Zia Boccaccio has been running her shop in downtown Annapolis for a decade and she doesn’t want that to change.
Not that she hasn’t had any offers for Alpaca International. Aside from her locations in Park City, Utah and Juneau, Alaska, Boccaccio has been approached about moving her 1,200-square-foot shop elsewhere in the region. But she won’t go, because she said she believes in Main Street, Annapolis.
She’s eager for foot traffic to increase with the return of the General Assembly.
Alpaca International sells men’s and women’s clothing made out of alpaca wool. Boccaccio, who is from Peru, talked to The Capital about her shop’s 10 years, the state of downtown business, and how an alpaca toy helps sell her products.
What were things like when you started out?
“We started as an accessories manufacturer. We evolved from accessories that were made in 100 percent beautiful alpaca, and we evolved into more of a collection.
“I saw the potential of the product and I knew there was room to grow. The demand basically (caused the evolution). Alpaca, 10 years ago was something new for a lot of people in America. Today there is an alpaca farm just about everywhere in the country. That has pretty much awakened the curiosity and also the knowledge about the beauty of the product.”
What makes alpaca special?
“(Picks out a jacket) Basically, it’s tailor made. Every detail is made to flatter you and also be very practical. This is a specialty store. We still like to sell as a company, so we don’t produce en masse but what we produce is very special and very elegant. Take into consideration the qualities of the wool. They’re very tailor made for the northeast part of the country.”
With alpaca being so new when you started out, how did you make any sales?
“It was hard to explain the quality of the product to somebody who didn’t know it. So that’s one of the reasons we came up with these little toy alpacas in order to make (customers) feel how (alpaca fur) feels. We basically sold the product through touching. For me, that was an educational part of educating the public about where we come from.
“It was slightly difficult, but it was what I really enjoyed doing. When I’m selling an item, I’m really introducing my cultural heritage and history into a sale.
“Peru has such a rich history that’s attached to the animal and the textile tradition. We put all that together into everything we do.”
What brought you to this area?
“I got married. I used to live in D.C., I worked in D.C. in the retail world. My ex-husband lived here. He was my partner in creating my company. I basically decided to open a store in downtown Annapolis. I fell in love with the community, the history. It has been so long that now I feel like I’m an Annapolitan, really. I was living here about 18 years before I opened my business.”
How would you describe the state of downtown business these days?
“It’s difficult, very difficult. You can tell by the amount of stores that that have closed by the end of the year. Instead of being discouraged, that just gives me a new challenge to prevail.
“Downtown Annapolis is such a vital and important part of our community. We want to convey the message that we’re here because (customers) shop local in our stores. We need to tell Annapolis residents that there are beautiful stores here. The shopping district could be stronger if the community understands that supporting us is really keeping Main Street alive.”
Why do you think stores are closing?
“The high rent, the high cost of operation. The foot traffic has diminished immensely with the opening of other locations, like the (Annapolis) Towne Centre, the mall. But yet the cost of operating has risen, so it’s impossible to keep a business in that environment. We’ve been lucky because we have focused on our product, our clientele, our goals. We have goals, every year, every month, every day.
How do you manage to survive?
“My company has been lucky in that we’ve opened in locations that have supported this area. For example, Christmas in Annapolis was one of the best seasons we ever had since we opened. But January, February, March, historically because of the weather and many other elements, winter is a very slow season here in Annapolis.
“But I’m getting ready to go to Park City where the ski season ... prompts us to have an absolutely tremendous season. That ends in April, when Annapolis starts coming back with the spring, summer (events). Then I go to Alaska, where the cruise ship season starts and that’s where we cater. We cater to the cruise ship companies. I’ve been lucky to have this circle, but it’s been with a tremendous physical and personal sacrifice.”
How do you manage it all?
“In order to run a company like mine, you need someone who is 150 percent committed to the job and to the work. I do this because I truly, truly enjoy what I do. I truly love what I do.
“I travel from north to south. One day you’ll find me in Alaska, and the next week I’m in the southern part of South America, I’m in the mountains, or I’m in New York in Manhattan. That is the kind of life I have. Some people might say it’s very glamorous. It isn’t. It’s about work. It’s about the demands of my job. I don’t go anywhere just to travel. I’m there to work, to open up business, to meet goals.”
Why has downtown Annapolis been so important to you?
“We started with one store (here) and now we’ve grown into a label. I don’t think for a minute that I would move out of downtown Annapolis. I’m adamant. I’m passionate about keeping my store here.
“I’ve had a lot of offers from malls to move the store, but I don’t want to because I started here and I truly believe in the beauty and the potential of Main Street. Even though I could probably be more profitable elsewhere, I don’t want to (move). I think that attitude has really prompted a lot of our loyal customers to come and support us.”
Written by Shanteé Woodwards of The Capita Gazett
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
Alpaca International owner Zia Boccaccio-Cotgreave brings her line of stylish alpaca wool products to downtown Juneau.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave had a vision when she was a little girl in Peru, of an alpaca silhouetted against a snow-capped mountain. This image now makes up the logo on her line of self-designed alpaca wool garments.
After moving to the United States, Boccaccio-Cotgreave got a job in the clothing world at a branch of the retailer Steilmann. She worked there 12 years until the shop closed.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave said it was then that she had a choice. “Find a new place to work, or start my own business,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said. She decided to take the risk.
