November 27, 2007

Clothing store earns students’ recognition

Third-year Deborah Umunnabuike understands the art of entrepreneurship. Avant Gaudy, the online clothing shop Umunnabuike co-founded with her sister Jessica in the summer of 2005, has become a minor internet phenomenon, netting them tens of thousands of hits from all over the world and even earning the pair and their business partner, third-year Vincent Cho, a feature in an October issue of Business Week among the 25 Best Young Entrepreneurs of 2007.

The sisters began the business because they were passionate about clothes and saw growing demand among their peers for vintage clothing. “[The business] posed us a lot of different opportunities, more specifically a chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves,” said Umunnabuike.

The inaugural phase of the project included intensive research into what their target demographic would be and how to delegate tasks for managing the business. After figuring out the particulars, organizing suppliers, and launching their website, the business took on a thriving life of its own.

Avant Gaudy focuses on a mission of catering to young people. “We are looking to the New Garde. This goes back to the concept behind the name. In every period and every movement there were people, the avant garde, who were innovators, thinking forwardly to challenge the status quo. We try to offer styles that are fashion forward while being the fashion of their time,” Umannabuike said.

Each piece of clothing is unique and is individually selected. Despite orders from all over the world, most of the clothes featured at Avant Gaudy are sourced from the Midwest, a region Umannabuike sees as rich with history.

The website also offers a small section of boutique items, which display Umannabuike’s skill as a fashion designer. “With the boutique, what we are trying to do is show our interest in the DIY movement. These are items we saw that were not particularly perfect. We redo them a little and try to show what we saw in the piece, the essence of it,” Umannabuike said.

Umannabuike hopes to expand her store with a unique focus on customer service. “It is really easy to be solely profit-driven in this business; instead we are focused on building relationships and providing good style and design to people,” she said.

She also hopes that she can work with and learn lessons from the competition. “We are looking to build a community and learn from other vintage stores to make everyone’s ideas more competitive and capable of reaching more people, ideally, fostering a space where people can create something more competitive and larger than themselves,” she said.

Avant Gaudy’s marketing strategy falls in line with its emphasis on customer satisfaction and word of mouth; limited funds are spent on advertising. “We find quality products and build relationships with our customers, creating a communication web as they tell their friends about us. Our biggest success is when a customer receives a shipment and is truly excited about what they received.”

Last spring, Umunnabuike coordinated The DIY Smashup, a collaborative exhibition of young artistic entrepreneurs. Attendees enjoyed a Chicago group that did live painting, T-shirt making, and a number of Chicago DJs sharing turntables.

“It was an opportunity for people to hear, see, and touch young people’s ideas. I also got to meet more people and get myself out there and provide a forum for others to make a better presence for themselves,” Umannabuike said.

Avant Gaudy also runs a blog to keep abreast on current fashion trends and discuss thoughts on fashion with its customers.

As for the future, Umunnauike is unsure. She is looking to continue the venture, which has drawn attention from shoppers in 30 countries, post-graduation. “At this point it is beyond the scope of just me. My business partners and I are enjoying the business and also things we are doing outside of the business. At this point we have a lot of responsibility to consider and a lot of thinking to do about where this is going and we are keeping our options open post-graduation.”

Avant Gaudy can be found online at