When Zia Boccaccio-Cotgreave was a little girl growing up in Cusco, Peru her family took a trip to the Huayhuash mountain range outside of Ancash. While on a horseback ride through the mountains, Zia glimpsed an alpaca framed by the snow capped mountainous peaks.
The image would become the symbol of her future business, a venture that now spans five cities and two countries.
Her brand, Alpaca International, reflects Boccaccio’s savvy, sophistication and work ethic. It came to life in 2004 in Annapolis, subsequently after years of working in retail. When Steilmann, the retailer where she worked for 12 years closed in Washington DC, she had a decision to make.
“Do I find a new place to work, or start my own business?” Boccaccio asked herself. She took the risk and started a business of her own.
Her risk was rewarded and last year the Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce named her flagship store on Main Street in Annapolis the Small Business of the Year. Twenty-five years after leaving her home in Cusco, she had achieved the American dream.
“It hit me as I walked onstage to accept the award,” Boccaccio says. “All of a sudden it became very clear to me. I realized I have come a long way. This has been my American dream.”
Boccaccio says that selling high quality products like alpaca gives her purpose. She could be selling any type of clothing, but she wanted to share something that was part of her culture and identity.
Alpacas, the lovable cousin to the llama, have been a powerful symbol of Andean civilization for thousands of years. During the Spanish conquest, the Incas salvaged a small number of the alpacas and moved them high into the Peruvian plateaus, where the camelids were able to thrive and continue producing the precious fibers.
She knew that the market for alpaca wool, which is hypoallergenic, naturally water-repellent, and soft to touch, was ready to be tapped into in the United States.
Opening New Doors
She was in Peru last week for Peru’s Fashion Week. She came to see the latest fashions, to continue finding the best designers to promote her brand, their designs, and Peruvian culture.
“This business is rewarding for me,” she told me after the Peru Moda Gift Show at the Jockey Club. “I want to share this part of my heritage.”
She also came to visit family and to visit her store in Cusco.
Boccaccio has been successful but not everything has come easily.
When Boccaccio opened her first store, she had planned on opening a new location every year. In three shorts years she had opened four retail shops: in Washington DC, Annapolis, Cusco, Peru, and Park City, Utah. However, the economic downturn forced her to scale back her intrepid ways. Yet, even in the adverse economic climate, she continues to expand her brand.
Her latest venture has been a new store in Juneau, Alaska. At first glance, you think ‘that’s a long way for alpaca to travel,’ but according to Boccaccio, upon closer inspection, there’s no better market for the Andean wool.
“Alpaca is well suited for Juneau’s climate,” she said. “ It’s durability, the sturdiness of the wool, which is a natural fiber, is very tailored for the climate in Alaska.”
Boccaccio might be alpaca wool’s biggest cheerleader. She’s made it her mission to spread the word about its advantages.
“For all purposes it is better than cashmere,” she says. “Cashmere is simply more well-know right now, but that’s going to change if I have anything to do with it.”
Boccaccio also lends a lot of her time to charitable events.
“For me it’s important to give back to the community,” she said. “To me, it’s a moral obligation.”
When Boccaccio reflects on her life thus far, she describes as an “amazing journey” that started with the dreams she had as a young girl in Peru.
“The idea for my store was an idea I always had in me,” she said. “It’s become the passion of my life.”
Written by Diego M. Ortiz of Peru This Week