At first, it was the desire for independence, to create something new, to combine beauty with practicality. Then it was a taste for adventure and the simple pleasures of family life that drove her to become an entrepreneur. Constance Hartig, founder of Canopea, took the plunge in 2016 to combine her two passions: design and the great outdoors. In this interview, she tells us about her start as an entrepreneur.
"Creating a company is an adventure full of joy and freedom, but also sometimes some bad surprises. You have to know how to stomach them quickly, learn from them and turn them into strengths."
When did the idea of starting your own business come to you?
Having my own company was not as obvious to me as it is today. Before launching Canopea, I worked for many years in the cultural sector, where you have to be versatile, autonomous and creative. I think this has influenced a lot who I am today and how I like to work. Creating a company is an adventure full of joy and freedom, but also a lot of obstacles. The challenges are endless, but I like them, that's how we learn, how we move forward and how we grow. Today, I realize that entrepreneurship corresponds to me 100%.
What prompted you to give up your job in cultural press relations to start your own business?
As a junior in a company, I was often a little frustrated not to always have the information at hand. I naturally asked a lot of questions because I wanted to know a lot of things, which was not always well received. I climbed the ladder one step at a time, and after ten years in communications, I wanted to find other issues. I was fascinated by how things were produced, how a coffee machine is made for example, or where our clothes come from and who makes them? I studied design (Parsons School in New York) so I always knew that I would return to a more manual profession at some point. I just had to wait for the right time. While pregnant with my third child, I was able to negotiate a severance package and said to myself "ok, it's now or never". It's been 5 years and I've never regretted it!
I imagine that the idea of Canopea was born from your experience as a mother?
Yes, it did! The summer after I quit my last job, I came out of a consultation with my dermatologist with a sun protection t-shirt, a (rather ugly) gift made from synthetic material. I was 6 months pregnant, with two other children ages 2 and 4, and once on the beach I wondered how I could put sunscreen on them every day without running after them and giving birth at the same time! So they wore these ugly t-shirts all vacation, which ended up being torn at every seam by the third day... I was then looking for an idea to create my company, and my brother-in-law jokingly suggested I could make sun protective t-shirts. We laughed and I decided to take on the challenge of making something cool and trendy out of something that most parents didn't really want at the time.
How did you get started?
When I returned from vacation, I learned that a friend of mine had died of skin cancer at age 32. As I immersed myself in the subject, faced with the alarming statistics, I realized that the number of people with skin cancer doubles every ten years in Europe, that children are particularly sensitive to UV rays because of their thin skin and that our sun capital deteriorates as soon as we turn 18. It is surprising that we are so poorly informed about this cancer when we have real means to act to avoid it. I also realized that a simple cotton t-shirt does not protect our skin from the sun's harmful rays (UPF 7, once wet it drops to 3). A Canopea sun protective rashtop offers a UPF 50+, which means that it protects 98% of UV rays. The young generation of dermatologists confirms it today, the best sun protection is through the use of high-tech clothing. So I quickly realized the need to create a reliable and effective product against UV rays, to compensate for the almost non-existent offer in France.
And you didn't have any trouble convincing parents: your sun protective rashtops were a success from the start!
I was clearly convinced of my idea, but with such a seasonal product I had to do it right and fast. Within a few months, I sourced fabrics - ultra resistant and made from recycled fishing nets -, found a manufacturer, created a company, found a brand name, released prototypes, shot photos in the studio, created a website, and launched a first production of 1200 sun protective swimsuits hoping that someone would buy them. It was a winning bet! In three weeks everything was sold out, I had to restock twice during the first season. I was obviously not the only one who wanted to protect my children from UV rays but could not find clothes that I liked. There has also been an impressive evolution of attitude towards the sun. Today, a young parent no longer asks the question of whether or not to protect their child from the sun.
Parents are convinced, but how can we convince our children to wear sun protective clothing on the beach?
