Catherine from Cantik Swimwear

Catherine Heenan is the force behind Cantik Swimwear, a deliciously nostalgic and bohemian swimwear label. At the age of 20 Catherine took a left turn and became the founder and director of the hugely successful Cantik. Two years later, she is living half her life on the shores of Sydney and the other half immersed in Balinese culture.

What started as a curious Google search and procrastination from university work, ultimately transformed into Cantik Swimwear - an enormously coveted cult swimwear label that boasts a global sales reach of over 40 countries. Taking over the world in the space of two years would be an amazing achievement at any age, but Catherine Heenan, the sole driving force behind this retro-inspired brand, was just 20 when she started the company. With an ethos screaming of kick-ass female empowerment and deep roots in Balinese culture, there is much more behind this brand than daring one-pieces and risqué bikini bottoms. While Catherine celebrates the unadulterated allure of the female body, she simultaneously remains true to her background in humanities and development studies in the course of running her business. Over a glass of lunchtime vino I managed to grab the passionate lady behind Cantik to talk a whole lot of girly talk.

How on earth did you do it? How did you pluck up the courage to leave the comfort zone of the average 20-something lifestyle and go out on a limb?

Upon returning from travelling for two months in Mexico and LA, I resumed my university degree in [humanities and development studies] but found myself getting restless. While I was deeply passionate about what I was studying, I had post-holiday depression and needed something to distract myself and give me a new zest for life. So I started daydreaming. This daydream slowly became a reality when I started researching colour trends and googling “How to start production?” in my spare time outside of university. I also worked part-time in a designer boutique, which gave me insight into how to run a successful fashion label, but really I was mostly reliant on googling. I didn’t know the first place to go, I just felt my way through it all. Next thing I knew, two or three months later and I was riding around Bali on a scooter trying to find a manufacturer. I have never liked people telling me what to do or how to do it. So I just asked myself – “Why can’t I do it?”

"I’d like to eventually run my own factory and accommodate migrant workers and fly them back to their home country several times a year."

You were 20 when you started Cantik, which quite frankly put the rest of us sloths to shame. Have you been conscious of your relative youth or find that others are?

A lot of the time I correspond via email, so often I can hide my age behind my words, but it’s never been a hindrance. I’ve met with many powerful people, international buyers or PR companies, and I think when they discovered my age they were a bit surprised. For example the first time I walked into Sweaty Betty PR and met Roxy Jacenko (Founder and Director), I was 21 and was surrounded by so many powerful women. I find it empowering, because I see people in their thirties and they don’t have a direction yet. I’ve always been a person who knows what I want.  

What is the ethos behind Cantik?

It’s hard to align fashion with empowerment, but because of my background in humanities and development studies, I feel there is a strong sense of female empowerment driving Cantik. It may not come through in the designs, but everything about Cantik is about female strength. My social media accounts feature strong images of women, and I am aware that there is a fine line between bearing everything and celebrating women. But I have an awareness and knowledge of what a strong woman looks like. For example, the women making my swimwear – I know they go home once a year to Java for Ramadan to see their family. Females are involved throughout the whole Cantik process – from my invisibility behind the brand to the women who are sewing the garments, the owners of the factory, the pattern makers, the female photographers and the PR women all the way to the female buyers. I deal predominantly with women – it’s like an empowering female production line! There’s women everywhere and we’re all doing our thing and egging each other on.

by Tory D

 “Cantik” is Indonesian for beautiful, and these days you live half the year in Bali. Did you have an affinity with Indonesian culture prior to Cantik?

I’ve been going to Bali since I was three years old, so it was less scary to consider Bali than to think of sourcing factories in China. It’s close to home and offers small minimums, which is great for boutique companies just starting up. However, I am starting to produce in mass and I’ve just had to change factories because my previous factory couldn’t keep up with the demand. Everyone advised me to go to China because it’s about a third of the cost, but I know too much about the practices there and the sweat shops. Ethically, it’s not a viable option for me. It’s not something Cantik will ever consider.

Are you running this show solo?

I’ve just hired an Indonesian woman in Bali who is currently running errands for me now as we speak, which feels amazing because I finally have some assistance. The going rate for a fulltime employee in Indonesia is $300/month, but my assistant has a newborn baby so will be working part time. I’ve been advised to pay her a part time wage, and the business woman in me has considered it, but I’ve decided to pay her the full-time wage instead. From this new recruitment I’ve discovered I find it really hard to delegate – I’ve got so much in my head and by the time I finish explaining everything I could have just done it myself! But you can’t be six people at once.

As the star of an (almost) one-woman show, are you self-motivated or do you need to set six alarms to get out of bed?

I’m incredibly self-motivated; the first thing I do when I wake up is look at my emails. I literally open my eyes and start working. Some days I might start working at 6:30am and finish at 11:00pm, and generally I work six days a week. This means I am pretty proficient at sending emails slightly intoxicated! At the same time, I know this probably isn’t a great work/life balance, and I am trying to actively improve this balance by reminding myself to pick up a book every now and then. But I’m so exhausted from working I generally fall asleep after reading one sentence! Cantik is my life; it’s all-encompassing and I love it. Every now and then I have a split second moment of self-doubt, where I think “I’m a fake”, but I have to push back that negative internal banter and keep going. Besides – I think we’re all faking it a little bit. No one really knows what they’re doing.

What advice would you give a young entrepreneur who wants to pursue their own brilliant business idea?

Once I decided I wanted to start a swimwear label, I set the intention and every day I tried to take one step towards fulfilling the intention, until it eventually came to fruition. But I would advise that you’ve got to be prepared to work harder than your peers. There’s a quote that inspired and drove me to work harder – “Work until your competitors become your peers”. While I think we live in a society where being over-stressed and over-worked is glamorised, at the same time working hard feels good. I really struggle to relax, and I feel guilty even reading a book. My brain only really switches off after a few wines! I find the line between work and my personal life is completely blurred. But I know at the end of the day what I do isn’t that important in the scheme of things. I know about the big issues in the world because of my background and degree, so when I get an irate buyer or something goes wrong I try not to take it too seriously, because at the end of the day – it’s swimwear. But obviously in terms of my career, I take it very seriously.

You seem very committed to systemic ethical issues in the fashion industry and on a broader level. Do you try to tie this into the philosophy of Cantik?

I am not sure if it was a coincidence or an unconscious way to practically implement the knowledge gained from my degree, but it is definitely a driving force behind Cantik. Ideally, I would like to move more in that direction as Cantik gets bigger. I’d like to eventually run my own factory and accommodate migrant workers and fly them back to their home country several times a year. It’s hard because in the fashion industry at the moment it’s “fashionable” and trendy to be ethically conscious and it’s hard not to fall into that trap. But it’s not something I even promote that we are.

Regretfully moving away from the fascinating philosophy behind Cantik and on a lighter note – when you envision yourself on the catwalk of life, what song is playing?

[Laughs]. I think I might have to go with the Helen Redding Song “I Am Woman”. Damn, I wish I could think of something a bit cooler.

There’s nothing cooler than Helen Redding. On that note – who is the coolest person you know?

I’d have to say without a doubt my best friend Lucy. She did the same degree as me. She’s 24 at the end of the year and about to complete her Masters in Nursing. In the industry I’m in everyone is “cool” – fashionistas and photographers and PR agents etc. But I think she’s doing the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, because she’s working so hard and is a deeply compassionate person. And she’s a massive babe.

Authors note: If you don’t have a pair of these beauties, do yourself a favour and shimmy into a pair. You will feel like you star in Bay Watch, sans the 90s hair.