Today I’m introducing Lisa Pongrass, the founder of Canvas & Hyde, a sustainable fashion brand based out of Brooklyn. The brand, who works with local artisans both in Brooklyn and Florence to create their handbags, recently released two new linen styles for the spring/summer 2020 season.
In this interview, Lisa shares about when she started the brand, her favorite Canvas & Hyde bags she uses both on a daily basis and while traveling, and her words of advice for those just beginning their entrepreneurial journey.
When did you first come up with your idea for the brand, Canvas & Hyde?
In 2015 I suddenly became a single mom and had to start a business. I had been dreaming about the idea of starting a luxury handbag company of quality products made in the US for a few years and my situation pushed me in that direction at high speed. The name Canvas & Hyde was born out of the “blank Canvas that was my new life and the Jekyll & Hyde duality of human nature that we had experienced.” I also really liked the double entendre when associating the name with bags.
What is the ultimate mission of the brand?
To create a sustainable brand, owned and run by women that is synonymous with absolute quality and timeless style. We aim to support local artisans practicing the skillful tradition of making handbags in Brooklyn and Florence.
You recently released two new linen styles (for the spring/summer seasons) The Genifer Mini Crossbody and The Chloe Mini Crossbody. Tell me about the inspiration behind the recent additions.
The inspiration for the Genifer and Chloe Linen Mini Crossbodies was to take a style that was already extremely popular and open it up to year-round seasonality. The linen gives the Crossbodies a texture that works for day and night, elegant and casual so it has become our most versatile bag in this style. I guess in a way it is also representative of our name with the use of these two materials. The front panel of every Crossbody has been a little different on every bag using the hides so that each bag has its own distinct personality. We never make more than 50 of a color so they become more exclusive by limiting the supply.
Out of all of the current bags available from Canvas & Hyde what is one of the bags you use the most, and what is your favorite way to style it?
That is a tough question because whenever I travel, I always use my Black Monaco Weekender to take on the plane – it’s the perfect bag to squish into tight spaces in the overhead compartment and never gets dirty. I wear the Black Linen Mini Crossbody everyday as it is so practical and because it is my brand, I really need to have it on me at all times. Interestingly, my “go to” bag for evening is the Florentine Folding Clutch in Black with Black Stingray detail that goes with everything, is comfortable and holds more than you would think it does. It can be worn open or closed so it never looks like I’m using the same bag….it is also the perfect travel bag as it packs so flat.
All Canvas & Hyde handbags are hand-constructed in New York & Florence, Italy. How closely do you work with the manufacturers?
I painstakingly design my samples working closely with my Italian manufacturers for ethical sourcing until we go into production and then they have it handled. At that stage they really don’t need me to oversee anything as they have been working with leather for generations. In Brooklyn, I am fortunate that my office is in the factory of my US manufacturer so I can be very hands on when we are in production. The difference is that I supply all the materials to my factory here in the US so in a way I have much greater control of the individual finished product. Every one of our bags handcrafted in Brooklyn is individual with its own markings which make them unique to the wearer.
Last year your spring bags debuted at the Four Seasons Hotel Spa Boutique. What was the best part about seeing your creations in the beautiful spa shop?
Having our bags debut at the new Four Seasons in Philadelphia was such a thrill for me, it was also a year in the making. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to collaborate with such a high caliber hotel spa store. What I am attempting to create with Canvas & Hyde is exactly what the Four Seasons offers – absolute luxury, timeless elegance and sheer exclusivity. The spa store is so beautiful and our bags are impeccably displayed making it the perfect showcase for the brand.
You’ve shared your vision in the press with Reuters and gave a tour of your Brooklyn factory on NBC? What do you enjoy the most about sharing about your brand with others?
Both Reuters and NBC came to me for their stories which was incredibly exciting and helped to make me feel that I was on the right track in building Canvas & Hyde. I love sharing with people how the business was born and the journey I am on with it…especially because I started with little more than a dream. I had no formal experience in the world of bag manufacturing and no knowledge of running a business. This is both a blessing and a curse. Getting exposure for an emerging brand is one of the most difficult thigs to achieve…you may have the best product on the planet but if nobody knows about it then you won’t get any traction in the marketplace. Sharing the vision of my brand goes a long way to informing potential customers about our business. To be an example to empower other women to follow their dreams and pursue their passions is what motivates me to keep sharing my story. If one person can avoid making a mistake that I’ve made in business so far from me telling my story, then that would make me very happy and it feels worthwhile.
What are your words of advice for female entrepreneurs who are just beginning their entrepreneurial journey?
This is such an frequently question because it is such a valuable one and every time I answer it I think of new advice to give! I actually need to break it down into two parts to benefit female entrepreneurs reading this segment.
- Do your research thoroughly before starting anything. If, like me, you are endeavoring to enter a field you know nothing about take the time to speak to as many people in that industry as possible. People who have lived it and are currently living it, don’t be dismayed by what they impart but rather use it as background research. “Forewarned is forearmed” and knowing what to expect in some cases will help you to navigate your new business.
- Do your numbers thoroughly and be realistic with what it will cost. Very few businesses have zero start-up costs so understand what capital investment is needed and have a budget. Keep impeccable records – this is paramount for success.
- Be ready to work harder than you have EVER worked in your life! Some people have the misconception that because they are not answering to someone else, they can make their own hours and fit the business into their lives. To some degree this can be correct however a start-up new business is like a crying baby that needs constant attention, only they never go to sleep!
- Know exactly what you want out of your business and be clear about where you want to take it.
- Recognize what you are good at and where you fall down. We can’t all be great at everything and when you start a new business you have to wear so many hats that inevitably some of them won’t fit. The best thing you can do in this instance is to outsource to experts in that field which will save you time and aggravation (and possibly money) in the long run.
- Try to let go of fear – this will cripple you when it comes to your decision-making ability and your new business will be all about making the right decisions. It’s easier said than done when your hard-earned cash is on the line, but this takes us back to doing enough research.
- Believe in yourself and what you are doing. Starting any venture is an investment in YOU. If you truly believe in yourself and what you are doing, then this will become infectious and others will believe in you. You will exude positive energy which will propel you to continue when things get challenging…and trust me they will get challenging
- Never lose sight of the DREAM. Be nimble enough to pivot or modify your dream to fit the situation but at the end of the day if you are clear about what you want you will get there. I was a single mom trying to bring a new brand to market and sadly being a woman in business still makes you vulnerable…society still has a long way to go for women to be treated equally in many industries. I teamed up with other women who have been amazing in assisting me on my journey. Women are so inspiring!
- Sometimes you will feel like an imposter – understand that this is okay and most entrepreneurs have had these feelings at some time or another. Go with it and draw on the strength of working harder and knowing what you want and if that’s not enough go with the old adage of “fake it till you make it”. Adaptability is key.
- Remember to keep some time aside for self-love. This is probably my best advice to you as it is very easy early on in the start-up days to be totally consumed by your new entity, but this devotion is not sustainable long term. If you are working from home in the beginning to save money on office rent, you MUST also think about how to step away from the business and not let it consume every waking hour. It’s easy for me to write this but for the first year of Canvas & Hyde I worked out of my living room and it took over my whole life….I was sending emails at 2am and waking up to speak with Italy at 9am because of the time difference. You are not a machine and you need some relaxing downtime to refuel spiritually and physically.