meet the founder of the Sustainable French jewelry brand Carole & Co
After working in the ready-to-wear industry for 20 years, Carole embarked on the sustainable entrepreneurship journey. Passionate about fashion and zero-waste, it was by visiting a creative hobby trade show, then making earrings for herself and her friends that she created the upcycled jewelry brand Carole & Co.
Hello Carole! Can you tell us about your story before you created Carole & Co?
My name is Carole and I worked in ready-to-wear for 20 years. I’ve wanted to work in fashion since I was 13-14. That’s why I ended up studying communication and fashion product management.
I spent nearly 2 decades working for a Toulouse-based brand of menswear and womenswear clothing and accessories. I went from collection assistant to product manager, then marketing manager. I had various jobs within the company before it ended up in receivership.
When that happened, it was a bit of a panic because I wanted to keep working in a sector I liked but I couldn’t find a similar job in Toulouse.
I had been hyper-sensitive to ecology and zero waste for a while by then. When I worked on mailing campaigns, merchandising, etc., for our stores, it didn’t really fit with my values anymore.
So I looked for a job in zero waste in Toulouse. I quickly realized there weren’t any openings for someone with my background. They were mainly looking for short-term hires or junior candidates.
In parallel to all of that, I had been creating leather earrings for 2-3 years on the side.
What gave you the idea to create a sustainable jewelry brand using upcycled leather?
It started when I went to a creative hobby tradeshow. There were lots of stands that didn’t interest me at all and I was wondering why I’d agreed to go there with my friend. Then, suddenly, I saw a stand of leather. I had always been drawn to leather. I had been thinking I’d one day like to launch my own brand of handbags. I noticed they had scraps of different colored leather and I thought – that’s amazing!
At the time, I was also in charge of accessories [for the company I was working in], and choosing product colors. I thought to myself “I’ll buy some of these scraps and make myself some earrings”. I had seen leather earrings made by a friend of mine but she wasn’t making them anymore so I couldn’t buy them from her. I wanted to try to make my own, with a minimalist, simple design. Then I wore those earrings.
That’s when my friends started telling me “oh, I like your earrings!” and I replied “You like them? I made them. I can make you some, if you want”.
Then, as they were wearing them, their own friends, coworkers, etc. would tell them they liked them too. So I said “ok, I can make them some. For you, they’re a gift, but after, I’m selling them.” But I wasn’t making many because I was very busy with work.
How and when did Carole & Co officially launch?
During those 6 months of receivership (pre-bankrupcy), I was asking myself a lot of questions, and since I already had this activity on the side, I knew it was working.
Friends of friends organized a creator market in Borderouge (Toulouse) in December, 2019. I had a chance to participate even though I didn’t officially have a business so I thought ok, I’ll take a stand and see what happens.
I had a dozen products in stock, which wasn’t enough, so I bought more leather, made more earrings, and went to the market..
This was right at the time when we were all about to be laid off at the end of the month [by my employer]. Having that activity and that market helped me not sink into depression.
I did the market and it was a huge success! I used my experience in merchandising to set up my stand, did some advertising, sent messages to all of my friends saying “I’m doing a Christmas market on this day, if you want to come.” They all came and I had a great day. So I thought to myself, ok, I’m launching this business. I quickly went to the chamber of industry [chambre de métier] to ask if they could sign me up and I created Carole et Co.
In January 2020, I didn’t have a website. I had nothing. I had just made the collection and some meetings to sell within CEs [company commitees] and then, lockdown. I had to create the website, go to a couple of markets, start contacting shops. I developed my business little by little.
Entrepreneurship is learning to adapt.
Why did you choose the name Carole & Co?
“Et Co”, it’s for my friends (‘les copines’). This adventure is thanks to them, because they wore my jewelry, because they talked about it around them. It’s a friend who got me started with that Christmas market. It’s another friend with whom I went to the creative hobby fair. It all starts from there.
After it’s my cousin who made my website and today my spouse (‘mon conjoint’) helps me.
Collaboration. Communication. It all starts with CO.
And phonetically [in French] it also sounds like “Carole Eco”. It has all the advantages.
