I have been so fortunate that so many people in my life offer their support and encouragement. When other people believe in you and what you are doing it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lisa Pongrass, the Founder and CEO of Canvas & Hyde, a luxury handbag company based in Brooklyn, New York. An acclaimed interior designer and fashion stylist in her Australian homeland, Lisa has over twenty years of experience that has propelled her to the forefront of fashion and beauty on an international stage. In 2006, Lisa was named in Harper’s Bazaar’s 100 Best-Dressed Australians, recognized for her “classic” style — a category that has been the mainstay of her direction and inspiration for Canvas & Hyde.
With the rise of digitally trend-driven “it” bags of the moment dominating the fashion world, Lisa sought to create her own line of “anti-it-bags”, Canvas & Hyde. With an intrinsic love of design and fashion, she focused on creating a brand that emphasized quality craftsmanship and an urban minimal aesthetic.
Through Canvas & Hyde, she has successfully brought American-made quality craftsmanship back to life and has incorporated both local and Italian mastery into the company.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
This career path for me feels inevitable yet accidental. It was born out of necessity as a newly single mother with a daughter attending High school in New York. I had worked in Interior Decoration, Public Relations, Design, as a Fashion Editor and in Fashion Sales, so starting a Luxury Brand was almost a natural culmination of all of these skills meshed together. It helped that I was completely obsessed with handbags!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of the biggest challenges for me was finding the right manufacturer — it’s a bit like listening to a politician who makes all the right promises and then waiting to see if they can deliver. Choosing who you can work closely with, who really understands your vision and has the skills to execute the level of detail I wanted to be a challenge. I trusted my intuition (something highly underrated in women), and I’ve been happy with my choices. It hasn’t been easy as I had no experience in the manufacturing process of creating a handbag line. There is probably an element of luck involved, and I’ve been lucky. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is not to settle and to trust my judgment when it comes to people. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies and as long as you can identify character traits in people, then you can understand how better to work together.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I don’t feel successful in business and I don’t think I ever will. It’s a blessing and a curse because I’m always striving to do better — it’s not about money, or power or recognition. The only arena that I’ve ever felt really successful in has been raising a fabulous human being who is my daughter. That, for me is the definition of success and the most rewarding thing ever. If I had to talk about what has led to the success of me building the Canvas & Hyde brand it is believing in myself, not giving up, the support of others and dreaming big….and also having enough capital to get off the ground in the first place!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- KEEP CLEAR, CONCISE FINANCIAL RECORDS. Someone actually gave me this advice in the infancy of my business but because I didn’t like it or understand some of it I gave it less energy than I should have. It is crucially important to any business. My friend Jenny devised graphs and spreadsheets for me to keep records of inventory levels and invoicing records but it always took me so long that I put it off and then it ended up piling up and being a seemingly insurmountable mountain of boring paperwork. It’s a necessary part of any start-up and critical for success.
- DELEGATE. Don’t be afraid to outsource work to people who know more than you in your field and if, like me, you are venturing into the relatively unknown field trying to capitalize on the experience of others. In the beginning, I was trying to be master of everything and it was virtually impossible to keep that going. Once I was able to relax about trusting others to do various tasks I was more able to focus on the things I did well.
- DON’T OVERSPEND. Most small business start-ups fail because of an inherent lack of cashflow. I wish I’d been a little more cognizant of this in the early stages of my business. To get better prices on materials like hardware, leather, and dustbags I had to make large quantities. Reflecting back it may have been more prudent for me to pay more but hold fewer inventories freeing up my capital and increasing my cash flow.
- KEEP TIME FOR YOURSELF. When you have a start-up the “to-do” list is never done. This was a new phenomenon for me as I’d always prided myself on completing tasks. It is almost impossible with a new business to get everything done every day so the temptation is to work into the wee hours and every weekend. This is NOT sustainable long-term. You need to reward yourself with some time off to do other things that you enjoy or you will grow to resent the business.
- FOLLOW EVERY CONVERSATION UP WITH A DETAILED EMAIL. This is one of those things that seems perfectly obvious but I’ve made the mistake with manufacturers in Brooklyn and in Florence of not detailing verbal conversations in written emails. When something goes wrong it is much easier to argue a point when you have it in writing to back it up. Make sure you put an adequate title in the SUBJECT line so you can find it when you need it.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
To “thrive” and not burn out you need to keep healthy — whatever that means to you. Whether it is yoga, running, spinning, meditation or the gym it is important to do something that takes you out of the office and out of yourself. Recognize that what you are doing is NOT saving lives (unless it actually is!) and try to take a step back to put everything into perspective. Sometimes you lose yourself in the grind so it’s imperative to give yourself some love. It’s different for everyone but I know I can change my whole outlook after a particularly stressful day with something as simple as a warm salted bath, surrounded by candles and a glass of chilled Rose! It’s like being on holiday for 30 minutes!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been so fortunate that so many people in my life offer their support and encouragement. When other people believe in you and what you are doing it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself. The most driving force behind the growth of Canvas & Hyde has been my daughter. From Day 1 when I was thinking of a name and design the LOGO she has been the loudest critic and the biggest fan. She is the face of our last campaign and is so proud to see me work so hard building a brand….she is my muse and when she tells me she would wear one of my designs I am elated.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
On the professional front I would like to continue on the path of being in the best high-end retailers in the United States but also concentrate on building our online direct to consumer platform. I actually love the interaction with the customers that purchase our bags and hearing feedback from them….the dream would be to open a Flagship store in New York one day.
As far as personal goals go I’d like to make enough money in my business to be aligned with the charity of my choice and be able to substantially give back.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I love the idea that our bags last and get better with age…..I am so over the concept of fast fashion and looks that come and go with the seasons. Canvas & Hyde is all about classic styles and quality materials to make a luxury bag that won’t end up in a landfill a few seasons after it is purchased. I would like the brand to be thought of as synonymous with quality……the perfect compliment of class and cool.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
This is such an easy one for me to answer and something I think I’ve been harping on for years! I always say to my friends and especially my daughter….when you shop, buy quality! It is better to buy one thing in a season that you will keep and wear for 20 years than a myriad of things that end up in the trash or being given away. The same goes for bags. Some of my favorite things in my wardrobe are years old and still look current and relevant…in fact so often people ask me where something is from and I love answering “Oh this….. it’s from 1999!!”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@canvasandhyde on Instagram and our website which is: www.canvasandhyde.com