Just The Thing: Niche businesses deliver the unique

The heartbeat of ingenuity, creativity and entrepreneurship is beating strong in the Alamo City. In many cases, it is young women who are turning dreams into designs and passions into profits. If you’ve ever thought about taking that career leap of faith, read on and prepare to be inspired by these five women.

-Claudia Lobão Designs

Born and raised in Brazil, Claudia Lobão identified her passion early. “I’ve always liked to make things,” she recalls. “I would find whatever I could around the house, like one of my mother’s curtains, and see what I could make with it. One time I took the strings off my father’s Spanish guitar and made a necklace.”
At 14 she began modeling and took every opportunity to hang out with the stylists between shoots. “I was so energized by the fashion industry. I knew it was my passion. I just didn’t know if it would be handbags, shoes, clothes or what,” says Lobão. “Then I found jewelry and I knew it was the right fit for me because it was something I could do in my house.”  As an adult she ended up in New York City working at a bank, mostly for the stability it offered. “But all the time I kept working on my jewelry,” she says. “I sold it to my co-workers, friends and family.” She met and married Paulo Lobão, who was a personal chef. Then the buildings came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was very emotional. It made me realize time is short and I should devote myself to doing what I love. We were depressed and really wanted to leave New York,” remembers Lobão. While selling her jewelry at an open-air market in Manhattan, a beautiful woman with a suntan and chic clothing bought some of her jewelry. “Since it was winter, I knew she couldn’t be from New York,” Lobão says. “She said she was from San Antonio. She was so friendly. I asked her what San Antonio was like and if everyone there was as nice as she was. I just knew that’s where we were meant to be.”


Claudia grew up in a neighborhood called San Antonio in Brazil. The name of the open-air market in Manhattan was Saint Anthony. It seemed the stars were aligning and pointing her to San Antonio. Her husband came to scout it out. “When he came back, he joked that everyone there must work for the government because they all said how great it was to live there,” she says. Soon after, they bought a house and moved their then 1-year-old daughter to San Antonio. She and Paulo started with a kiosk in North Star Mall in 2003, then moved to a location in Alamo Heights. They targeted the wholesale market, which required extensive travel. “That’s when we started showing at Julian Gold because the wholesale business was taking off,” she recalls. “Julian Gold is such a historic place. They’ve been in business for 65 years, weathering all kinds of ups and downs. I told them I would close my store and let them show my collection exclusively. I tell them all the time they are our family here. I’m happy we have such a good relationship.”

Tip: Because of its proximity and their relationship, Julian Gold often features new Lobão pieces before anyone else in the marketplace has seen them.     

Lobão designs her necklaces, earrings and bracelets with platinum and gold. “It’s very lightweight,” she says. “Women tell me they love that their ears don’t hurt at the end of the day.” Famous women also love Claudia Lobão jewelry. Eva Longoria is a huge fan: “I’m good friends with Tony Parker’s mother. She brought Eva to the store, and Eva then flew me to introduce me to the costumer of Desperate Housewives.” To date, Lobão’s jewelry has been featured on the show 18 times, more than any other jewelry brand. Other famed femme fatales who wear Lobão’s designs include Jennifer Alba, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn and Jessica Simpson. Oh yes, and all those other desperate housewives. Today, Lobão has a factory in Brazil with 12 craftspeople. Her line is in more than 500 stores worldwide, including Japan, Spain, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, England and Dubai.

“You have to love what you do; then there’s no issue about how much you work because you’re happy,” advises Lobão. “People tell me I’m so lucky, but they weren’t there when Paulo and I woke up at 4 a.m. for eight months in New York, hauling and setting up 12 tables at the market, cold-calling on stores that wouldn’t even talk to us, moving our family across the country to a city where we knew no one. We took every negative or mean-spirited thing that happened to us and took it as a challenge. We used that energy and made Claudia Lobão jewelry with it.”