Speaking of ecology, how do you bring your passion for sustainability into your business?
I didn’t create a brand thinking it was going to be [environmentally] responsible. It happened little by little, naturally, and today, I’m pretty proud because, actually, what I do is upcycling.
I make my jewelry with leather scraps from the Tarn region [near Toulouse].
I bought the fasteners at a local haberdashery, at first. Afterward, I looked for a French or European supplier. A supplier [that I had found on the internet] told me that he was going to the Bijorhca tradeshow in Paris two days later. I told him very well, and there, I found French and Spanish fastener suppliers.
After that, I said to myself, I’m going to make a business card at the printer I know in Balma [Toulouse] and ask for the most eco-friendly paper possible, eco-designed with green energy. Then, I told myself, I will use my business card to present my products.
Next, I had to think about the packaging. There, I said to myself, “I am not going to buy disposable packaging. What do I have on hand?” I had squares of fabric that were already cut, which I had collected when they wanted to throw everything away when the company I worked for shut down. With this, I made fabric pouches.
Today, I sell more and more jewelry, so fabric pouches are complicated. My mother helps me [make them] but I have to find a solution. I also manage to recover a lot of fabric and fabric pouches pre-used by other brands. I put a small iron-on patch or a branded stamp to recycle them, or I re-sew them if they are large and there is just the logo [of another brand] at the bottom.
I also collect jewelry boxes, because when we buy jewelry, we keep the boxes for a bit, then often end up throwing them in the trash. So, I’m setting up collection points to recycle jewelry boxes. Then, I just have to put my logo on them and people can leave with a box that has already been used.
I make my product displays out of scrap wood from terraces or floors. It’s ingenious, it’s beautiful, and that way I don’t have to go buy displays made in China or elsewhere.
In terms of retail locations, I work with designer boutiques, concept stores, resellers… But I also have a lot of eco-friendly boutiques and bulk/zero-waste grocery stores.
Finally, I generally travel by bicycle.
In fact, everything I have put in place in my private life, I apply to my professional life because, for me, there is no sense in trying to be eco-conscious if I don’t apply it to my professional life as well.
What is difficult for me is everything that is digital (social media, website, newsletters…). I send out newsletters. Not many, given the eco-impact. Same thing when I make a social media post, especially a video.
At the same time, I have to communicate or I won’t have enough sales.
Do your clients typically share your interest in zero waste?
I have customers who are attracted to sustainability and excited to find a product that combines ecology and aesthetics. Often, we see more rustic, less contemporary leather jewelry. Personally, I don’t think we can’t be super trendy just because we’re ‘green’.
I also have clients who are not at all sensitive to [environmental topics], but who like my products. As a result, they become more aware of them by discovering and following Carole & Co.
What you do like most about what you do?
I think it’s the versatility. I do a lot of things at the same time and I love that.
The human contact, too. Whether on social networks or at a point of sale. When people like my products, when they talk about them, when they wear them, when they give me feedback.
For example, for the recycled jewelry boxes, I received a message from a person in Toulouse who follows me on social media saying “I have boxes, I can give you some.” She came to a store where I sell my products to give them to me in person and told “I love what you are doing for the planet.”
I also like the mutual help between creators. All the people I meet. I met fewer people working 20 years in the same company as I have in 3 years with Carole & Co.
What’s new or coming up for Carole & Co?
Until now, I only had one men’s bracelet and there was only one size. I recently launched new men’s leather bracelets with with adjustable sizes. It’s still very simple, but I add my style to it.
I get requests for men via the shops too. We don’t often think of men for accessories, but there are many who like them and a leather accessory is a timeless item that will last a long time.
I tested it on my first fan, my husband, and I thought others might like it too.
Since the beginning, when I make my jewelry, I have to like it too. When I made 5 or 6 of them for fun, I would say to myself ‘well, if it doesn’t sell, I like this piece of jewelry, so it will be for me’. I always wanted to create something that I liked and I still keep that approach today.
Where can we find your beautiful Carole & Co creations?
I have a list of all of my French retail partners on my website. In Toulouse, there’s namely l’Adresse Confidentielle, Kilo Vert and Les Tarés du Vrac.