There’s “busy” and then there’s Jenna Zielbauer.
As the owner of one of Chicago’s favorite boutiques, Von Z, she’s tasked with stocking her store full of the “attainable fashion” and unique designers (cool-girl lines like Olive & Oak, Jealous Tomato, and Toska are some of the staples of her inventory) that have made it a success since the moment it opened. And as the designer behind the rapidly growing t-shirt line, Casual Friday (haven’t heard of it? You’re going to fall in love), she ships thousands of orders around the country every month.*
But, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “We have a busy life, but it’s fun,” she says (the other half of her “we” is husband, Patrick).
Here, we talk to Jenna about how she got her start, how she manages both of her businesses, and what Schutz shoes had to do with her success. (We’re also sharing some of our photos from Jenna’s fashion show last week at Underground Chicago!)
*Update: Shortly after we published this post, Jenna announced she was transforming Von Z into a popup shop for Casual Friday, because the business has taken off so rapidly! Congrats Jenna!
YOU OWN A STORE IN BUCKTOWN CALLED VON Z. TELL US A BIT ABOUT IT.
Sure! Von Z’s goal was to bring attainable fashion to Damen Ave. and we think we’ve done a great job of doing just that. We sought out unique and affordable designers (some of which had never been in the U.S. before) and curated those pieces alongside fashionable gifts, jewelry, and books.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO START YOUR OWN STORE?
Honestly? Strangely enough, it was Schutz shoes. We came across this shoe line while at a trade show in Dallas a couple years ago. These shoes were out of control (in the best way possible) and were not in Chicago yet…Chicago needed these shoes. Now they are at all the big box stores so we don’t carry them anymore but I like to think I helped bring them to Chicago.
WHAT DOES VON Z OFFER THAT BUCKTOWN SHOPPING WAS MISSING?
As per our mission statement, it was attainable fashion! We’re all about on trend items that won’t break the bank.
WHAT’S THE VON Z AESTHETIC? WHAT SORTS OF LABELS DO YOU CARRY AT THE STORE? We try and bring in labels that you may have never heard of before and then when you meet them, they become your best friend. Some our favorites have been 117, Blaque Label, Pink Stitch, and Bardot, to name a few. They are all addictive and we’ve grown to have a somewhat rabid following because of these great labels!
AT ONE POINT, YOU HELD A 9-TO-5. WHAT DID YOU DO? WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE?
Ah, yes. Corporate dropout. I was in marketing for a major wine importer. And I decided to leave on one of my many 2 hour each way commutes. Life is too short to spend that much time in a car.
WHAT DID YOU FIRST DO WHEN YOU SET OUT ON YOUR OWN?
Personal shopping and editorial styling. I signed with Factor as a stylist three days after leaving corporate America. It was meant to be. My creative musings eventually led my husband and I to start Von Z LLC which owns and operates the store, and also owns the clothing line that is our main focus now, Casual Friday. We’ve had a great start with CF and are rapidly expanding the line. Stay tuned!
WHAT WERE YOUR BIGGEST FEARS WHEN YOU QUIT YOUR FULL-TIME JOB? LOOKING BACK NOW, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THE THINGS THAT WORRIED YOU?
I had been planning on making the jump for some time so I had some money saved up. Sure I was scared, mostly of failure, but you’ll never know if you’ll succeed if you don’t try. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. I would rather try and fail at something then never do it at all. On top of that, my husband, the detail oriented, book-keeping, worse-case-scenario-planning-for, financial background type kept me grounded and cost-conscious. Having a good plan let us sleep at night.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB NOW?
The moment my customer tells me they received X amount of compliments while wearing something from our store or from our Casual Friday line. You and I both know how great it feels to receive a compliment on something you are wearing, especially from a stranger! When people tell me about these kinds of experiences, it provides a lot of validation and is proof that our mission is on track.
YOUR CAREER IN FASHION PRE-DATES VON Z. TELL US ABOUT YOUR CLOTHING LINE, COTTON CANDY COUTURE.
CCC began as a bit of a creative project that my husband encouraged me to pursue. I did all the designing, picked the fabric, drove it from our grader to our seamstress, modeled the samples…you name it, I was directly involved. We sold online, did some trade shows, and sold the dresses wholesale to speciality boutiques. It was actually at a trade show for CCC where my husband and I decided to start Von Z as a brick and mortar store, and that experience led us to where we are now with Casual Friday, which once again, is our main focus. Casual Friday is a line of ‘comforchic’ stylish basics that feature super soft fabrics and clever, relevant phrasing. The chance to say what’s on our minds without sacrificing comfort or style – that is what CF is all about!
HOW DO YOU MANAGE OWNING YOUR OWN STORE AND A CLOTHING LINE?
You forgot my husband, my home, and my Frenchie, Rambo! Haha. Really though, my day to day life is a blur of Google Docs, champagne, and Quickbooks. I just try to stay grounded and organized, avoid sweating the small stuff, and I tackle each day as it comes to me. Our apparel line, Casual Friday, is now in 150+ stores – and the list is growing! I hinted at this earlier, but it will be taking Von Z’s space for the summer, and we’ll see what happens after that!
WHAT’S A TYPICAL WEEK LIKE FOR YOU?
Every single day I’m connected to both Von Z and CF – whether it’s resolving a shipping issue, working with my showrooms or helping individual customers, leveraging social media, building new relationships with tastemakers nationwide, taking a day trip to NYC, or otherwise strengthening our business. Sometimes, my husband has to tear my phone out of my hands – Yes, I am one of those annoying people. However this business is our baby, and we both have the energy and drive to make it a success. It makes us happy, so why not just go for it? That being said, Patrick and I like to relax in bed with Rambo, bask in the sun (if this weather breaks…) on our patio, or entertain our friends at our Lakeview condo (we threw a totally nerded out Game of Thrones theme party and have been known to host blind vodka tasting events, if that’s saying anything).
IF YOU HAD TO PICK A MOTTO YOU LIVE YOUR LIFE BY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
“Nice girls are the prettiest!” (one of CF’s best sellers!)
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT LIVING IN CHICAGO?
The vibrant and constantly evolving restaurant/cocktail scene, running on the lakefront, an easy and short commute for my husband, family and friends within arms reach…we just love it here.