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Salt & Sand: Ethical talk with Cantik Swimwear’s founder, Catherine Heenan

In life, you either have two choices – you can take the easy one, sitting and waiting until something great happens, or you can take the lead of your own destiny by working hard for what you are seeking. Of course, to do so, you need to have a passion of some sort in you – a feeling similar to love, but instead of being someone, it is something. Your heart can’t stop beating, your hands get wet and you can’t sleep at night – the only idea of getting that thing makes you sleepless. It almost drives you nuts, I admit, but that’s when you know that the magic is in you. And this, it is pure gold. It won’t be easy, as most people that jump on an entrepreneurial adventure knows, it will be terribly hard, but the rewards of achieving it and living passionately are worth the risk. 

That’s when Cantik comes into our mind. 

Cantik Swimwear may look like a typical swimsuit brand – amazing swimsuits, yes-, but still only swimwear. But while I write this line, I almost get ashamed of comparing Cantik to typical, because the brand is not common. Their philosophy is not, nor their aesthetic either. And, I suddenly remember Catherine Heenan, the founder of it all. A loving person with such a kind soul, but also, a brilliant business woman who seeks justice and ethical choices. 

This interview with Catherine may inspire you to become better, as a human being, or it may just inspire you to be careful towards your buying choices. It may make you realize that the world is yours and anyone can accomplish anything with patience and work. It may motivate you enough to go out and finally create things you thought were impossible. But the one thing I am sure of is that Catherine is not only worth knowing, but more especially, worth hearing. 

Designed for “bold and strong cantik women all over the world”, we can quickly understand that Cantik is pursuing a different goal than most companies. With the help of Catherine’s studies in Environmental Humanities & Development and her endless knowledge of the question, she decided to make a difference with her brand. All swimsuits are produced in Indonesia and factories visited often by Catherine herself to make sure that all employees are treated equally in good conditions with fair wages. Cantik isn’t only standing out because of its unique aesthetic – the brand is leading by example of what the world should follow.

We recently spoke with Catherine to get to know more about the brand; and all we can say is that we’re totally amazed by the authenticity she brings in such a materialistic world. She is the change we needed to see and definitely is an inspiration – not only for her success but also for her beautiful soul. 

You built yourself a place that you wouldn’t have expected possible three years ago, a brand that empowers women and allows you to express yourself. Before this whole adventure, you were studying Environmental Humanities & Development Studies, how do you think it affected your work and the philosophy of your brand? 

I started studying purely out of personal interest, curiosity and, as it happened then, my degree fostered my global interests, my environmental & ethical considerations and particularly those of politics in South East Asia, as well as a focus on the rights and autonomy of migrant workers. This awareness is at the very foundation of the brand. When I began University, I had no idea that for me there would be a magical fusion between two seemingly unrelated industries (or interests) just a few years down the line. The paths we take in our lives can often seem pointless or ill-fitted to our current situations or even future goals; however, it’s incredible how these can lead back into one cohesive affair if you just trust and allow. 

The idea that you built this on your own while being entirely self-taught is simply crazy! You are everywhere on Instagram, which plays a major key role in your popularity at the moment. What was the hardest part of focusing all your ideas on social media? 

While social media has been a wonderful platform to enable us to quickly reach customers worldwide, it hasn’t been our main focus. Cantik launched when Instagram was still very much in its infancy, and we built an organic following and loyal customer base from there. In current times we see social media is flooded; it is now easier than ever for anyone with a slightly robust social platform to start a “label”. Cantik is a brand with an ethos stemming from humble beginnings. The current social climate will blow over as trends rise and fall (as we can already see glimpses of with the changing algorithms) and I think that only those who can adapt quickly while remaining authentic will last. 

You are basically living the dream, at least, that’s what we think! If we go through a “normal” day for you, what can we expect? 

Each day is different and dependent on the time of year as well as where I am.

My home now is on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and I am incredibly lucky to have a home office which overlooks the beach (so lunch breaks are often spent basking or surfing). I get up early to walk or do yoga and swim before getting into the office. We have some amazing girls at Cantik now who largely take care of the online store and customer service, as well as assist me with design and production. This way I can focus on the business as a whole, so my daily tasks can range anywhere between design, sourcing, liaising with suppliers to marketing and e-commerce. 

Being my own boss has afforded me the luxury of freedom and flexibility, but I have also had to be diligent, disciplined and have had to sacrifice things at times. Running your own business, especially in the first few years requires you to work constantly. I have had long periods where I have worked 7 days a week, 18 hours a day. Sometimes now I am able to delegate more and make more time for myself or socialising. It’s all about balance but that can be hard to find too. 

You are producing all your swimwear in Bali, which is quite impressive & interesting to see when you could easily go to cheaper places such as China. You stipulated in an interview that you would never turn yourself to China as it is not ethical. What is going on there that you don’t agree with? Big companies all seem to turn their brain off when it comes to money! 

