DARON: Giancarlo, 36 – owner of men’s high-end/street wear store VIER
DARONNE: Charlotte, 30 – owner of children’s wear boutique KID
FAMILY SITUATION: In a relationship since 5 years and parents of Omar (2)
“Believe me, those two are a living advertisement for having children,” a mutual friend told me when she introduced me to Giancarlo and Charlotte. The couple welcome us in their penthouse apartment in the north of Antwerp contemplating the entire city.
Social, friendly, spontaneous and a bit chaotic is how the couple describes itself. They prefer to take up challenges instead of worrying too much about the difficulties they might encounter. In less than 5 years time, they started two trendy fashion stores in the heart of Antwerp and welcomed son Omar into their lives.
“My father is Italian. He moved in the early 70’s to Belgium to do an internship in a research centre for nuclear energy. That’s when he met my mother. My mother was and still is a housewife. But my father never forced her into that role. It was just easier, considering he spent 80% of his time abroad for his job. Combining a family of four children and a job, all alone, was just too complex. I do think she regrets never having the chance to develop a career, though. Especially when she sees how entrepreneurial we are, even though we have a child. It may sound as if I have a very traditional background, but if I have to describe my family in one word, it would be nuts. I’m by far the most normal one “(laughs) Really? How is that? “When my brother and I were teenagers, we were allowed to drink beer at home, with our friends who were always hanging out with us. My mother was always happy to cook for everyone. She loved to host and entertain. Even when we weren’t home, friends never hesitated to drop by, chat and have a drink with my mom, while waiting for us to come home. That’s crazy … right? I mean, I don’t think that happens in most families…”
“My mother is a very social person. We have a very strong bond. I also have a great connection with my father – but he was and is often abroad. Even today, he travels a lot between Italy and Belgium.” Did his absence affect you and the way you want to connect with your son? “Whenever my dad was home, he spent his time with us, but he wasn’t home much. I really want to have time with Omar. With just the two of us.” What do you do when you spend time together? “There was a time when Omar seemed to be obsessed by buses and trams. So, I put my bike on the side and we took the first tram we saw. Hopping on and off, whole afternoons. Or we go to the playground or eat something. I’m also a big soccer fan, but because he is too small to see a real game, I take him to see the players practice. I think it’s important to take him along. It’s actually a tradition. My father spoon-fed me with soccer. Italians are really crazy about that.”
Have you changed since you became a father? “No, except that I feel more restless, maybe. Our life has remained the same. Omar is here now and his presence seems so evident, so why should it change us? I never had the feeling that I still had to do tons of things before becoming a dad, or that my life would be over for good once he’d be born.” Do you find something particularly difficult about fatherhood? “Nothing that is directly linked to Omar. I love taking care of him. Pure practical stuff can be annoying. For example, going somewhere and then forgetting something crucial, like a travel cot! (laughs). Or dealing with the closing hours of the day-care. We are both very disorganized … But nothing beats the anxiety you feel as from the day they are born. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I can be really nervous when Omar is staying somewhere else. What if something happens…? I can’t imagine how I will make it through his puberty. In that respect I am quite my mother.” Do your friends know you’re such a concerned father? “Not really. I don’t really talk about that with my mates. Or with my mother, that would only make her anxious. I discuss these things with Charlotte and that’s enough. What makes you happy? “When I know Charlotte and Omar are safe. Then I’m happy. Or when we’re all together at home and friends come over. I cook and we all eat together. That’s when I’m easy. “
“Many friends see me as a living advert to start a family. My pregnancy was blissful. Giving birth went well, everything was – until now – just really cool. The stress part is tricky. Or the guilt every time you have to drop off your child somewhere you’d rather not. But all in all, starting a family, in my eyes, only has benefits.” Have you changed much since you became a mother? “I learned to put things more in perspective. Before Omar, I could easily lose myself in the silliest things. Work always came first. That’s no longer the case today, even though I have my own business now. I learned to appreciate more the luxury of having time off. Before I became a mother, I had little need of vacation, today I crave for holidays.” Are you doing things differently then your own parents? “I have a good relationship with my parents. Even with my brother, although we are very different. We have a spontaneous relationship. They’re also very present in my life. Yet, I’d like to have a closer relationship with my kids. For example, my parents find it difficult to say ‘I love you’. I know they do love me, but they will never say it out loud. I find it difficult myself to say it, and that frustrates me. I absolutely want to be able to do that.”