This is the key issue! And one of our main concerns. Our fabrics block the sun's rays without chemical filters thanks to the tightly woven fibers, which means that our UV protection swimwear remains effective even when wet or after repeated washings. It is also a light and breathable fabric, which is important to avoid skin irritation. The sun protective rashtop must act as a second skin, for that we respect three criteria: it is easy to put on thanks to the three buttons on the shoulder, the labels and the seams do not scratch, and it dries quickly (20 min max). If these three criteria are respected, the child will forget that he is wearing a sun protective rashguard, he will adopt it without worry and will remain well protected.
Was it difficult to learn a new job ?
I didn't have any training in textiles when I started Canopea, so at the beginning I worked mostly on instinct. I also know what my limits are, so to help me build my project, I took a few accelerated training courses in the city of Paris: in accounting, styling and pattern making to understand what would be the problems of a pattern maker on my type of product. The first two years were very intense because with few means, I had to wear all the hats, sometimes at the same time: the management of the website with its CSS codes, the accounting, the production follow-up with its highs and lows, the preparation and the shipping of the orders, the communication with Instagram which was becoming an ultra time-consuming tool but already unavoidable. I didn't sleep much at that time, but as I had just had my third child, I already had a very disturbed sleep!
How did you keep up during this period between your three children and the launch of your business?
I didn't hesitate to get help, first from my husband who was incredibly supportive and patient. Then nannies and an army of young girls who took over for school outings and activities. Then quickly, thanks to the success of the first collection, I was able to surround myself with professionals who took over logistics, social networks, customer service... I now manage a team of 8 people with whom I am in contact with almost daily. I worked hard but I also think I was lucky enough to find the right product at the right time.
As a woman and a mother, do you feel that it's easier to manage daily life when you are an entrepreneur or is it rather the opposite?
I find that the way women entrepreneurs are looked at is always a bit critical, even more so when they are mothers. I often heard at the beginning "Oh great, you'll be able to spend more time with your children". Would you say that to a man starting a business? Just recently, when I presented my brand to a big businessman entrepreneur, he said, "Well done, you must have a very rich husband then. I found this hurtful and deeply unfair. Sure, the day-to-day is easier to manage because I don't have to ask permission for a doctor's appointment or a school trip, but I work ten times as hard as I did when I was in the office, because there's always something to do, you don't count your hours, and you're still fighting a bit against the clichés of the "mompreneur" looking to keep herself busy in her free time (not that there's anything wrong with that, but why do you always have to justify it to yourself?) We realize that even among entrepreneurs, the road to equality is quite long!
Three years ago you moved to Geneva, how do you manage with a company and offices based in France?
Between a community manager based in Paris, a customer service based in London, an accountant based in Toulon, a web developer based in Oise, our workshops in Portugal and a stylist in Arras, moving to Geneva hasn't changed much professionally. I still have offices in France and I regularly come back to Paris for meetings, or to visit our logistician, or the showroom of our distributor. I manage to organize concentrated trips of 48 hours and take advantage of this to see friends and family. We always find our balance!
What has this move changed for you and your family?
For sure, our quality of life has changed a lot by moving to Switzerland. I will always have a soft spot for Paris after living there for 8 years, it's where we lived as newlyweds and where our children were born, but I always knew that we would leave one day. We wanted this change for the kids, to expose them to more outdoor activities, to experience things with our friends rather than seeing each other at dinner parties. We live in Geneva because we remain deeply urban but in 10 minutes we are on the lake, in 50 minutes in the most beautiful mountains of Europe... I had read somewhere that each city corresponds to a decade, so after a childhood in Japan, teenage years in New York, 20s in London and 30s in Paris, I am delighted to start a new decade where we are.
What's new and what's the latest on Canopea?
The 2022 collection is ready, and I think it's my favorite collection so far! We have continued to develop the women's line, which is very popular, with a wider range of swimwear but also rashtops, sun protective suits, mix and match products for children, new colors... We have launched a new baby line starting at 3 months of age with more suits and Liberty hats with a sun protective lining. Always with the aim of combining style and protection. We also have some nice surprise collabs in the works for 2022!
Taken from the interview for leslouves.com