I think transparency is very important and the fact that we manufacture off-shore yet still in very close proximity to home really enables this. I am in Bali a few months of the year for sampling, overseeing production and quality control, etc, so I get to spend a bit of time working alongside the people who make our garments. Whether this is at the sampling or pattern making stages, construction, to preparing and packing shipments. I really doubt there are too many big companies who manufacture out of say, China or Bangladesh who have even set foot inside their factories, so whether conditions are good or bad, they wouldn’t know. We get inundated with emails from Chinese suppliers offering to make garments at alarmingly low prices, and it really forces you to wonder then, how much their workers are being paid and the possible conditions under which they work. 

There is a lot of literature out there that brings light to the ethics of the global supply chain; for instance, there is great evidence out of China of violations of Article 32 of the Convention of Rights of The Child, which outlines, “You have the right to protection from work that harms you, and is bad for your health and prevents you from receiving an education. If you work, you have the right to be safe and paid fairly.” As a consumer too, I often wonder about the origin of the goods I buy. Once you become more aware, being ignorant and simply being okay with that is harder. 

You have the right to protection from work that harms you, and is bad for your health and prevents you from receiving an education. If you work, you have the right to be safe and paid fairly.

Being the secret behind Cantik Swimwear, doing everything from design to website coding, we can basically call you a #girlboss! Was it a scary step for you to jump in an entrepreneurial adventure that involved endless hours of work and commitment? 

When I started Cantik, I was only twenty. At the time I  hadn’t the faintest idea what a “start-up” was, little to no knowledge regarding the fashion, business or marketing worlds. I think if I only knew what I needed to know – what I know now, I’d have very likely not started. In saying that I like the adrenaline that comes with venturing into the unknown and challenging myself, in teaching myself. 

So while I wasn’t the wisest as to the challenges that were coming, I was armed with the determination to make it ‘work’, and to even what degree or manifestation of that word I wasn’t sure. 

You are a leader for women and an inspiration. Are there any tips you wish we could have told you, when you were still trying to figure out who you were? 

That’s a lovely compliment, thank you. While at 24 I am still very much coming into my own; It is so important to remember to be kind to yourself. We need not punish ourselves by constantly comparing ourselves or our life’s situations to that of others (so limit your time scrolling through social media & remind yourself it is generally just an edited highlight reel!) Do not define yourself by external factors like material possessions, relationships, or physical attributes. The most important thing is to be at peace within, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, “You cannot get away from yourself by moving from one place to another“; the things we try to run from or smother will come up for air at some point otherwise.

I think it’s in our instinct to run when times get tough, which I have done my fair share of growing up. 

Still, don’t be afraid to ask for help at times, you can still be independent, but you don’t have to be alone through every challenge.  

Also, try not to take yourself and life so seriously! 

How do you do to keep yourself inspired for upcoming collection? There is a constant demand and you always need to create something, isn’t that challenging? 

The constant desire to better the brand and myself as a designer and a business owner is what keeps me motivated and I find myself inspired constantly. Before a collection has even been completed I am already thinking of the next one and identifying what I would have done differently or looking at an archived style and trying to source new fabrics or colours. 

Bali is like your second home, constantly travelling there since you’ve been three years old. Why do you like it so much? 

I have such fond memories as a child holidaying with my family in Bali; the smell of clove cigarettes, the incense in the Hindu offerings and the corn cooking on the kaki lima carts, having a stormy afternoon nap after swimming all day. 

Bali has so much beauty and some really incredible people. You rarely hear of people just visiting once; you really do fall in love with it. If you venture out of the main tourist hubs you can find secluded beaches, waterfalls, untamed jungle and wildlife. (I highly recommend getting to some of the other thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago too). 

As Bali is becoming more and more developed, we’re seeing the addition of so many world class bars and restaurants, so on work trips in between meetings I spend my time cafe hopping with my laptop in tow and evenings are spent catching up with friends and eating at my favourite restaurants. 

On my last trip I spent the most amazing two days at Hanging Gardens Resort in Ubud, it was pure bliss in the middle of the jungle. Bali has so many places which can facilitate your search for ‘zen.’ (And many others for the total opposite too!) 

I realise this sounds completely glamorous, however manufacturing in Bali isn’t without its frustrations. The bottom line is that patience is a virtue in Indonesia and sometimes this is a great reminder to surrender and accept the present moment. 

What can we expect next from you? Any things exciting coming up soon? 

The most exciting recent addition to Cantik for our 2017 collection has been the inclusion of 100% recycled and regenerable lycras.

ECONYL is a new Italian technology which uses fabrics that are regenerated from nylon contained in waste such as carpets, clothing (swimwear!) and fishing nets, and then transformed back into raw material without any loss of quality. It makes owning countless new swimsuits each collection feel somewhat better! Together we have the choice to consume more consciously. 

Our 2017 collection will also become available in more stores as we continue to grow our international wholesale side of the brand. 

As you never truly get to know you, except through your brand, we were wondering: what’s your favourite thing in the whole world? 

Pretty much red wine and condiments…

Other than those honestly my favourite things in the world are those that make you feel immense presence. Which is where I think we find our ultimate happiness and peace. I feel like I can find this through many things, like simply having a nice meal with friends, having a drink and watching the sunset or playing with a dog. They’re the best things. 


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