-Caden Lane and Nursery Couture

For six years Katy Mimari photographed moms and babies. “I saw that every mom carries a diaper bag and got to thinking there was an opportunity to inject some fashion and functionality into that market,” says Mimari, a San Antonio native and University of Texas graduate. “I thought young mothers would welcome something different, something other than dowdy toile fabric diaper bags.” She set about learning everything she could about designing, manufacturing and marketing a new product. “I met with any attorney, designer, retailer or manufacturer that I thought could give me some insight,” she says. “I knew that manufacturing overseas would be significantly cheaper, but the minimum quantities were too high since I was just starting out.” Perseverance and serendipity led her to a small manufacturer who was visiting San Antonio and managed a small fabric manufacturing plant in Guadalajara, Mexico, and she began to develop prototype bags. After several months of testing designs and materials, she placed her first production order of 600 diaper bags. On the same day, Mimari found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

Armed with her new bags, Mimari immediately began making personal sales calls on boutiques in San Antonio and Austin. “Maybe it was because I was pregnant and had morning sickness, but every store placed an order,” she laughs. “In hindsight, it was a great marketing scheme.” Her confidence growing, Mimari headed to Houston and Dallas for more sales calls. Again, everyone placed an order. Sensing that she was onto something, Mimari approached her lender for a credit line so she could immediately start production on another lot of bags, this time doubling her order. Her first 600 bags were all sold within a matter of months. Working out of her garage for the first year, Mimari launched two new styles of diaper bags and a crib bedding collection within days of her son’s arrival. Soon celebrities were noticing her Caden Lane brand of diaper bags. “Jennifer Garner’s best friend called us for a diaper bag for Jennifer’s baby shower,” says Mimari. “Then Tori Spelling saw our crib bedding. She wanted a real modern-looking nursery. She contacted us for decorating advice for two nurseries — one at her home and one at her bed and breakfast. I offered to design them for her.” US Weekly, In Touch and Life & Style magazines ran features on Caden Lane’s nursery designs for Tori Spelling’s home and reality show.


The producers of NBC’s The Biggest Loser asked Mimari to provide a nursery makeover for a pregnant finalist. More than 17 million television viewers saw the season finale that prominently featured the nursery. Needless to say, consumer response has been unbelievable! Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Mimari has done most of her sales via her two Web sites,www.cadenlaneco.com and www.nurserycouture.com. She developed NurseryCouture.com as a press outlet for Caden Lane products, but also wanted to feature baby products from other manufacturers that she preferred or used in her nursery designs. It wasn’t until 2007 that she opened a brick-and-mortar location. The 2,000-square-foot retail Nursery Couture flagship store is located in the new Ventura Plaza on Loop 1604 between Stone Oak and Blanco.

The Caden Lane items are now being manufactured overseas. In order to meet the exploding demand for her product, Mimari’s garage days are over. She now has a 20,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Colorado. Oh yes, and revenues are through the roof. She went from $250,000 her first year of business to a projected $4,000,000 in 2007.


Mimari admits it sounds trite, but if you have an idea, you just have to do it. “I think people are so quick to second-guess themselves or go with other people’s advice. I’ve always gone with my gut,” confides Mimari. “If you believe in it 100 percent, then all you have to do is convince others to believe in it too.”


Born and raised in San Antonio, Galeana Younger has always loved the power of fashion. “I find it amazing what putting on a new outfit does for a woman,” says the 36-year-old Younger. Her route to trendy clothing boutique owner has been anything but a straight line. After graduating from high school, she lived in Austria for a year and became fluent in German. “I just wanted to live abroad. It was hard in many ways, but looking back, I’m so glad I did it,” she says. She came back to the states and went to college in Ohio, graduating with a double major in sociology and German. “I was one of those college students who waited until after they graduated to start looking for a job,” she laughs. “I ended up in Austin doing public relations work in the health care industry. I hated it.” After two years of working, she decided to go back to school, this time in Arizona, for a graduate degree. “I felt like I should capitalize on my experience abroad, so I got an M.B.A. in international management.” She met her now ex-husband while in grad school. Once she finished, they moved to San Francisco, and she began working for a small brand management firm. “The man who owned the company was extremely intelligent and very creative,” she says. “He was also difficult to work with, but I benefited from the experience immensely because he demanded we work only with the top decision-makers of a company. This allowed us to do some very interesting work with companies such as Honey-Baked Ham, Lane Bryant, Kahlúa and Gap.”

