Zoora Aims to Marry Indie Designers with Shoppers Hungry for Options

2/8/12Follow @xconomy

She started her career as a management consultant, but Aubrie Pagano says she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur. And she was particularly energized by fashion.

So Pagano spent her free hours assisting local Boston designer Emily Muller in launching her collection, in exchange for the opportunity to get some firsthand experience in the independent fashion design space. There she discovered that designers face a particular challenge—one that would eventually inspire Pagano to create the e-commerce startup Zoora.

“Its hard for independent designers to scale because there’s a discovery issue,” says Pagano. “[Muller] has a great website buts nobody goes to it.”

And as a shopper, Pagano says she’s felt like she’s had to settle for a piece of clothing that just isn’t quite right. Women like her are the perfect customer base for independent designers, she says.

“Something that a lot of people don’t know about independent designers is that they’re really flexible,” Pagano says.

Just last Monday, Pagano opened the Zoora website to the public, to offer women clothing that they can customize to best fit their measurements and taste. Her hope is that the women who feel underserved by traditional retail will bring independent designers the traffic—and business—they so desperately need.

Zoora joins a booming cluster of Boston companies in the space of mass customization, where e-commerce platforms allow shoppers to select and tailor products to better fit their preferences. As my colleague Greg has pointed out previously, these companies offer shoppers personalized jewelry (Gemvara), bags (F. Rock), girls clothing (FashionPlaytes), men’s dress shirts (Boston’s Blank Label and Proper Cloth in New York), and even bras (Zyrra).

Pagano started working on Zoora (a name inspired by “misura,” the Italian word for measurement) last spring, and made hiring a head buyer her first move. Since then, the company has enlisted about a dozen designers (including Muller) to sell garments on the site with options for customization. Another designer is Althea Harper, a former contestant on the Lifetime show Project Runway. (Worth noting, New York fashion tech startup Send the Trend has Project Runway veteran and winner Christian Siriano on staff.)

The customizations to Zoora garments fall into two baskets, says Pagano: “made-to-measure adjustments” and “ready-to-wear tweaks.” With the first category, customers input their specific measurements, which designers take into account to create a garment that’s a perfect fit. With “ready-to-wear tweaks,” meanwhile, garments come in standard sizes, but offer different options for elements like fabric, necklines, sleeves, and hem length.

The Zoora team now consists of seven people, most of whom are working part time. The entire team considers fashion a personal passion, with the exception of technical co-founder Chirag Nirmal, who has “a passion for tech and loves the idea of mass customization,” Pagano says.

Pagano just quit her full-time consulting job at Fidelity a month ago, and has been bootstrapping Zoora. The startup needs to get some traction before targeting outside funding, says Pagano. “Our first step is to prove out the hypothesis that women want more choice in their purchasing,” she says.

Zoora will also spend the next month or so taking clothing samples to different cities throughout the country, to get shoppers excited about what it has to offer

One big question comes to mind in light of Zoora’s mission to put design decisions in the shoppers’ hands: Does it ultimately interfere with a designer’s vision as an artist?

“There is always a step between the runway to the stores,” Pagano says. By that, she means that the artistic vision that a designer presents in initial showings almost never translates literally into the garment that winds up in consumers’ hands. Retail buyers work with designers to develop the garments in different colors, fabrics, and lengths than what was shown on the runway. Now, Pagano says, her startup is putting that power elsewhere.

“Why does it have to be just an influencer?” she asks. “Can’t the customers decide for themselves what they want to buy?”

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