What’s your favourite activity with Omar? “Just hanging out, the three of us. Going to the woods, the park or playground. I love to see him having fun. That’s the best thing there is.” Do you find it easy to play with him? “Sometimes. But, frankly, I can find it very tiring as well. I also must admit that I find it difficult to let go of my iPhone sometimes. I sit there swiping and scrolling, knowing I should pay full attention to Omar.
We’re both hooked on our phones. Omar sees that, he’s used to it, but it also irritates him from time to time. It’s a huge struggle. But it’s a first step to be aware, right?
I’m currently trying to structure my phone usage. In the morning, I try to leave my phone on the table, resisting the urge to check it from the moment I wake up. I also banned all push notifications. You have to make time to play with your child. They enjoy it so hard, and ultimately, playing gives you energy. As long as it doesn’t take to long. “
Anything you find particularly hard about motherhood? “He seems to rebel against me. He can behave like an angel all day, until I get home or pick him up. The he starts his tantrums. It’s very annoying … And when he doesn’t get his way, he starts screaming like a dinosaur. It turns me crazy. But that’s called, exploring limits, right?” (laughs) What makes you happy? “When Giancarlo and Omar play together and Omar starts to laugh, that makes me really happy. Or dancing together. Not on children’s music, but on what we like. We also have a playlist with music that Omar likes. London Grammar, for instance. I played their record constantly while I was pregnant, and when he was just born. Now he calms down when he hears these songs. Omar is really into music. He can be a real pain whenever a song he doesn’t like comes up on the radio. Then the dinosaur starts screaming again. “(Laughs)
Giancarlo: “We haven’t been on a 2 week holiday for more than 2 years, now. We never have real weekends together.” That must be hard on your relationship? Charlotte: “Before Omar was born, I worked on weekdays, Giancarlo in the week and on Saturdays. But it was only after he was born, I started to feel unhappy about that. We could never leave for the weekend and we had very little time together as a family. Now that we both have a shop and work on Saturdays, we actually have more time together, as we close on the same weekday and Omar doesn’t go to day care. Today, our pace is much more coordinated than before, even though it might not seem that way to others. It will be a challenge when Omar goes to school, though. Luckily he will not have to attend kindergarten everyday until he’s 6. Only one family day a week is just too little. There’s no way I could handle that.” How do you keep the fire burning? Charlotte: “Having a baby shakes things up. That’s undeniable. I think we do well as a couple, because we regularly take a babysit and go out, just the two of us. Complete weekends without Omar are more exceptional though. With the stores, it’s never easy to pick a date to leave town. We hadn’t had a real vacation yet either. I feel we just can’t miss him that long, and we just love to travel with him as well.
How did you start a family? Was it rather consciously, romantic or totally unexpected? Charlotte: “We were in a relationship for about a year or two. My brother had become a father and that touched me somehow. Without really talking a lot about it, we knew that we both wanted children. We didn’t hesitated for too long, as couples often do. Having a child is the most natural thing there is. And everything went exactly as it should. ” Do you dream of a big family? Charlotte: “I think we both like the idea of having a second child. My pregnancy was really blissful. To see a child growing up is something I definitely want to experience a second time. I’m also sure that having a sister or a brother can be a plus. For instance: my grandmother is struggling with her health. My mother finds a lot of comfort amongst her siblings and vice versa. That makes you think… On the other hand I am also very pleased with how it is now. Just the three of us. Right now, a second child is not an option. I need to be able to feel the same enthusiasm that I felt before having Omar, before I can start thinking about a second child. It wouldn’t be fair to have one child after the other, just to be rid of the infant years as soon as we can. I don’t understand people who think that way. I want to be able to fully enjoy and cherish these first moments…”
Charlotte: “When Omar fails to listen, he gets punished. We make him stand in the hallway for a couple of minutes. The light switches off automatically after a minute, but he doesn’t know yet that he can turn the light on again by moving just a bit. That’s why we call it the dark hallway. It does sound scary, right? Sometimes it’s enough to just mention the hallway to calm him down, other times it doesn’t scare him a bit. Recently, in the middle of a tantrum, I asked him: “Do you want some time-out in the hallway?” And he just replied “Yes!” …” Giancarlo: “When I was little, my mom always counted to three. Man … we were so scared of that number “three” … We had no idea what would happen, but we were sure it had to be something awful.” (laughs) Charlotte: “Omar never really wanted to hold hands when walking. One day he did it spontaneously – probably because he didn’t realize – so we both reacted so enthusiastically that, now he loves to hold hands. It might be pure coincidence, but who knows, maybe it simply doesn’t work to punish. A lot of people tell me: try to ignore negative and encourage positive behaviour. But on the other hand, it isn’t really easy to ignore a toddler who’s trashing your living room, is it?”
