Peru-born St. Louisan Daphne Benzaquen always thought she was going to be a doctor. She was on a pre-med track in college, and because her father’s a doctor, she figured she’d follow in his footsteps. But after college, she realized she wanted to pursue business instead and earned her MBA at Washington University in St. Louis. In her second year at Wash U, Benzaquen wanted a unique backpack to take to classes – one that no one else would have that also suited her needs. She was unsuccessful in searching for such a backpack, but her failure to find something just right sparked her curiosity. She’d always heard that the artisans in the mountains of Peru were known for their leather products, and she wondered if she could have someone make her the perfect backpack.
“I cold-emailed several [Peruvian] manufacturers I found online” she says. “I figured it was worth a try.”
With no design experience, Benzaquen did her best to communicate to the artisans what she was envisioning for her backpack and sent them makeshift designs. Since she often spends Christmastime in her birthplace of Lima, Peru, Benzaquen took a side trip on her next visit to the mountains of Arequipa to meet with five of the manufacturers she’d been in contact with.
“Some of the manufacturers had totally changed my design, and some had not worked on my design at all,” she says. “I didn’t even want to go to my last meeting because I was so frustrated but ended up going and that manufacturer had created a backpack that most closely resembled my design.”
Benzaquen liked that he worked with llama leather and baby alpaca fur – something that would be unique and different for the metro area. In addition to her backpack, Benzaquen realized she could make more designs to send to Arequipa and spent the next year sending designs back and forth. She procured her own hardware for the pieces, as the copper color she desired wasn’t common in Peru.
“I knew if I was going to put my name on it, it had to be me,” she says.
From a few rough designs and countless emails from St. Louis to Arequipa, daph. was born. The company name, drawn from her own, also serves its purpose as an acronym: durable, authentic, polished and handmade – pillars that are most important to Benzaquen’s business. After two years of designing, communicating and creating and one year after her manufacturing trip to Peru, daph. officially launched online on Dec. 16, 2017.
“It was one of the scariest day of my life,” Benzaquen says with a laugh.
She hadn’t told many people about the brand she was building, keeping her work to herself outside of her immediate family.
“I got so many texts and feedback the day the website launched,” she says. “I even got one of the first purchases that day. That’s when I knew I had made something people like and that I had to keep going with it.”
Outside of the backpack, her first set of releases included bags like the anita., the angelica., the cristina. and the mosy. – a baby alpaca fur clutch. The original collection was inspired by the “cheerleaders” in Benzaquen’s life – like the best-selling nicole. belt bag, named in honor of her sister, which is a small and stylish bag that can be used as a crossbody, clutch or belt bag. The pieces showcase the high quality and durability of Peruvian leather, even incorporating design elements inspired by Incan ruins in pieces like the Moray Circle Purse. The bags vary in color and price range, from the $125 Nazca envelope case to the Mosy clutch, which retails for $425.
Continuing to expand on her original concepts, Benzaquen released an Exclusive Release Alpaca Fleece apparel line last October featuring three pieces: an alpaca zip-up sweater, an oversize alpaca vest and a baby alpaca layering cape. The alpaca textiles are out of her hometown of Lima and offer a more sustainable alternative to cashmere with the same soft feel. Benzaquen called the apparel release a test, but since she’s “basically sold out of all of them,” she plans to do more. She’s already started on her winter 2019 designs and is finalizing designs for this fall, as well. In the nearer future, she has a travel capsule planned for an April release.
Although she grew up in St. Louis, Benzaquen’s Peru roots are important to her, and she’s taken great care to incorporate the South American country into the mission of her brand. A portion of each purchase goes back to communities in Peru, with proceeds going toward a new cause each year. In 2018, Benzaquen chose Peruvian American Medical Society, and daph. helped fund a special needs school in Tarapoto, a town in north-central Peru.
“I had never been to the jungle, but I was lucky enough to go in August, and we were able to inaugurate this multisensory wing that part of the daph. purchases help build,” she says. “That felt so good … like I’m really making a difference.”
In 2019, she plans to work with an organization like Supporting Kids in Peru to help economically disadvantaged children in such Latin American municipalities as El Porvenir and Alto Trujillo get educational support.
Benzaquen says she would never describe herself as a risk-taker, but she’s proud of herself for taking the plunge and starting her own business.
“I always say, ‘Fail fast; fail forward,’ – if something doesn’t work, at least you tried and can move onto the next thing having learned something along the way,” she says. “As corny as it sounds, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”