In 2000 she moved back to San Antonio because of her husband’s work and landed a job with Garcia 360°, a creative communication firm that specializes in reaching consumers in a multicultural and bilingual environment. Again she found herself doing exciting work, this time with the Centers for Disease Control, on a national youth media campaign aimed at “tweens” to promote positive physical activity and displace unhealthy, risky behaviors.


Unfortunately, with the war in Iraq came funding cuts that impacted the CDC campaign she had been supervising. As her professional life slowed down, she also came to a crossroads in her personal life. “At the time I was finalizing my divorce and got to thinking it was now or never to make a career change,” Younger recalls. She did some soul searching, took a year off work and charted a new course for herself and her now 4-year-old son. “I’d always wanted to open a store and thought it was a natural course to make it about clothes since I loved fashion,” she says. She talked with the Small Business Administration and a bank and started working on her business plan. “I had a unique opportunity because it was the first time in my life that I wasn’t working. It was nice to have the time to start a business and focus on my child,” she says. Younger went to market a few times and started establishing some relationships. She got a loan and in September 2006, she opened a clothing store that she aptly named Galeana on North Main in San Antonio. Specializing in women’s apparel, jewelry and handbags, Galeana is billed to be “The Girl’s Guide to Fabulous.” “Starting and running a clothing store business is intense,” she says. From laying down large amounts of cash for inventory to finding the right location, Younger has learned a lot about business that her agency experience never taught her. In addition, she’s enjoying the risks and rewards that come from doing what you want to do.

She explains, “The clothes are just the icing on the cake. The more time goes by, the more it all expands in my mind. This isn’t ‘it’ for me — it’s just the beginning. I’m always thinking and planning. Maybe I’ll add more categories, make it a larger concept store. My high aspirations make me antsy to do more — and I will.

-Memory Lane

If you’d asked Lane Hooton five years ago what her future plans were, her store wouldn’t have been part of them. A San Antonio native and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Hooton was using her master’s degree in professional accounting at PricewaterhouseCoopers as an external auditor. Today she’s the owner of Memory Lane, a specialty retail shop in Alamo Heights that provides personalized gifts, seasonal gifts, seasonal decorations and monogramming services.
How did she go from number cruncher to personalization professional? “About four years ago my mom and I were driving around Alamo Heights and thought a gift shop that offered personalized gifts would be a fun addition,” recalls Hooton. Her cousin had recently purchased a monogram machine and was interested in selling it, so Hooton bought it from her. “At the time I was still working for PwC in Austin, so my mom took monogramming lessons at a local sewing store. I came home on weekends, and she taught me what she had learned,” she says. The idea of a retail business still percolating in her mind, Hooton decided to do some hands-on research. In November 2004, she got a job at a gift shop in Austin called Personally Yours. “Looking back, the seven months I spent working there were invaluable,” says Hooton. “The owner, Susan Parker, has been in this business for more than 25 years. The lessons and tips she taught me from her experience have helped me in ways I can’t begin to recount.


After just two years at PwC and gaining valuable insight with Personally Yours, Hooton decided to test-drive her business concept. In June 2005, she moved back to San Antonio and starting doing monogramming out of her parents’ house, as well as working on her business plan. “I think this is where I faced the biggest hurdle in the start-up process. I knew once I got a loan for the business, there was no turning back,” says Hooton. “It was a big step of faith, not to mention contrary to my personality, to go from a secure, steady profession to one of uncertainty.” Hooton credits the steady encouragement and support of her parents, as well as her abiding faith, in giving her the courage to move forward: “I still remember kneeling by the bed with them one morning and praying about this step. The confidence and excitement my parents showed was contagious. Looking back, it is amazing to see how things fell into place.”  After signing her lease, she and her mom went off to the market in Dallas to buy the inventory. Memory Lane opened its doors in November 2005. “The past two years have been exciting, scary and fun — not to mention a major learning experience,” says Hooton, now age 28. “I hear that the first three years are the roughest part of running a business, which is where I’m at right now. I put in a lot of hours. To be honest, if I had a family of my own, I don’t think I would have been able to open the store and give them the attention they would deserve.”