Are you both equally involved in terms of parenting? Charlotte: “Giancarlo has always helped with everything and still does. He also really enjoys it. We’re equally involved. I don’t see why I should be more caring than him. We’re both his parents.” Giancarlo: “We knew nothing about babies when Omar was born. I remember that I was so nervous in our hospital room, looking up Youtube tutorials.” Who do you turn to for advice? Giancarlo: “Gee, I find that difficult. Not to my buddies, because I do not want to be perceived as a fool or something. And not to my mother either, because I wouldn’t want to bother her with my insecurities.” Charlotte: “I often turn to his mother. We have a good relationship. She also enjoys sharing her experience without imposing anything. I also have a friend who had her son three months after me. With her, I share almost everything. We spend our maternity leave together. It was great to catch up with her regularly and talk about our sons. I was glad she was there. And I’m glad she’s still is today.” I see the book “The Wonder Weeks” on your bookshelf… Charlotte: “Oh, what a terrible book! Every two weeks the baby cries and that means it takes a leap in its development. No, I do not like it. On the contrary, when your baby is not on track, it gives you another reason to worry. This book gave me an overall negative feeling. Just like many other childcare books or organisations actually: not being on track or something that does not go by the book, is a reason to worry. Because the advice you always get is “Hmm, you should keep an eye on that…” I hate that! “
Soon Omar will start pre-school. What kind of school did you look for? Charlotte: “I visited several schools. I didn’t really care about the distance from home, because we’re not sure about staying in this apartment. So I looked for what I like. Most schools were concrete blocks, with those rubber tiles on the playground? The school I chose had grass and trees on the playground, it was more like a play garden.” Did you visit schools together? Giancarlo: “No. I don’t really care about schools, or in any case much less than Charlotte. Simply because I always hated school. I am really dreading the idea that Omar has to start school soon.” Charlotte: “For me, it was really important. Omar needs to have a good time at school. But since I’m not from here, I found it especially hard to find a school. So I started asking around. The school I finally chose, was mentioned quite regularly, although nobody actually picked it in the end. It’s a pre-school, so I’ll have to start over my search for a new school in three years… People prefer to avoid that hassle.” What will Omar do when he’s grown up? Do you have a dream job in mind? Charlotte: nNo, I want him to grow into a particularly nice guy who is sweet and sympathetic. He must be polite and show respect for other people. But a specific job? Not really.” Do you worry about what kind of world he will grow into? Giancarlo: “No. Everything changes gradually. I do not think my childhood is so different from his. Except in terms of technology of course. The context changes a bit, nothing more.” How do you see the future for yourself, in 20 years for example? Charlotte: “You don’t like to think about that, huh?” (laughs) Giancarlo: “Growing old is one of my biggest fears. 15 years ago I was 21. In 15 years, I will be 51 … Man, I really don’t want to think about that!”
Giancarlo: “I started VIER in 2010. It is a men’s store, which combines high-end brands, exclusive brands from Japan and authentic skate and streetwear. The concept is not really static. It grows along with me and my partner and our interests. We’re just trying to make a good style and offer really crazy things on less than 30 square meter.” Did you always dream of your own shop? Giancarlo: “No. Owning my own business is not really something that I got from my parents, unlike Charlotte. I just wasn’t really happy in my job. At that time, one of my buddies resigned out of the blue. On a drunk Friday night we decided to start a concept store together. The next day we went looking for a place. Six months later we opened it. For 2 years, I kept doing my job during the week and ran the store on Saturdays. In August last year, we started KID, a shop with children’s clothing. Charlotte is running the store every day, but everything else we do together.” Why did you want to start a store? And why in children’s clothing? Charlotte: “When I was pregnant, I went hunting for the coolest stuff for Omar’s nursery and wardrobe. But, I found that the offer was very limited. You can find the same brands everywhere. Belgium is known for its top children brands, but all the boutiques sell them, although they are quite exclusive and expensive. Also, it seemed that children’s stores all have that out-dated, fussy interior. It’s like children’s shop concepts just didn’t evolve since I was little! I couldn’t imagine that I was the only feeling that way. Hence the idea to start my own shop. And after two years it actually happened.” Is it hard to start a business like that from scratch? Charlotte: “Well, it isn’t easy. In the beginning you invest so much without a shred of certainty. You take a huge risk. Whether you’re selling well or not, your fixed costs remain the same. It takes a really long time before you win back your entire investment. There is nothing romantic or idealistic about starting a shop. To get a loan, to find brands and convince them to work with you, to find a property, to handle the competition from other stores, the entire online shopping thing … Plus, we both focus on a niche, not mass public. It takes time to get the right people to find us. It’s stressful, definitely.”
