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Bay St. Bull Power 50: Bojana Sentaler

The Power 50 is a collection of Canada’s top people, places and things of 2016. Our list is filled with game changers from all corners of the nation that are inspiring, innovating and influencing the way we live and work from the top. Giving you the best from every city, industry, office and home, The Bull’s Canadian Power 50 is not your typical list and instead is the definitive guide to who and what is changing the way Canada lives, works and plays. 

28. Bojana Sentaler: Designer, SENTALER

Being a fashion designer is no walk in the park, everyone knows that. But being one in Canada, where often our biggest talents are forced to leave the country in order to build their brands, presents its own unique set of struggles. Every once in awhile, though, there will be a designer that makes it through. Bojana Sentaler is one of them.

Known for her offerings of luxe alpaca outerwear, Sentaler’s success can undoubtedly be attributed (at least, in part) to her business-savvy mind, cultivated through the experiences that have led her to where she is now. A graduate of the Schulich School of Business, Sentaler went on to work for a Fortune 500 company and later produced economic investment reports in Dubai before an encounter with Karl Lagerfeld (of Chanel fame) would push her towards pursuing her dreams of working in fashion.

Fast forward a few years and a brief stint in Peru, and Toronto-based Bojana Sentaler is providing the outerwear market a much-needed upgrade with her namesake brand.

With many entrepreneurs, there can be a hesitation to jump into the deep end and go after what you want. What helped motivate you to chase your goals?

For anyone that has just finished university, I would recommend not to start working right away. Go and travel for six months. See life outside of Canada. That arms you with information and I always say that information is power, and power gives you no fear. Once people get their corporate jobs, it’s done. You’re stuck in the cycle and you become afraid to leave because it’s really competitive and you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder. A lot of people want to start working right away because they are afraid that they are going to lose the race. I think that stepping away and travelling can help you get an even better job when you come back because you have so much more wealth and knowledge. In any business you need to understand the psychology of people, and what better way to understand it than when you travel?

What advice can you give on putting yourself out there and getting in touch with people?

Look within your network. A lot of times, people will have contacts but they won’t use them because they are afraid that they will be told no. If you’re afraid to contact them, take them off your contact list. If they offer to help you, take their word for it. On the other hand, return the help. At the time when I needed help, I was contacting my network to get expertise, advice or contacts. Now that I’m on a different level, I’m doing that for others who are contacting me. It works hand in hand. You can’t take, you also have to give.

How do you maintain and nourish relationships?

The key is to just be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not because everybody will see right through that. Even if you’re trying to build a relationship with the president of the United States, don’t be fake. Be who you are and people will appreciate that more.

As a woman in business – particularly in the business of fashion – what are some of the biggest challenges that you have come across?  

My biggest challenge, and it only has to do with being a woman, was becoming a mother. That was one of the biggest challenges because men don’t have to be pregnant and go on maternity leave. They don’t have something more important than their business that’s going to happen to them in life that they have to slow down for. I don’t want to call that a disadvantage, but it’s more of a challenge that I overcame. It pushes you to be more organized, delegate more and sleep less. It was the most amazing thing, but that is something that businesswomen face these days. Women are trying to build businesses on the equal level of men, but still have to be a mothers at the same time.

How do you balance that?

It’s very possible but you need a lot of help. You need to accept that you can’t do everything on your own, whether it’s delegating on the business end or at home. Not neglecting the business is equally as important as not neglecting your family, so you just have to find a balance. Sometimes you have to say no to business events because you have to be a mom, and other times you have to say no to some mom roles because you have to run your business.

Do you think that the fashion industry is more accommodating to female entrepreneurs?

I’ve been out of other industries for seven years now, so I’ve only known fashion since then. I find that in this industry, being an entrepreneurial mom is extremely normal. My first meeting with my biggest retailer took place when I just became a mom. Coincidentally, the buyer had just came off of maternity leave, so we understood each other. Nowadays, it’s very normal for female entrepreneurs to be running successful businesses and still be great moms.

What has your experience been like with the Canadian fashion industry in context to the international community? What do you think is lacking here?

I think the industry is great but it needs a lot more attention and work, starting with government grants. We have no support from the government at all, which is a huge downfall for the industry because there are so many successful designers and a lot of talent that would make it much farther if they had the government backing. Also, Canada lacks very strong organizations that support the industry and designers. In the US, they have these organizations where, if you become a member, you can literally say, “I need this contact”, and you’ll have it right away. In the States they have more access to information and that’s why you see a lot of designers leaving Canada. Most Canadian designers that have made it internationally have left Canada. That solely has to do with the fact that they’ve had more support outside of our country, which is so ironic.

What is your advice for other people who are looking to build their brands?

The first thing to know before anything is not to follow a formula because every business has it’s own and it’s based on your circumstances. Step away and work on your strategy. You have to build one with your target audience in mind. I understand that a lot of fashion designers show at fashion week to reach buyers and media, but is there another way to do so that is more targeted for your brand? At the time, I don’t think it was the right decision for Sentaler, but that doesn't mean that I’m not going to do it in the future. Step back, analyze your target audience and how you want to reach them, and think of the best way to do so on the budget that you have. That will probably get you on a better track than if you just follow the herd.

How has Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau wearing Sentaler helped the brand?

It was the most amazing thing ever. Since Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau appeared in the white alpaca coat at the swearing-in ceremony, our publicity and brand awareness blew up across Canada. We were doing really well up until then, but I think it just put us on the map instantly because it was on every newspaper, every magazine and every TV segment. We were getting client orders like crazy, and the coat that she wore sold out. It was really exciting to me because she chose to wear Sentaler five times for her first five public appearances. We also got attention from down south. I think that outside of Canada, people pay attention to Canadian fashion now, whereas before nobody would ever think of Canada for it in the past. So it doesn't only help me, it helps all Canadian designers.

What are some other milestones from your career in fashion?

I had certain goals set in mind and with everything I’ve done from day one, I haven't launched anything until everything was perfectly put together. Even my first collection, I didn’t launch until I had the perfect packaging. I looked at every single detail because I know you only get one chance. We had goals to partner up with Holt Renfrew and it was amazing when we did. Now we’ve expanded with other big retailers across Canada, so I think those were great successes because those are strategic partnerships that are not just going to help in one year. When we launched our online shop we started getting orders from all over the world, including the Middle East and countries where it’s not even cold. It’s exciting that with all the coats in the market out there, they chose to order Sentaler from a country that is so far away. We’ve had a lot of amazing women become very loyal customers and my biggest satisfaction is when customers leave excited and happy, whether they have one coat or fifteen. It’s the fact that I’m able to give them exactly what they want.

What’s the vision for Sentaler down the road?

Just grow internationally. There’s a huge demand for us so we just do what we do in Canada everywhere else. We would start with the markets where we know we have a demand for our aesthetic. Even though there are different cultures, I think that in every country the Sentaler woman exists so she’ll find us.

ALPACA 101

- Along with camels and llamas, alpacas are a part of the camelid family and live in the Andes of Southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador and northern Chile.

- Protected by the government, Peruvian alpacas are known for their quality due to the combination of the altitude where they live and the grass that they eat, which is only found in the Andes.

- Lightweight: A lower amount of microns results in a finer and higher quality fibre. Alpaca contains less microns than wool.

- Warm: Because alpacas live in high altitudes, their hair develops microscopic air pockets, which expand when it becomes cold. These help to preserve body heat and act as a thermal insulator.

- Hypoallergenic

- Harvested via shearing.