- Real Estate
- Food & Drink
Jan. 31, 2019
By Steve Young, for SiouxFalls.Business
Luca Papini sat in the cavernous silence of his empty Phillips Avenue storefront and marveled at the moment.
This Friday, his Luca’s Boutique business is reopening as Luca: Made in Italy at its new address, 311 S. Phillips Ave., after almost three years of selling high-end Italian leather purses at the 8th & Railroad Center. Ten days earlier, staring out the window of his new shop next to CH Patisserie, Papini was almost breathless as he pondered these hectic, exciting times.
“To me sitting here right now,” he said and began to laugh, “this is unreal. Just to think of what I’ve been through.”
Been through? Nine years ago, the young man from southern Tuscany in Italy showed up on Sioux Falls’ doorstep because of a girl he had met online. Papini arrived here with zero business acumen. He came with no real vision for his future, either, except that he knew if love was going to blossom on the South Dakota prairie, he needed to find a job.
Which he did, cleaning toilets and doing other maintenance at the Sioux Falls Bus Depot.
Now fast-forward to today. The 39-year-old Papini and his colleague at Luca’s Boutique, Deya Thorin, are selling purses made from rich, buttery leather in Italy that rival the high-end products of Gucci, Prada and others but at a quarter of the price. They sell leather belts, backpacks and bags whose quality, Papini insists, make them a much better deal than that of the competition. They also have cashmere scarves and sweaters, and landscapes of Italy that Thorin has painted.
The decision to move to Phillips Avenue was calculated to gain more exposure to the consumer traffic moving up and down the busy business corridor, especially the women age 45 and older who buy these high-end products made by Italian artisans and designed by Papini’s friend and partner, Fabrizio Giusti, under his Nobile Roma line back in Italy.
“I’m really a bargain store, a deal store compared to the high prices that major brands have,” Papini said. “When people come in, and they see the quality and smell the leather and see the price is actually not that bad, they understand what they are getting. The only way you can get something that close to what they get here for more or less than $500 is to go to a brand like Gucci, and Prada maybe, or other products like Christian Dior, and spend $3,000, $4,000 for one bag.”
Customers loyal to him agree. Dr. Julie Mayo, a pediatric hospitalist in Sioux Falls, said the first time she walked into Papini’s business, he immediately recognized the purse she was carrying had come from Rome and even knew the store where she had bought it.
“I’ve gone to Italy on a few occasions, and he immediately recognized the label on this purse I had bought there, even though it was kind of obscure, and also the store where I had bought it,” Mayo said. “I couldn’t believe it. For me, that was like, ‘OK, this guy is legit.’ I’ll be honest, the quality of his things is what you would find in Italy.”
Mayo said it’s also important to her to shop locally. But Papini’s customer base spans the nation, from New York to Los Angeles. Lynn Lawler, a veterinary technician in Plain City, Ohio, said she learned about Papini from her mother, who had worked with him at a Catholic rectory in Rochester, Minn., when he first came to the United States in 2007. While she likes well-made, top-quality purses, Lawler said she prefers something more unique than the thousand-dollar-plus products her girlfriends buy from the big-name designers.
“I’m not that kind of girl,” she said. “My friends end up getting the same purses as everybody else does. I prefer something really nice, one of a kind, well made and different from what everybody else has. That’s what I get from Luca.”
That kind of business-customer relationship certainly didn’t evolve out of any well-conceived blueprint for success that Papini brought to his venture. He succeeded in getting the girl — his future wife, Sheri — after coming to Sioux Falls in 2010. But almost rudderless, he moved through a variety of jobs — at the Bus Depot, then selling cars and even cooking at a few local restaurants — all the time believing that there had to be something more for him.
Life, he believed, was passing him by. A daughter blessed the Papinis four years ago. And when Sheri became pregnant with their son over two years ago, “I could see life was going to get by me if I didn’t do something,” Papini said. “So I actually started my business with my wife pregnant and a 2-year-old daughter. It was like, nuts. But they say if you’re not nuts …”
His mother back in Italy suggested he contact a friend she knew who designed what she called the most exquisite purses. Papini reached out to Giusti, who understood that the young man didn’t have $50,000 to spend on inventory. The two decided that Giusti would send a few purses at a time over to America and that Papini would attempt to sell them, even doing so from the trunk of his car.
That’s an idea — trunk sales — that wasn’t foreign to him. Papini’s grandmother, Rosanna Riodolfini Valentini, used to represent the brand Christian Dior in Italy out of her two-seater sports car during the 1960s and ’70s. In fact, her grandson tells the story of a time when thugs back in Italy tried to run her off the road and rob her.
“There was no credit card back then, so the brand would give her products and cash, and she would drive around, talking to people, promoting the brand,” Papini said. “She told me once that she was approached by some people that tried to kind of push her to the side of the road and rob her. They must have known about her and what she was doing. But she pushed (the gas pedal) down and roared off.”
Laughing again, Papini suggested that wildness behind the wheel is something of a family trait. But it also hints to what it is that makes a man with no business background successful. Papini’s word for it is “passion.”
For example, he comes from a family that loves the culinary side of life. His mother, father and grandmother all had a passion for cooking, and not with microwaves and new-age technology but by scratch and with time-honored traditions. Because he watched and learned those traditions, he has been able to share his own cooking talents in Sioux Falls. He worked for a time at The Market and at Sanaa’s 8th Street Gourmet and even taught cooking classes at Hy-Vee and for the Sioux Falls School District’s Community Education program.
“I wouldn’t call myself a professional chef,” he said. “It’s more like a passion … or inside knowledge because I saw it happening.”
He also watched with interest his grandmother’s work in the world of Christian Dior. His uncle dabbled in high-end cashmere and actually worked for Vogue for a long time in Italy. The fashion world apparently rubbed off on the young Papini as well.
“I come from a very strong family of women, so the woman world in all its aspects is not a stranger to me,” he said. “It’s how I grew up.”
More than balance sheets and business plans, what he took in large part from his observations was the value of customer service. Whether selling purses from the trunk of his car, from a second-floor space at the 8th & Railroad Center that he occupied in March 2016 or on the center’s boardwalk where he ended up in June 2016, Papini said pleasing the customer became his primary business strategy.
“I want to change the way business is done,” he said. “Not because I’m absolutely great at it but because I’m so frustrated by the fact that you go somewhere and you don’t see customer service. You don’t see honest, good relationships. That’s not true all of the time but a lot of times.”
Lawler said Papini’s customer service is what keeps her coming back. She likes the Instagram and Facebook video posts he routinely produces for new products he has. She likes that he will send her video messages, asking her if she likes this purse or that purse, even opening them up and filming inside them so she can see what she would be getting.
“He goes above and beyond what you’d think a store owner would take time to do with somebody,” Lawler said. “People can go online and shop, but you don’t get the personalization that he gives you.”
Personalization Italian-style. Apparently, that has turned out to be a significant key to Papini’s success thus far, considering that as little as five years ago, he didn’t have a clue about how to run a business.
Today, well, his broad Tuscany smile fills the expanses of his new storefront on Phillips Avenue. “I have a clearer vision now,” he said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”
Luca: Made in Italy might feature Italian merchandise, but the story is all about what’s possible in America. From Italy to Sioux Falls, from cleaning bathrooms to owning a boutique, his next chapter starts Friday.