Elle AyoubZadeh wants to inspire women to forge their own paths and to stay stylish while doing it. As the founder of Zvelle, a design company that specializes in well-crafted shoes and handbags, she is focused on building a brand created by a woman, for women.
An entrepreneur at heart, when she saw the need for well-crafted shoes without a luxury-brand price tag, she set off to create them. Despite no prior experience in the design or shoe industry, AyoubZadehtook it upon herself to travel the world and learn from the floors of the best factories.
The result? Shoes created with all-day wear in mind without skimping on style.
“I don’t make things to sit in museums—although our products are so beautiful, you could have them in museums—I design for women to enjoy on a day-to-day basis,” says AyoubZadeh.
When the world stopped and made our day-to-day lives come to a standstill, Ayoubzadeh knew that she couldn’t just sit by idly. Since the pandemic began, AyoubZadeh has donated over 400 pairs of Zvelle shoes to what she calls, “healthcare heroes.”
The latest initiative is just one of many that showcases AyoubZadeh’s determination to be a part of the bigger picture and impact the lives of others. In addition to naming Zvelle products after women whom she admires, she shares the stories of others through Zvelle’s In Conversation series.
AyoubZadeh proves to live by the brand’s, “Walk How You Want” slogan, by making her own path as both a designer and entrepreneur. For this week’s Women Who Lead spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Elle AyoubZadeh, Founder of Zvelle, about becoming a designer, uplifting other women, and supporting our healthcare heroes through these turbulent times.
How did you get started with designing shoes and bags?
The main reason I founded Zvelle was to marry two of my passions: sustainable design and diversity.
My background is Persian, but I lived in New Zealand, Australia and spent a lot of time in the Middle East. I grew up in different parts of the world, in places where you valued the things you bought and you would wear them for years—there was no fast fashion. So, I’ve always really appreciated unique designs that nobody else had. Fast forward to when I started developing Zvelle, when I looked at shoes or accessories, I couldn’t find something that was really well-crafted that didn’t cost $1000, and $1000 was just the starting point. My passion has always been shoes because you really can tell quality, just by looking at them.
I was already an entrepreneur at that time—I had a concept store in Toronto—and I was looking at the way fashion portrayed women and nobody was talking about diversity at that time. Five years ago, when looking at [advertisement] images of women, they represented one particular type of woman. I thought, “None of this imagery relates to me;” even the way they were talking about women, and the language used. It didn’t make sense that in today’s day and age, they [advertisements] had such a pathetic view of women and the way women want to be spoken to. And these were really big companies with a lot of money and smart talented people behind them!
I wanted to do something about it. That’s how Zvelle was born. We’re direct to consumer, which allows us to sell the products at a good price point, get to know our customers, offer them the kind of service that we like, and also control the narrative when it comes to women.
What inspires your designs? What are you thinking about when you’re making Zvelle products?
So many things inspire design. We launched this handbag late last year, and it’s the most innovative style that we launched for our consumers. It uses a technical nylon, which I always wanted to do something with because it’s not only vegan, but it’s also very practical—so it’s very easy to clean. I’ve been waiting to source this particular nylon, so I could marry it with vegan leather. It took me over one year to design it and get to a point where we could sell it.
I wanted something classic and timeless. I thought, “How can I create something vegan that is sustainable that is easy to clean, and you can buy today, but wear it for years and years to come?” Those are things that I always try to incorporate in anything I design.
Did you have any formal design training?
No—I’m a self-taught designer. I learned everything that I know from working on the factory floor with people. I knew I wanted to do shoes, so I literally googled shoe factories—which is not a good way to find a really good factory—but by talking to one person after the other, I got on a plane and traveled to Brazil, Spain, and Italy by myself to meet with factory owners that I wanted to work with. I wanted to work with small factories, because craftsmanship is very important to them, they pay their people well, and we [Zvelle] create everything from scratch.
In the beginning, it was just me, and that’s how I learned: by working with the best factories around the world. I think it was the best kind of training anybody can get. Not to say that school does not have value. But for me, looking back, the one advantage of having not gone to school is that I broke many rules that I didn’t even know I was breaking just because I was able to think in a new way.
For example, making shoes comfortable [laughs]. We laugh about it, but a lot of designers are men and they don’t try on the shoes themselves. They only focus on aesthetics, and aesthetics are very important, but if you want women to enjoy your products, they have to be able to wear them for long periods of time. For me, the biggest compliment somebody can give me is using the product out in the real world. I don’t make things to sit in museums—although our products are so beautiful, you could have them in museums—I design for women to enjoy on a day-to-day basis.