“This has been my American dream,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave founded Alpaca International in 2004. Three years later, she owns four locations in two countries — she also has shops in Maryland, Washington D.C., Utah and Cusco, Peru. Juneau is Boccaccio-Cotgreave’s most recent location.
She spent a month preparing the location on Admiral Way, next to the Harley Davidson shop and the Red Dog Saloon. The spot was in rough shape.
“I was told it was an eyesore,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave said she wanted her location to be separate from the main strip of shops on Franklin Street. Her hope to make her shop a year-round destination for visitors and Juneau locals shaped her decision.
Alpacas come in two types, the short-and curly-haired Huacaya and the long-haired Suri, according to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association website goo.gl/Ip5tE. The 100- to 200-pound animal looks like a small llama and is part of the camelidae family. Its wool comes naturally in a variety of at least 20 colors, and combinations thereof.
“The animals themselves are absolutely beautiful,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said. “They’re cuddly, they’re absolutely beautiful.” They were considered a staple of the Incan nobility in Peru, she said.
The Huacaya is the type best suited to woven fabrics, Boccaccio-Cotgreave. The Suri, which only appears every other generation, is used for its hide after death, she said.
Alpaca wool is environmentally friendly, Boccaccio-Cotgreave said, because the fabric can replace the warmth of two layers of another.
Alpaca wool is well suited for Juneau’s climate, Boccaccio-Cotgreave said. Though not her first example of the wool’s qualities, there was one standout.
“It is almost waterproof,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave said alpaca is “feather-weight,” however “the durability of alpaca, the sturdiness of the wool, a natural fiber, it is very tailor-made for the climate of Alaska.”
The fiber has “unusual thermal qualities” that hold in body heat and, as a hollow fiber, wicks moister and holds died colors for centuries,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said.
The Peruvian designer also has plans to create wool pieces to meet the styles preferred by locals.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave is working the floor of her shop this summer gather ideas about local tastes.
“I noticed that hoods are really important here,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said. “We are going to make a line that resonates with the lifestyle of Alaska.”
And though a wool, Boccaccio-Cotgreave said, alpaca is not itchy.
For all purposes it is a better investment than cashmere,” Boccaccio-Cotgreave said. Cashmere is simply more well known, she said – something Boccaccio-Cotgreave plans to remedy.
Boccaccio-Cotgreave owns her own label and her business manufactures its own garments, she said. She said she employs Peruvian craftsmen to decorate her clothing with stylized designs she created from patterns found of Peruvian pottery and textiles. “
Shawls, capes, coats and sweaters anchor Boccaccio-Cotgreave’s collection. She also carries alpaca hats, gloves and scarves.
Written by Russell Stigall of Juneau Empire
Zia Boccaccio, Owner and Creative Director, Alpaca International, Annapolis
How She Got Started
Zia Boccaccio, a native of Cuzco, Peru, easily remembers the first time she became interested in alpacas. She was 6 or 7 when she spotted an alpaca on a trip with her family to ancestral land in the Andes Mountains of Peru. She describes the animal as aloof, delicate and beautiful.
When she was 21 years old, she married an American and moved to Washington.
For about 12 years, she worked as an operational manager for Steilmann European Selection, a German fashion company. She said it was here that she learned the ins and outs of the retail industry.
When the job ended, she decided to open her own store specializing in alpaca wool garments and took an eight-month research trip to Peru. Here, she formed a partnership with a garment producer. She created her own label and opened her first store in Annapolis on Main Street in 2004. Boccaccio has since opened stores in [Juneau, AK, Park City, UT, and Cuzco, Peru].
Boccaccio always starts her day with a workout to get herself prepared.
She runs the entire operation of Alpaca International, a distributor, retailer and wholesaler of alpaca garments, from her Annapolis retail location. She remains hands-on with the day-to-day operation and is often on the floor of the boutique assisting customers. She also frequently visits her other retail stores and manages to get back to Peru about three or four times a year.
Boccaccio distributes her own line of alpaca goods under the Alpaca International label, relying heavily on customer feedback for inspiration and ideas. She has partnered with an employee-run garment production company in Peru where her high-end products for men and women are manufactured. She oversees a staff of 20 retail employees and about 50 employees at the manufacturing plant in Peru.
She attends the ENK International trade show in New York three times a year, which allows her to wholesale her products across the country and in Canada. She's also often working on expanding the business and designing new clothing lines.
Boccaccio said she puts in long hours and has not had a day off in about eight months but adds that it's a labor of love.
The slumping economy has been challenging, she said, adding that she has had to cut prices and reduce business costs by renegotiating contracts for products and store leases.
Selling the upscale, high-quality, durable product is easy. "It comes naturally to me, working with this beautiful product that is alpaca. I love telling the story of alpaca and of our products. Once they try it, they become long, longtime clients."
"I love the challenge and pressure of creating an idea that becomes a product," Boccaccio said. "And putting that product into my store and having women comment on how beautiful it is."
Boccaccio said the time commitment for running her business has taken a toll on the amount of time she can devote to her personal life. She is also disappointed that goals such as opening the Chicago store have had to be tabled until the economy rebounds.
Hard work, customer service and quality products. "Three ideas that are very old but also very today. It has allowed us to set ourselves apart."
Written by Nancy Jones-Bonbrest of The Baltimore Sun