Weaving tech into fashion biz

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Northwestern University sophomore and fashion-design entrepreneur Zoe Damacela is combining old and new Chicago business cultures — garment sewers and social-media networking — as she expands her clothing lines from juniors and young women into mature women and children’s collections.

About 80 percent of the profitable company’s revenues come from online transactions, with 20 percent originating in overseas markets such as Canada, Italy, Latin America and even Sri Lanka.

“Technology is a huge part of our business,” said Damacela, who is majoring in History, Italian and astronomy while she pursues her entrepreneurial career as CEO of Zoe Damacela Apparel.

“We set up an online catalog four years ago that used PayPal as the payment method, and a year ago, transitioned to an e-commerce function so customers can pay directly through a shopping cart,” she said of the company website, ZoeDamacela.com.

Damacela has promoted her collections on Facebook and MySpace from the start — efforts that prove increasingly effective as more people communicate through such media.

Depending on the demand, as many as 30 contract garment workers sew the fashions in Pilsen, where Damacela and her mother split their time moving back and forth from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., while Damacela was growing up.

While the Damacelas were moving during the 1990s, they were homeless, living on food stamps and spending nights sleeping in relatives’ guest rooms, on floors and in basements.

“My mom was a single mother, struggling to work jobs and take care of me,” said Damacela, 20, whose mother, Farah, a West Side resident, serves as Zoe’s role model and as vice president of her company.

Zoe Damacela said she had no idea her life was different until she was in the second grade and went to a friend’s house for a sleepover.

“I saw that my friend lived in a big house with a swimming pool and she had two parents,” she recalled. “I went back to a group home for single mothers and their children that a church supported.”

Farah, 41, was able to return to school 12 years ago and now works as a manager at InRoads, a program to help minority students achieve internships at Fortune 500 companies.

Before she could do that, Zoe Damacela helped by doing what her mother suggested: If Zoe wanted a $60 Razor scooter like the ones her friends had, she’d have to raise half of the money herself.

Zoe starting with making greeting cards out of construction paper, glitter, stickers and her own designs, and selling them on a street corner in Santa Barbara, Calif., when she was eight years old.

She quickly realized she was good at it. She earned $30 in two to three hours on her first outing.

She turned to selling hand-made jewelry and hair accessories and then sold her paintings and drawings before she learned how to sew in middle school.

Damacela started sewing prom dresses six years ago after her family gave her a $200 sewing machine as a Christmas gift.

She sold her dresses for $30 to $40 apiece before she realized the demand called for a higher price. Her fashions’ popularity among girls ages 10-12 enabled her to launch a junior’s line, and in 2011, a casual T-shirt collection.

About three years ago, Damacela started visiting elementary, junior high and high schools on behalf of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship to encourage students — especially those from low-income communities — to stay in school, and to lobby school systems to offer classes in entrepreneurship. She was inspired by her own NFTE class experience while she attended Whitney Young High School.

She has also won acclaim by appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network, The Tyra Banks Show and in a 30-minute feature on MTV. After she won first prize in Seventeen magazine’s 2011 Pretty Amazing cover contest, she was featured as the cover profile in the October 2011 issue.

Her lobbying has now extended to President Barack Obama’s Start Up America Initiative. She was a keynote speaker at the White House and is advocating for helping small businesses more easily obtain loans, patents and trademarks.

“I want to give a first-hand account of how powerful small businesses are to the economy,” said Damacela, who is working on her new children’s clothing line that will extend her fashion lines from infants through women in their 40s.

Ajaz Ahmed, founder of innovation agency AKQA and co-author with Nike executive Stefan Olander of “Velocity: The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital,” said Damacela shows how entrepreneurs must be resilient to fight through barriers while maintaining their visions.

“One of our seven laws in ‘Velocity’ is that making a convenient or easy choice isn’t usually the right choice.

“The right choice can be difficult, but is more worthwhile long-term,” Ahmed said. “Organizations that give their customers the greatest of convenience do this by making their own lives very inconvenient. That takes courage and determination. Yet the rewards are worthwhile because it creates incredible loyalty from customers.”