As Valeria Mazzei joins VCUarts Qatar as a freshman this year, memories of her beloved Nonna (Italian for ‘grandmother’) keep flooding back.
“When my grandmother Anna Rita Struzzi opened Carnaby Street, the first concept store in Terni, a little town in Italy, I remember residents of the town and the local media commenting on how her outlook towards fashion, and her business sense, were far ahead of her times,” reminisces the new VCUarts Qatar student.
“Following her death in a car crash in 2014, a local design college introduced a scholarship in her name. As the years pass, I feel closer to her, and to this day I miss her dearly.”
While her Nonna’s story is remarkable, it is neither her grandmother’s futuristic fashion sense or the bond they shared, that makes Mazzei’s journey to being accepted in university, interesting – rather, it’s her own.
The Umbria-born 20-year-old is the founder and manager of Venus Karma, an online fashion retail outlet that specializes in home décor and street wear, in Qatar. Popular in the country as a teen entrepreneur and social media influencer – by the age of 16 – her journey, in her own words, ‘had a stormy start’.
Mazzei recalls how, as a 14-year-old who moved from Milan to Qatar with her parents, both of whom are architects, she doubted if she’d ever find her feet in the community here – for good reason.
“When I landed in Qatar in the December of 2014, no school was willing to accept a student who didn’t know how to speak English fluently,” she says.
“It was a challenging time; my self-confidence had taken a beating; I was in a new country; I was struggling to make friends; and, my Nonna had recently died. But something inside me fought back – I told myself I had to take life by the hand and pull myself out of the frame of mind I was in.
“Not being able to attend regular school, and taking private lessons to improve my English proficiency, gave me time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My first point of action, despite a shaky belief in myself, was to summon the courage to do something that I always wanted to do – set up my own business.
“My mother supported me, as I tried to find my niche. My first venture was to design and sell luxury handbags. I was barely 15 when I stepped into the world of trade, learning how to procure raw material from abroad and discussing my ideas with designers.
Mazzei says the initiative took off much better than she had hoped for, and proved to be a ‘morale booster’. Six months after coming to Qatar, a delighted Mazzei was accepted into a local high school. And though that meant having to work hard and devote her time to course work, she wasn’t willing to wind up something that – for the first time in her life – she was truly beginning to enjoy: her start-up. On the contrary, she wanted to expand it. A routine family holiday would fulfill that wish.
“My family and I were on a holiday in south-east Asia, where the abundance of high-quality raw material caught my eye,” she says. “My first thought was ‘I wish I could import such material to Qatar.’ On that trip, I found the details of a few trusted suppliers, and was soon in discussions with them.
“I started out with caps, and patches to be sewn on to them. I know it sounds simple, but that was how I transitioned from designing handbags to retailing streetwear. The collection expanded and now I import customized high-quality streetwear including jumpers, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, and t-shirts under the brand name Venus Karma.”
Following her foray into streetwear, Mazzei soon identified another gap in the clothing and textile market in Qatar – industrial uniforms; with a spurt in organic businesses, companies needed high-quality uniforms for their employees. Sensing this, she felt the time was perfect to step into this field.
Her instincts paid off; as with her streetwear collection, she built up a steady stream of customers. Yet, her unique selling point remained the same.
“I tell my customers that my products – be it streetwear or uniforms – are not cheap because quality has a price; that they only need to invest in my products once, and they know the difference. Thankfully, for me, customers in Qatar are discerning. They would rather pay a higher price, once, for durable, high performing and aesthetically pleasing products than shell out money on cheaper, flimsier items.”
Alongside the expansion of her clothesline, Mazzei still managed to make headway in high school. She graduated top of her pathway in June 2019, following which she concentrated on consolidating her business. In the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Doha – an occurrence, which again, quite inadvertently, led her to her next business venture - home décor.
“During the first few weeks of the lockdown in Italy, I heard stories of how local businesses back home were facing a major setback,” says Mazzei. “Families who were supported by income generated from the sale of arts and crafts were on the brink of poverty. Some of these artists reminded me of my Nonna; women passionate about their craft, and proud of their culture. I had to do something to help them.
“I came up with the idea of importing their work into Qatar. Within a few weeks, I realized that what I’d started merely to provide a means of livelihood for my countrymen back in Italy, was actually generating interest and demand in the community here. People really did want to buy the pieces of home accessories that are lovingly hand-crafted by these women. And that’s how my home décor wing took off! To the point that it's now bloomed into a major chunk of Venus Karma.”
Mazzei’s voice reflects a sense of quiet pride and satisfaction as she describes how, once a week, a courier service van pulls up in front of half-a-dozen Italian homes to collect and dispatch bespoke artefacts – handmade on kitchen tables and in home-studios – to Qatar.
The VCUarts Qatar freshman’s gesture to help those back home, seem to have come full circle. In August 2020, the British clothing and home décor brand Laura Ashely chose to display and sell these home décor pieces at select locations such as Doha Festival City, in the country; an accomplishment which she attributes to her business ethos – and Qatar.
“The last five years have made me strong yet sensitive,” she says. “I see work as a collaboration. I am neither working for someone, nor is someone working for me; we are working with each other.
“When I treat others as equals – be it a customer, a designer, or an Italian Nonna who pours her heart and soul into what she is creating with her own two hands – they feel valued; everything else falls into place. It’s an ethos I live by; it’s the reason why I named my enterprise Venus Karma. Venus is a nod to the Roman goddess of beauty and my Italian heritage; Karma denotes the results of one’s positive intentions and actions.
“I was also fortunate that I arrived in Qatar at the right time; organic businesses were increasing; e-commerce was taking off; the local market was discerning; and whereas I would have been one among thousands in Italy, I was one among a hundred here – I stood more of a chance.”
Mazzei says that she is excited about the prospects of studying fashion design at VCUarts Qatar.
“I’ve always been keen to enhance my knowledge of fashion through a related degree, and VCUarts Qatar is the perfect choice,” she says. “I know I’m entering university with an expanding business under my belt, as opposed to most entrepreneurs who venture into the market either during or after their university studies.
“Personally, I feel this is an advantage; my operational trajectory is especially suited to a post-COVID-19 world where young people like myself are going to have to seize opportunities born of these unprecedented circumstances, irrespective of what their university degrees are.
“I know my Nonna would agree with me.”
Valeria at British clothing and home décor brand Laura Ashley, which chose to display and sell her home décor pieces at select locations such as Doha Festival City.
Mazzei, seen here sorting through a collection of artefacts and accessories handcrafted and flown in from Italy, says that home decor is an expanding segment of her business. (2) (1)
A young Valeria with her grandmother.
Mazzei collaborates with Laura Ashley - a reputed British home accessories and clothing brand - to sell her home decor collection at their store in Doha Festival City.