by lindsay macadam
photography by mckenzie james
Post-convocation globetrotting typically sends new graduates back home with a broadened worldview, a lifetime of memories and a near-empty bank account. But for Schulich School of Business alumna Bojana Sentaler (BBA ’06), travelling planted the seeds for her now flourishing career in luxury outwear.
Even if you’re not immediately familiar with her eponymous line of fashionable women’s coats, chances are you’ve seen them around – whether on A-list celebrities, current or soon-to-be royalty, or the prime minister of Canada’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who catapulted the family-owned business to breakout success in 2015 when she donned a white Sentaler topper to the swearing-in of her husband at Rideau Hall. “I was honoured that Sophie Grégoire Trudeau chose to wear a Sentaler coat during one of the most important days for her family as well as for our country,” says the 33-year-old fashion entrepreneur in a recent interview at her company’s minimalist downtown Toronto showroom. “The coat was on back order four times.”
Not to be outdone, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, sparked another buying frenzy after the Sentaler wrap coat with ribbed sleeves she wore during a 2016 week-long Royal Tour of British Columbia and Yukon immediately sold out within hours of her photograph overwhelming media sites. The same thing happened again just this past December when Middleton’s future sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, wore a Sentaler long wide-collar wrap coat with signature ribbed cuffs in camel for the 2017 Christmas Day church service held in Sandringham, England, site of Queen Elizabeth’s country estate. Publications and networks around the world ran images of the “Suits” actress wearing the coat, which also quickly sold out and remains on back order because of international demand. “Globally, Sentaler has emerged as a blockbuster brand,” says Vicky Milner, the founding president of the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA), who is also a York grad. “It has a reputation for great quality and great style, values that reflect positively on the Canadian outerwear industry as a whole.”
So, how did a business grad with no formal fashion background end up heading a trendsetting brand all the world is now talking about? A lifelong fashion lover who moved with her family from Belgrade to Toronto at the age of nine, Sentaler says it boils down to prioritizing quality over quantity when it comes to clothing, a value learned early on from her mother. “She would always say to invest in the one good item you will feel amazing in rather than buying multiple items, and that inevitably would be the piece with the perfect fit, the perfect texture, the perfect fabric.” Sentaler’s innate interest in fashion was matched only by her much more practical fascination with business, eventually leading her to major in marketing and minor in finance during her postsecondary studies at York’s Schulich School of Business.
He told me, “Bojana, you either have it or you don’t – and if you have it, go for it”
Just as she was about to graduate from Schulich in 2006, Sentaler lined up a job with what she then considered her dream company: French beauty megabrand L’Oréal. She quickly realized, however, that her entrepreneurial spirit was not well suited to a nine-to-five corporate gig. She left her job and headed to Dubai to work with one of her best friends from Schulich on economic investment reports for emerging markets, with a focus on the Middle East. It was during this time, in 2008, that she lucked into an interview with one of her fashion idols, the inimitable Karl Lagerfeld, who was in Dubai at the time designing villas.
“I spoke to him off the record after the interview about wanting to have my own fashion line one day,” Sentaler recalls, “and he told me, ‘Bojana, you either have it or you don’t – and if you have it, go for it.’” She believed she really did have it, and travelled next to Peru where she came up with the idea to launch a fashion brand of stylish outerwear for chilly Canadians.
The impetus came from friends who were then living in South America. They told her about a little-known durable and sustainable luxury fabric with a big warmth quotient: wool from Peruvian alpacas. After doing more research into the fabric and discovering its many unique characteristics – lightweight yet warm, soft yet hypoallergenic, both environment- and animal-friendly, as well as new to the Canadian market – Sentaler decided to begin the process of creating her own line of alpaca wool coats, believing they would have mass appeal: “I saw a gap in the market for those kinds of coats because we either had the puffy jackets or wool coats, but we didn’t have something in between that was fashionable, feminine and elegant as well as functional.”
In 2009 Sentaler officially launched her namesake brand, and then watched in astonishment as it grew beyond her wildest dreams. One of her first big boosts came when the venerable Canadian magazine Chatelaine featured her coats in a glossy fashion spread published in 2011. International attention soon followed. In 2014, Kim Cattrall, of “Sex and the City” fame, wore a Sentaler coat on the set of her followup series, “Sensitive Skin,” an image seen around the world. Other celebrities soon followed in Cattrall’s stylish footsteps. Tatiana Maslany from “Orphan Black” was seen wearing the signature ribbed sleeve wrap coat in black in 2016. The deluxe coats also recently appeared on ABC’s hit series “Scandal,” worn by actresses Darby Stanchfield and Tessie Santiago. But it’s the association with royalty that has really cinched global awareness.
“When members of the royal family undertake public engagements, their clothing and accessories are closely scrutinized and fashion designers often experience increased exposure and sales,” says Carolyn Harris, a royal historian in Toronto and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. “Sentaler is the latest example of the impact of royalty on fashion.”
Yet, with prices averaging between $1,000 and $2,200, the coats are not for elites only.
A busy mother of two, Sentaler is desirous that her outerwear appeals to a broad spectrum of fashion-conscious women. Each season she releases a variety of silhouettes in a wide range of colours, from Tourmaline Pink to Gull Grey. These are coats meant to be worn and not just photographed; movement is built right into the design.
To emphasize the inherent flexibility of her outerwear, last season Sentaler collaborated with local dance artist Tanya Howard, a leading ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada, who became the face of the 2017 fall/winter collection. She also teamed up with ProArteDanza, the Toronto company led by choreographer Roberto Campanella and veteran indie dancer Robert Glumbeck. The unique marketing campaign involved a runway presentation danced on pointe at the FashionCan event, a CAFA initiative, which took place at Yorkdale Shopping Centre last February, in addition to static displays in the lobby of the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre where ProArteDanza had a residency last November. The brand is literally on the move.
Available in all Nordstrom stores across Canada as well as select Saks Fifth Avenue locations, Sentaler recently expanded into the U.S. market and is now sold stateside through top retailers like Neiman Marcus, and online at BergdorfGoodman.com. From finance to fashion, Sentaler takes her newfound success in stride.
“One of the key things that I think got me to where I am today is the consistency,” she says. “I never compromised on quality. I never launched my product until I felt it was absolutely perfect.”
(with files and reporting from Deirdre Kelly)