The good thing is that San Antonio, and Alamo Heights in particular, have welcomed Memory Lane with open arms from the beginning. Hooton has had to do very little advertising because the word-of-mouth generated by her customers has been overwhelming. “We’re unique to the marketplace because personalization is really our main product,” she says. From embroidered items, etched glass and hot-stamped leather to engraved silver and acrylic pieces, the gift selection offered at Memory Lane appeals to a wide variety of customers and occasions. For anyone considering opening a business, Hooton suggests you make sure you have a mentor or business advisor with experience that you can call with questions or to bounce around ideas. “Also make sure you have the support of your family and friends,” she advises. Hooton says Memory Lane is definitely a family and friend affair. At the beginning, her friends and relatives donated a lot of time that was essential to the store’s success. “Plus I have my mom, who is really the creative side of our duo — she spends as much time at the store as I do,” she comments.

And, of course, CPA Hooton’s last words of advice are “Keep your books up to date!”

-The Shoe Club

“I loved chemistry in high school,” confesses Adriana S. de Moreno, owner of The Shoe Club in Alamo Heights. “I got a chemistry degree in Mexico and then came to Texas A&M to get my master’s degree and Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. Although I enjoyed the chemistry, it was a really stressful career.”


So Moreno left chemistry behind when she moved to San Antonio with her husband, who is a real estate developer. “When I moved here, I had no friends and nothing to do. I got depressed, so to make myself feel better, I tried to go shoe shopping,” she remembers. “I’ve always loved shoes with high, sexy heels. I went all over San Antonio and couldn’t find anything I liked. Shoe shopping here was as bad as it was in College Station. I couldn’t believe it! Here I was, trying to get a little shoe therapy, and instead had to get clothes, which I took home and dumped in my closet. I didn’t even open the bags. Clothes don’t make me happy. Shoes make me happy.” As her disgust and obsession grew, she joked to her husband that she should just open up a shoe store and stock it with shoes she liked.

“At first it was a joke, but the more I looked around, I started to think there was an opportunity here,” she says. “With all my shopping, I knew the type of shoes I was after weren’t available, except maybe at Saks, and I didn’t want to pay $500 for my shoe habit and figured other women probably felt the same.” Moreno started to do her homework, tracking down reps of wholesalers, trying to find a location and going to market to see what the industry had to offer. Six months after moving to San Antonio, she opened The Shoe Club at The Collection shopping center on Broadway. She settled on Alamo Heights for a location, explaining, “It seemed like the best option because there are so many boutiques in the area.” She chose to sublease between two other boutiques, figuring she would benefit from the foot traffic between the two shops. She opened The Shoe Club in October 2004 and has been going steadily ever since.


“My husband kept asking me if I thought I could sell since I had never done it before,” recalls Moreno. “But I knew I could do it because of my personality.” That’s not to say there weren’t obstacles and frustrations to getting the business off the ground. “I had many moments when I thought maybe I shouldn’t do this (open a shoe store), but I’m the type of person who finishes what I start — for good or for bad,” she says. The Nuevo Laredo native is glad she gutted it out: “I love it. Even with all its ups and downs, it really makes me happy. I know my customers and enjoy finding the perfect shoe for them.” Moreno also appreciates the flexibility owning her own business gives her since she has a 2-year-old son. “I’m able to work here in the mornings and have my afternoons free to be with my son,” she says. The 34-year-old fashionista strives to make The Shoe Club a destination for shoe shoppers. She carries many brands not available anywhere else in San Antonio, and for brands like Kors or BCBG, she gets with the rep to make sure she is carrying different colors than other stores are selling. There’s not a shoe in her store that she wouldn’t proudly wear herself. Although she is in love with high heels, she also carries ballet flats and sneakers, along with jewelry and handbags. Shoe prices range from $75 to $450.

Moreno says anyone who wants to own their own business can’t go into it blindly. “You have to do the research,” she states plainly. “You go to school to get some kind of training, but then after that, the rest is up to you. Basically, if you set your heart on something, you can do whatever you want.”

Author: Kelly A. Goff

Photographer: Robert French

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