Supermodel-turned-entrepreneur Candice Swanepoel found herself with an instant hit on her hands when she launched her luxurious, eco-friendly swim line, Tropic of C. With bikinis selling faster than she can make them, the budding mogul has had to buckle down and learn on the fly to keep up with the demands of her growing business.
What inspired you to launch Tropic of C?
It was a childhood dream of mine. When I was 7, I used to take my mom’s leftover fabric — she was an aerobics teacher — and make my own little bikinis. Growing up in the sun in South Africa, I always loved it. And when I got into modeling, I became kind of “the swimsuit girl,” and all through those years I would pay close attention to the fit and color and how they made me feel. That’s how I started brainstorming Tropic of C. The hardest thing for me was just to take the initiative to start it and feel confident that I could do it.
What finally pushed you over the edge?
I have a great South African manager who helped me, because one of the hardest parts is just figuring out where to start. People think it’s easy to start a business, but it’s really not. It’s all this legal stuff, branding… and literally every name is taken, even my own! I took a million meetings and some never went anywhere, but I still learned something from every one of them. It was during my pregnancy that I was actually able to focus on making it happen. Daniela [Manfredi, Swanepoel’s business partner and Tropic of C’s assistant designer] flew to Brazil to meet me, and we got along straight away and started talking about what the brand could look like. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year.
That seems really fast.
Yeah, I mean, we’re pretty on it. Daniela comes from a swim background, so she kind of knew what parts we needed to put together. She’s the one who goes to the factories and brings back fabrics for me to see, and we put it all together. Then you have the whole back end of the websites and the photo shoots, and that’s the part I really love — organizing the shoots and the look of the brand online and on Instagram.
And you’re based in New York now, correct?
I was trying to maintain a beach life in Miami, but I need to be in the office regularly, so I’m back in New York for a while. Sometimes I hate New York, but I always end up missing it and coming back.
What do you think sets Tropic of C apart from other swim brands?
I put a lot of energy into working on the shapes and making sure every suit is very specific and well-done. I take pride in the fabrics. They’re not just worn twice and look terrible, but they are pieces you can keep season after season. I have a weird thing with some of my clothes; they’ve been with me through important parts of my life and it’s almost like they have a soul. I’m attached to them. They bring me back to special times in my life and I hang on to them, as long as they are good quality. I feel like that is what Tropic of C is — it’s a brand you can rely on for good fit and good quality. Most of the styles look quite simple, but the reaction from people when they put them on is quite different.
What are some of your most popular styles?
There’s one called “Vibe,” which is a crop top with a higher-waisted bottom, that sells all the time. We have the classic string, which I love to wear every day. I love to use earthy colors, and I like to make color stories, so everything looks beautiful together.
How much do you let the numbers guide your decision making?
I have to pay attention to the numbers, but we have a business partner who has helped us get started because we’ve grown almost too quickly. At times it’s been a little bit overwhelming, but that’s a great problem to have. At times, we’ve underestimated the orders and run out of fabric, so we plan in advance and order larger quantities.
Your fabrics are quite special — lots of recycled eco-fabrics — so quantities must be somewhat limited to begin with.
Exactly. There has been a definite learning curve for me, but that’s good. I really would like for the brand to grow and maybe one day do clothing as well. We’ll see!
Given the demands of your modeling career, how involved are you with Tropic of C on a daily basis?
It’s every day. Thank God for Internet programs. We have all the online Dropboxes, because I like to sign off on everything. The team is learning what I like and what my aesthetic is, but there’s a lot of back and forth. And whenever I have time off I’m here [at the studio]; we’re busy designing the next collection.
And where are you selling?
We’re direct-to-consumer, but we’re also on Goop and Moda Operandi to raise brand awareness. We’ve also started doing pop-ups, so people can be closer to the brand. We offer things like free returns, so people can try on the suits and not be afraid that they might not work.
What’s the busiest time of year for the brand?
With swim, there’s an annual schedule. That’s one of the parts that freaks me out the most. I mean, I could just say whatever and sell when I want, but there are times when people are thinking about vacation and certain times that sell better, like around spring break and before certain holidays.
Have you ever won anything before?
Maybe I won like “Most Photogenic” when I was a kid or something, but I’ve never won anything that mattered.
How does it feel to be celebrated in this way?
It’s been really satisfying for me to see people enjoying the brand so much. As models, our work is based on how we look, and it’s great to be celebrated for that, but all of us are so much more than that. I’m really happy to be recognized for something other than what I look like. And this brand is like my other baby. I’m so proud of it. And there’s so much going on in my daily life. I’ve fought so hard for my career from a really young age, had my babies, and I started this business in the middle of it all. It’s been a crazy couple of years, but the success has made it worth all the struggle.