Do you constantly talk about work when you are home? Charlotte: “Often, but I don’t think that’s a problem. When it gets too much, we both stop talking about it. But mostly it’s just fun to chat about new brands and projects.” Giancarlo: “When you start your own business, you’ll need to feel passionate about it. Otherwise it’s just a job. We could turn VIER into a more commercial concept, for instance, and make more money, but that’s not my ambition. Money is not my passion. It creates opportunities, but to me, money isn’t a goal. Having a passion is. But there are also things I personally loathe. Unpacking deliveries, accounting and mopping floors. We do everything ourselves. You’re also really stuck in a shop. You can’t just stop earlier or start later because you feel like it. But, then again, you’re never free, no matter which business you’re in.” Charlotte: “I think it’s important to be present in your own store. I bought every piece or item you will find in my shop. I can explain perfectly why I chose a specific item or tell the brand’s story. Just like Giancarlo can in his store. People seem to like that. It’s a different experience than all that anonymous shopping. And I’m sure that’s one of our strengths. I also love to have varied tasks in a day, from purchasing to sales, but also tidying up, fixing things or handle my marketing. On the other hand, I’m also often alone and that makes me insecure. When somebody goes around the store and doesn’t buy anything, for instance. I ask myself so many questions… Are my best pieces gone? Does my styling suck? Was it me? And of course, I don’t dare to ask anything.”
People assume that you make a lot of money as an independent entrepreneur, that you enjoy a lot of freedom … but once again you confirm that this is not the case. It’s hard work. Why do you still do it? Charlotte: “I was disappointed in being an employee. I was convinced that employees were rewarded for their hard work. But most of the time the rewards and the best jobs go to the ones that talk the talk, not the ones with the right skills. At least in my experience. I had a good job, but I just wasn’t satisfied. Then again, I would not be able to run KID without the experience I have gained from my previous employer. I worked there for eight years, it was fun and I met great people. But it was time for something else.”
Would you recommend starting a business as a young parent? Charlotte: “I definitely would not dissuade anyone. But whether you succeed or not, is up to you. You should be able to handle a certain level of stress. If you have a bad month and that keeps you awake at night, you will crash quite quickly. I can handle that somehow. I can be stressed to the bone when I’m in store, but once I’m home, I can forget about it. That was much harder when I was an employee… Maybe because today, I’m the one in charge? I don’t know… The tricky thing is that you don’t know how you will react to that kind of things before you start.” Did your parents like the idea of starting a business? Giancarlo: “My mother was a bit worried when I started VIER and even more when we started KID. Because she was worrying about Omar. She worried about us giving too little attention to him. Of course, we now both work on Saturdays. He then goes to our parents, or they come here. We can also count on a group of friends that are happy to watch him. Most of them do not have children and find it cool to practice with Omar. (laughs) We close on Sundays and Tuesdays and then we keep Omar home, so we do have our family time, just like average families do. But differently. I think parents always worry when their child leaves a good job to start a business. It still is and remains a risk.” Charlotte: “For me it is different. I come from an entrepreneurial nest. Both my parents and my brother are independent. When I shared my ideas, my parents immediately felt confident. Even though they ever experienced bankruptcy. My father is an eternal positive mind.”
What would you do if you would not have to work? Giancarlo: “I would still be running VIER, but I wouldn’t be in the store every day. I’d start-up businesses, like in the hospitality industry for example. Imagining, designing and launching concepts and then sell them again. That’s what I’d like to do. Anyway, I plan to retire at 45 and move to Southern Europe.” Charlotte: “Do you?! Keep on dreaming, boy! (laughs) ⊗