This, of course, was all prior to launching Akira, a women's boutique along Bucktown's North Avenue here, in July 2002.
But that was then. Now the trio operates a mini-retail empire, boasting four Akira stores and one ground floor of office space, totaling about 17,000 square feet on one block of North Avenue alone, not to mention high-profile locations on State Street, Clark Street and in Water Tower Place on the Magnificent Mile.
Just last month the retailer opened another Akira women's store, a 6,000-square-foot unit, on Diversey Parkway just west of Clark Street.
So how did these, at the time, twentysomething friends from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with no retail experience launch one of the more successful local retail enterprises this decade?
They fused fast fashions à la H&M (before H&M came to town) with the personalized service of a boutique, made quick decisions, and were at the right place at the right time.
When Akira set up shop, Bucktown was not home to Marc by Marc Jacobs, Intermix and Nanette Lepore as it is today. It was far grittier. Akira's block housed a liquor store and currency exchange, both with bulletproof windows, and it wasn't uncommon to find women working the streets late at night. By day, Akira attracted its fair share of 20-ish singles, many of whom worked as hostesses, waitresses and bartenders at nearby clubs, bars and restaurants. Cotay remembers women coming in with a wad of tip money, ranging from $25 to $50.
"We made them a deal," he said. "We made sure they walked out with something."
The trio relied on its house brand, Akira, as it does today for fun, trendy and inexpensive fashions.
"It allows us to explore different styles," Cotay said. "We're very price conscious and if it's a very fashionable piece we'll do it in our private label.