At eight months pregnant with her second child, Carolina Giraldo was bedridden with stress. With her fashion brand, Carolina Lifestyle, forced to close its nine retail stores in Sydney and Melbourne, Carolina describes the arrival of COVID as if someone had turned the tap off.
Having worked for close to a decade getting her business up and off the ground, COVID lockdown meant that just like many other businesses, everything Carolina had worked to create fell apart, literally overnight.
“I had a toddler and a baby on the way in 4 weeks and all I could do was lie in bed and cry. I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do,” Carolina explains. “I felt a deep sense of responsibility not only to my family but to the 150 staff I employed across my stores and in my factory in Colombia. These people depended on the income they earned through the business, as did I, and somehow, even though this was happening to everyone around the world at once, I still felt as though I had failed them.”
The arrival of COVID really was my sink or swim moment,” she continues. “After a few days of crying in bed, with my husband and my doctor worried about me and the baby, I realised that I could throw in the towel on a business I had dreamt of creating since I was a little girl, or I could come out fighting. I chose the latter and got out of bed. I had 4 weeks to figure out a plan before my daughter was due to arrive.”
Eighteen months later, Carolina Lifestyle has turned its greatest challenge into its biggest opportunity. Pivoting through COVID away from a bricks-and-mortar business to a booming online store, Carolina Lifestyle has continued its exponential growth, even while its stores remained closed for months of both 2020 and 2021. Its flawlessly chic, yet simple designs are perfect for everything from playdates at the park to dinner dates with your girlfriends, with fashion and accessories handcrafted by Colombian artisans using only the highest quality materials.
Tell us about your brand, Carolina Lifestyle. What makes you different from other fashion brands?
I always wanted to create a brand that made women feel beautiful, regardless of whether they’re running errands or sipping champagne. As women, it can be so hard to find clothing that’s versatile enough to transition from day to evening, without having to do a complete outfit change (unless of course, you’ve had a nappy explosion!).
My dream was to create a label that celebrated quality materials and exceptional craftsmanship at a more affordable price, giving every woman the opportunity to feel beautiful simply by buttoning up their shirt or slipping on their shoes.
As mothers, we can often put ourselves last, therefore Carolina Lifestyle is about helping wearers of our garments to feel effortlessly chic with minimal pieces so items can be easily swapped and mixed regardless of season or shifting trends. Importantly, I wanted a way to connect my Australian business with my heritage in Colombia. I knew that was not only something special to me but a point of difference in a market where almost everything is mass-produced in China.
We have our own factory that employs a team of designers and artisans who produce everything from scratch – from gorgeous garments to stunning accessories like hats, belts, shoes and handbags.
What was the inspiration for the label – how did you take it from a dream into a reality?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always dreamt of owning my own business. Growing up I recall that I always wanted everything, and I wanted it NOW. While we were part of a relatively middle-class family in my hometown in Colombia, my parents taught me from a young age that if you wanted something you had to work for it, and so I did. At just 8 years old, I started selling my drawings and paintings to my neighbours (even I confess they weren’t that good). When that jig was up, I started a baking business, selling my treats at school.
But it was my Grandmother who really inspired Carolina Lifestyle. Known as the fashionista about town, I always admired her effortless style and sophistication. I wanted to be able to recreate something that made women feel as stylish as she always was, without feeling overwhelmed by-passing fashion trends.
Carolina Lifestyle initially started as a wholesale business, designing leather handbags and shoes. There was no intention to expand into a retail business until one Christmas when I needed to provide employment for my single Australian employee, a mother. I had to create a popup shop to keep her going through the Christmas break. This little pop-up did so well, I realised that there was more to it, and Carolina Lifestyle could become something bigger than I ever thought possible.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since launching your business and how did you overcome it?
The arrival of COVID was by far my biggest challenge as a business owner. My first reaction was to blame myself. I felt like a complete failure. How did I not see this coming? I could either sit and dwell as my business crumbled – and I did a bit of that, I sat in bed and cried, and cried – or I could step up to keep my business alive, and my staff employed. The burden of their income and families weighed heavily on me.
With a traditional bricks and mortar model, I realised that to get through this unprecedented time I needed to shift my approach, starting with two key things:
- We started manufacturing PPE equipment in our factory and selling to hospitals in Colombia so we could keep everyone employed
- Here in Australia, we reached out to our customers and asked them what they wanted. How could we help them to fulfil their needs during this unique time?
With everyone at home, what the customers wanted was loungewear. I was literally on my computer googling “what is loungewear” and within a few weeks, we were in production! That’s one of the joys of having your own factory – you can move very quickly.
Since then, we’ve just had to keep reinventing ourselves over and over and somehow, we’ve managed to not only survive but to thrive. The business even managed to grow this year during lockdown despite all our stores being closed because we’ve gotten smart about our online store and marketing, through necessity really!
How do you balance work and life? Would you say you’re successful in blending the two?
Like any working mother will tell you, it’s a challenge! Fortunately, my husband, Jamie, is also an entrepreneur so, between the two of us, we can juggle the needs (and demands!) of having two small children.
As passionate business owners and entrepreneurs, there really is no line between work and home – most family dinners end up with us chatting about our work, our challenges, and brainstorming ways to address them. Even our son, Sebastian, who is now four, is starting to show entrepreneurial qualities – he wants to own a cookie shop next door to one of our Carolina stores!
I think what’s also essential is having the right team around you. Because I’ve built that team over a period of years, I am able and fortunate enough to be able to make my own schedule so I can have that all-important time with my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I work my butt off! But it was important that I could have a business that allowed me to have the flexibility to have a family. And I feel like I’ve been able to do that… even if it means catching up on work late at night if I have to.
What’s the biggest thing that’s changed for you as a business owner since becoming a parent?
Prior to becoming a parent, it was always work, work, work. However, since the arrival of my son four years ago, I have realised that family must always come first, and as a result, I’ve structured my business in such a way that we are always able to support flexible working, for both my staff and my own family needs. Nothing is more important than being there for your children when they need you the most, that’s time you can’t get back.
If you could give one piece of advice to another parent looking to start their own business, what would it be?
Perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learnt in getting Carolina Lifestyle off the ground is to continue to work your 9-5 until your side hustle is starting to gain momentum. Throwing in the towel on a steady income and having all your eggs in one basket is not only stressful financially but puts added pressure on the business to succeed. The reality is, launching a business is a big and challenging process, so taking it slow, learning as you go and adjusting as required are important steps that don’t just happen overnight.
What’s next for Carolina Lifestyle?
Australia will always be our primary focus – and we’re aiming to open shop fronts nationally across all the states and territories in the coming years. Having said that, my dream is for Carolina to one day be an international brand! I’ve always dreamed big, so I say, why not!