Zvelle has been worn by many people—including some of Canada’s top TV personalities. Has there ever been a time where you thought, “Oh my gosh, they’re wearing my shoes?”
Honestly? I get excited seeing customers on the street in our shoes! Not to take anything away from anyone else who wears our shoes—I love all of the TV anchors in Canada! I will say though, Melanie Ng from Breakfast Television was one of the first people to see our shoes and the first person that I met in the media industry. I literally showed her the first sample in downtown Toronto, and she was one of the first people to wear our shoes!
In addition to your products, you are very passionate about having woman-focused conversations. What sparked that route of your business?
Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell different stories. I didn’t want to just make more stuff in the world. Yes, we make beautiful, sustainable shoes and bags, but I really wanted to make a difference with Zvelle. One way we can make a difference is by telling different types of stories about women.
For example, our latest bag is named after a woman called Dr. Edith Eger. She survived the Holocaust as a 16-year-old and is an incredibly well-known clinical psychologist today. I read her books last year, and they really touched me. I reached out to her as I was making this handbag that was taking me forever, so I asked for her blessing to name the bag after her, and she said yes. She actually suggested “Editke,” which is the Hungarian version of the name, and so we shared her story, and we still give out signed copies of her book. The bag could be on its own beautiful, but I think that sharing her story and her life gives it another level of meaning.
Whether it’s through Zvelle In Conversation or through our products, we want to put different perspectives out in the world, which I think that we all need right now.
In addition to putting new perspectives out in the world, during the COVID-19, Zvelle has given away shoes. What was the process of coming to that decision to do that?
Generosity is one of my personal values and it’s also one of the values that we have for Zvelle. As a brand, we were aware of what was happening [with COVID-19] faster than most in Canada, because we have full-time staff in Italy. I was really worried about what was happening and when it hit here, I wanted to do something to bring some joy to the world. At that time, everybody started to make masks—our factory even suggested it—but I thought that there were a lot of other people that could do that [make masks] better than we could at a time.
We had beautiful shoes and I wanted to use what we had [to make a difference]. And so I just emailed my network, asking people, if they knew of healthcare workers on the frontline that they could nominate. It was just very organic: “Send me their photo and tell me why you’re nominating them.” And so the nominations started, and I decided to expand nominations to the US as well. So far, we’ve given out over 400 pairs of shoes.
These people are having a really difficult time, and they come home, and they’ve got a delivery from some company that they’ve never heard and they get this beautiful pair of shoes. I think it reminds them that better times are coming and that somebody appreciates them and loves them. I think being loved and being appreciated is the most beautiful human feeling.
Did you get any feedback from the people who were nominated and received Zvelle shoes?
There was a lot of crying. They were like, “I can’t believe you sent me this pair of shoes, you don’t know me. I don’t deserve it. I can’t believe that someone would send me shoes just for me doing my job.”
If you think back to the beginning of the pandemic, these people were taking public transit, they had to sleep in their basements because they were trying to protect their young kids. They had not had any contact with their family. I think to just be able to feel love was everything for them. I remember crying at work while reading these nominations and the way people were writing about their friends or their doctors.
One thing I’m very proud of is that we looked for “healthcare heroes,” so not just doctors or specialists. We were sending shoes to the support staff and the cleaning staff because I think all of these people are our heroes.
Also, going back to wanting to change the narrative and images of women, I wanted to include people from all cultures in the initiative. So I made sure to ask people to include BIPOC nominations. I even began seeking out healthcare heroes who were women of colour on Instagram and nominating them myself!
Zvelle has a slogan: Walk How You Want. To you, what does it mean to Walk How You Want?
Nobody’s ever asked me this! “Walk How You Want,” for me, is leading from your heart and your gut, and living your own personal journey. Without your gut, your heart, you really cannot do anything that is personal. I’ve always looked internally for direction—I’ve never really been someone that has followed the rules or done things because there’s a certain way of doing it. So for me, every journey is personal. You can only be satisfied if your journey has been yours.
That’s one of the reasons I became an entrepreneur. I had a successful career in finance; my life was much easier. But I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to walk how I wanted. I wanted to feel like if today is my last day on earth, then I’ve given it my all and I’ve given it to what I want.
What are your ultimate hopes for Zvelle?
To change the world; that’s my hope. For Zvelle to leave a mark on every person that it touches, whether it’s the people that we hire on our team, our suppliers around the world, or our customers. I want every person to be better because they have come in contact with Zvelle.