ELOQUII is Back with On-Trend Clothing for Plus-Size Market

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
ELOQUII's Steve Zawada and Julie Carnevale Downtown in Pearl Alley

Julie Carnevale and Steve Zawada were prepared to load the car with boxes.

"Do you think we can carry everything?" Carnevale asked Zawada.

The pair had just purchased ELOQUII-a plus-size offshoot of The Limited-and the attorney had invited them to come collect what they bought.

But instead of cabinets and cabinets of customer lists, the attorney handed them a single hard drive, small enough to hold in one hand.

"I think we can carry that," Zawada said.

One year later, in a desk drawer at ELOQUII's Easton-area headquarters, the hard drive sits in a desk, serving as the foundation for what Zawada and Carnevale affectionately call ELOQUII 2.0: the vision to bring fashion to the forefront of the plus-size consumer's mind.

The Limited, based in Columbus, wanted a presence in the plus-size market. It launched ELOQUII in late 2011, operating it as an e-commerce business with plans to eventually open stores.

Carnevale, who had worked in merchandising for The Limited, became ELOQUII's first full-time employee as head of the merchandising team. Her merchandising colleague Zawada soon joined her as visual manager. And both fell in love with their new customer-a woman younger, less conservative and more adventurous than those of The Limited.

"This customer has been completely disenfranchised from fashion," Carnevale said. "She is not offered what her size-six friend is offered. But she still wants to be the first to the trends. She's not going to let her body type dictate what she wears. She wants to be on the cutting-edge of fashion."

She wasn't exactly the customer The Limited had expected.

"If the ELOQUII woman was supposed to be an extension of the Limited woman," Zawada said, "she was not."

In 2012, The Limited decided to divest all non-core businesses, and ELOQUII didn't make the cut. ELOQUII remained in business until July 2013, when operations ceased.

Still infatuated with the consumer, Zawada, 39, and Carnevale, 34, hatched their plan. With New York-based designer Jodi Arnold in tow and the support of investor John Auerbach, they bought ELOQUII. They enlisted CEO Mariah Chase, who Zawada describes as a spitfire with a start-up mentality. Zawada became the executive vice president and chief operating officer. And Carnevale assumed the role of vice president of merchandising and general merchandising manager. ELOQUII-which is made up of the words eloquent and soliloquy-re-launched in February 2014, offering items from denim to midi skirts in sizes 14 to 24. Its core demographic is 24- to 42-year-old women-who have clamored to its trendy pieces.

ELOQUII customer and Grandview resident Jodi Bommer, 38, is drawn to the quality and edgier fashion. She shops ELOQUII when she needs a closet update, and it's her go-to spot to find an outfit for a big event.

"They are finally listening to the plus-size woman who wants more fashion," Bommer said. "Just because someone is plus-size doesn't mean they want to hide their shape. ELOQUII captures that in the fits that they have. It's a nice fit and nice style."

And if it weren't for those fashion-conscious women, ELOQUII as a brand would not be what it is today. Carnevale and Zawada credit the original ELOQUII customer as motivation to revive the brand.

"Our customer was really, really vocal," Zawada said. "And she went to the bloggers, and the blogging community talked about it. We had open letters written to The Limited, saying 'Why did you give up on us? Why are you doing this? We loved the clothes, you didn't give us enough time.' "

The blogging led to a strong social media presence-key for an e-commerce business. An in-house social-media team member manages ELOQUII's Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, oftentimes previewing clothing there before the product is released online. Questions on Facebook about what ELOQUII should do next help point the leaders in the right direction. ELOQUII encourages customers to use the hashtag, #XOQ, which allows shoppers to see real women wearing the pieces they're browsing directly on ELOQUII's website. And a new social sharing function on the site streams what ELOQUII customers are buying and searching in real time.

"A lot of companies use Instagram and Facebook to get the buzz and get the chatter," Carnevale said. "But not many people really sell and convert from those channels. When we started to see that, we got really excited, and light bulbs went on."

Bommer appreciates the uses of the #XOQ hashtag when she's shopping, as it gives her ideas on how items fit on women of different sizes. It also encourages her to put things together she might not have considered.

"The retail industry in general is just now catching up to the plus-size customer in Columbus," Bommer said. "We didn't really have something that was super on trend. It's nice to have [ELOQUII] here."

Today, ELOQUII's team is small but mighty-with plans to grow the staff in the coming years. While five of the 15 team members are based in New York, the executives are here, operating out of temporary space in the Easton area. ELOQUII's fulfillment center is stationed in Groveport, so the team can pop over when wanted and be hands-on with the product.

"I want to see the returns that are coming back," Zawada said. "I want to look at a damage bin and see what's going on with our merchandise. It's our job to be with our product."

Though they often find themselves working seven days a week, it's not uncommon to kick-off Monday morning meetings with mimosas or uncork a bottle of wine on Friday at 4 p.m.

"We do make sure that with the small team that we have, if we see anyone get overwhelmed, we tell them to go take a couple hours [out of the office]," Carnevale said.

While financial goals are certainly important-and they are beating theirs-it's not all about the money, the executives said. It's about making sure women look good, feel good and are confident and comfortable in what they're wearing.

"To me, it's getting an email from a 22-year-old customer, saying how she was getting ready for her first day of her first job and she was in a fitting room of another store with her mother just bawling her eyes out that there was just nothing for her. The clothes were too old for her and there was nothing cute," Carnevale said. "Sending us her pictures in our clothes on her first day of work... to me, that is rewarding to know that we are really making a difference."