Bronx boutique and wellness spa Urban Starzz has only been open for about a week, and owner April De Simone, 34, has been running around non-stop taking care of the final touches. This Puerto Rican-Italian Bronx native has a lot on her plate now: a salon/barbershop, body art boutique, and apparel and footwear store all under roof, and all contributing to one goal: to revitalize the community she grew up in. But as April finally relaxes in the chair, her long to-do list starts to fade away. A pedicurist diligently paints her toes with the natural colored polish and white trim of a French manicure. At last, April gets to stop and reflect on her wild journey from community activist to entrepreneurial impresario as she chats with Latina.com...
How did you come up with the idea to open a boutique in the Bronx?
The whole concept came about because my brother had two businesses in the area. I was heavily involved in doing not-for-profit work, and I always wanted to find something that I could reinvest in the community that I was born and raised in. One night we were brainstorming, and I said, why don’t we combine a boutique with salon services right in the Bronx! You can find those things in Manhattan, but not really in the inner city. We executed the concept in less than three months and we’re very excited.
Where exactly is Urban Starzz located?
We’re on East Tremont Avenue by Katona Park, just above the South Bronx in New York. It’s a great spot. It feels good to be in there and around the people that you grew up with. Everybody is incredibly supportive of the whole venture. I’ve been truly blessed to be back in this community and have the reception that makes it feel like I’ve never left. I can’t say enough about how positive it’s been.
What's the scene there like on a typical day?
You’ve got people here playing dominoes and spades, shooting pool and just shooting the breeze and networking. We want to have kids come in and do poetry readings. We want to display artwork from the local artists. It’s more of a community forum that at the same time offers all these services.
What challenges do you face that are differrent from someone who would open a boutique like this in Manhattan?
The initial challenge is that it’s very new for this community. We have a client base here, but it’s challenging to sell the concept to vendors who don’t think that people will spend that type of money in the community or gravitate to their product. But everyone’s always traveling to Manhattan or Fordham Road to get these items. We’ve been telling the higher end lines that they do have a dedicated following here,
and it would be nice to give communities like ours an opportunity to prove that. We say, 'People do spend money on your stuff. And what better way than to sell your products at a place that’s closely connected to the community and will give back to the community?'
What brands do you carry?
Kenneth Cole, Alador and Smith, Lucky Brand Jeans, Angel Jeans, Dollhouse, Azzore, Levis.
When did you fall in love with fashion?
I’m not a slave to fashion, but I’ve always mimicked my older cousins with their styles. They always brought out a great fashion sense without breaking the wallet. It was okay to walk around with a Gucci purse that may have cost $400, but you could also walk around wearing jeans that cost $30. They pulled it all together. I was one of the younger cousins, so they always used to dress me up.
But my first passion was constitutional law. I worked in the D.A.’s office, but then I started Urban Starzz and Shooting Starzz Program, which gives back a portion of our proceeds to academic enrichment programs within and outside of the community. We also help families. When you are a barber or stylist for someone, you become very intimate with your client. You know their life aspirations. I’ve watched my brother, one of the main barbers who runs the barber area, listen to countless people saying stuff like, 'I want to take a test to become an electrician.' And we want to help people like that because then it helps their families, and if it helps the families, it helps the communities as a whole. It makes a difference in everyone’s life.
What’s your background?
My mother came to this country when she was 15-years-old from Cataño, Puerto Rico. And my father is first generation Italian American. I’ve had a very challenging background and still transcended the obstacles. I was born into a single parent household with an absentee father. The most challenging thing was that I was one of the first kids that had go through the whole HIV/AIDS epidemic because my father was infeccted. At that time it was still a new issue, and people weren’t very educated on it. As a kid I had to go through that, so I just have a different appreciation for life.
How did you overcome those obstacles?
Just believing. God always sends you different people along the way to balance things out. I just felt that it doesn’t matter, I kept working hard and looking for a better tomorrow. I was very spiritual and positive about the whole thing.