take measurements, that kind of stuff and then put it in the store. I would say about 50% of what I have online I have in the store. But there are tons of things that are in the store that are not online. I might want to Instagram a piece, so figuring out a more creative way of showcasing something and taking those pictures, keeping them on deck for maybe later in the day or later in the week.
JM I love your Instagram account can we talk a little about that?
ACS I try to post 4-5 times per week and have posts that offer an even mix of pieces I think will do well regionally and then pieces that will have national appeal. I post stories 2-3 times a week. Here I can be more silly and add things that might be too busy for posts. The pictures are from Ashleigh Reddy @stayreddy. The single product pics are me, and Mexico was my husband, Dwayne Shaw.
JM How do you find the fabulous vintage pieces that end up on your site and in your store?
ACS I source things from lots of places. I really love looking for vintage items. I love going to estate sales, I love going to flea markets, I love going to auctions and online auctions. For me it’s research, finding a designer I’m not familiar with and then I see, my goodness this person had a twenty year career. I learn a lot about the designer and their process, I find this very interesting. Just yesterday I was at an estate sale. I like going into people’s homes and figuring out how did this person live. You’re kind of going into a little time capsule of sorts. I find that all to be very interesting. Knowing the history of the garment, the searching I enjoy quite a bit.
JM Can you give tips to women who are a bit skeptical about buying vintage?
ACS Vintage consignment shops are usually good; the pieces in consignment shops are in pretty good condition as opposed to thrift shops. Consignment stores in nice neighborhoods are a good entree point. Look something over to make sure it’s in good condition. Look for designers you’re familiar with or certain brands that you like. Online, ask questions or ask for additional pictures or to see it on a body.
JM You’ve inspired me. All your finds look fantastic and I’ll be following your website, I would love to snag something. Now for my last question, what I call my signature question: what do you think is the most important human quality?
ACS Integrity, I think we’re certainly living in a time right now where I’m not even sure where certain people are coming from, what motivates them, and not sure if they have a moral compass. So right now for me integrity is really important and surrounding myself with people who have integrity.