E‑commerce a perfect fit for shoe company

By Carl Rhyndress

Elle AyoubZadeh is a self-made entrepreneur who set out to start a business with ‘soul’ and when it comes to Zvelle, the company she founded, the shoe definitely fits.

The Toronto‑based Zvelle sells ethically produced, high-quality footwear at affordable prices, directly to customers around the world. Aside from occasional pop‑up stores and trunk shows, Zvelle shoes can only be purchased through the company’s website.

(Photo courtesy of Zvelle)

“I wanted to sell directly to the customer because it’s the only way to keep a luxury brand affordable,” says AyoubZadeh, adding her shoes appeal to women who care about quality, craftsmanship and style, but do not necessarily “chase the latest magazine trends.”

The majority of the e‑commerce retailer’s sales are to customers in Canada and the United States. The brand is becoming increasingly popular in North America, having been worn by celebrities including Sophie Gregoire‑Trudeau—wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—actresses Susan Sarandon and Hailee Steinfeld, and Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima. Zvelle also sells online to customers in China, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and other markets.

We never pay anyone to wear our shoes. It’s more about working with women who embody our values and that our customers can support” explains AyoubZadeh.

The same thought process goes into crafting new designs. “All of our shoes are designed with a specific woman in mind,” says AyoubZadeh. The most recent inspiration came from author Anaïs Nin. “She’s brilliant. Anaïs was practicing feminism before anyone was talking about it.” When designing the footwear inspired by Nin, she thought: “that these would be the boots she’d wear if she was still with us.”

AyoubZadeh’s hopes and ambitions for Zvelle have been evident from the beginning, starting with the name. “I was reluctant to use my own name because I envision this company existing 100 years from now, when I am no longer around. I just wanted it to be easy to pronounce like Apple or Gucci but a lot of people actually think it is my name and mistakenly call me Zvelle,” she says.

Born in Iran, AyoubZadeh has also lived in Dubai, New Zealand and Australia before landing in Toronto. “Being a global citizen doesn’t necessarily only mean you’ve traveled a lot, it means you have a global outlook and are inspired by the world,” she says, adding her company thrives on its diversity and has employees with international backgrounds that range from Ghana to China to Italy and the Ukraine.

AyoubZadeh, who has always had a passion for fashion, worked in various retail stores before launching her shoe business. While studying to get a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree, she wrote a thesis on packaged goods. “I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.

Her fortitude was put to the test early in her new-found career as an entrepreneur in 2014 when she was looking for the right factory to produce her shoes. As an outsider in the fashion industry with no perceived contacts, AyoubZadeh faced threats and scare tactics when she tried to switch factories due to quality control issues.

“I got nasty emails, then phone calls, and threats while travelling outside of Canada on business that if I returned there would be someone waiting for me at the airport and they’d make sure I never did business there again,” AyoubZadeh says. She was travelling alone at the time and did not know anybody in a country—which she prefers not to identify. “Luckily I was still crazy enough to get on a plane and go produce shoes. I wasn’t going to let them scare me or keep me out of the fashion industry despite all of the intimidation.”

Looking at the world through an international lens is a core belief at Zvelle as well as a competitive advantage. “Some brands are selling you the American or Italian lifestyle, our brand takes into account all cultures,” says AyoubZadeh. What sets Zvelle apart is its “soul,” she says, adding: “I’m not a doctor saving lives every day. I sell beautiful shoes that people want, but don’t necessarily need. I wanted to build a company that I can be proud of and know it’s making a positive difference.”

One way she accomplished this was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017, where Zvelle supported women behind the camera, an area of the film industry that remains largely male‑dominated.

“We took a different approach: instead of supporting the actresses we looked at all of the creative women in writing and directing positions,” says AyoubZadeh, adding the company’s support included gifting shoes to be worn at the premiers and press conferences of these highly successful, creative women who are not household names, but “should be”.

AyoubZadeh hopes her business will grow and expand into new markets. She says the recently-enacted Canada‑European Union (EU) Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which has eliminated 98 percent of tariffs between Canada and the EU may help companies like Zvelle, which currently pays 12‑18 percent duties to bring its products into Canada.

“I think it’s fantastic this deal has been done. I was already looking at producing in European countries like Italy and if this removes any duties I’d have to pay then I am incredibly happy,” says AyoubZadeh.

Along the way, AyoubZadeh has had moral support and learned lessons from those close to her. “My mother is the anchor in my life. She traveled half way across the world with five children to give us a better life. She makes sure my feet stay on the ground no matter how high my ambitions are,” says AyoubZadeh.

“My second role model would have to be my husband. He founded his own company—a financial market data network that provides deep insight into private companies. He is the kind of entrepreneur I constantly aspire to be because of his tenacity, amongst other things.”

While increased access to technology means reduced barriers for entrepreneurs to do business online, many factors still need to be considered, particularly when exporting to global markets. Spotlight on E‑commerce is a guide from the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) designed to help Canadian companies become better‑prepared to navigate the world of e‑exporting.

Access the Spotlight on E‑commerce to learn more.

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