By Laura Scaletti
Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible. Carolyn van Schalkwyk’s story of hope began in 2015 when she launched her Espoir Equestrian brand in her native South Africa.
A lifelong equestrian with a creative mind and keen interest in fashion, Carolyn loves expressing herself through the arts. “I had initially studied architecture, but I very quickly felt boxed in, in terms of creativity. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in visual communications from the Open Window Creative School, I realized I could combine my passion for horses and design in one business venture, bringing Espoir Equestrian to life,” Carolyn said.
“Espoir means hope in French. Through the brand, I really try to spread a message of hope,” Carolyn said. “I want others, especially the younger generation, to know that dreams do come true when you work at them with great passion.”
Today Carolyn is living out her passion each day through Espoir. “From illustrating custom fabrics to finding complex design solutions, and manufacturing, marketing and testing to enjoying new products and the successes that follow, I’m obsessed with Espoir,” she said.
Espoir has a full line of equestrian apparel for men, women and children as well as a collection for dogs and leather products. Every product is designed and tested by Carolyn. The signature, and most popular item Espoir offers are the UV-protective shirts featuring Carolyn’s hand-illustrated designs.
Carolyn’s journey to becoming an equestrian entrepreneur started the moment she first saw a horse. “My parents used to tell me how I would rock my pram and go absolutely crazy if I saw anything even remotely resembling a horse. I have been nothing less than obsessed with horses my entire life,” Carolyn said.
As no one else in the family rode, it was quite a shock to Carolyn’s parents when she didn’t outgrow her horse craze. At 5 years old, her grandfather helped further her obsession and bought her a miniature horse. “My grandpa and I spent many hours together trying to read up on riding and gain knowledge neither of us had. I loved my days spent on the farm with the horses and my grandparents,” Carolyn said.
Carolyn relied on her homegrown education until she began taking lessons and riding competitively at age 14. Since then, Carolyn has been moving up the jumper ranks to the Grand Prix level, bringing along several self-made horses. “The thrill of the sport is absolutely captivating. I love the process of teaching young horses and really forming a bond with them,” she said.
Unlike the sport in the North America, to advance up the grades in South Africa you must accumulate points in each grade to progress to the higher grade. “There are very few riders competing in the top levels that have other jobs, but I would be one of them. Even though I own and manage Espoir, I compete against all the professionals at shows in the higher grades,” Carolyn said.
Part of what makes Espoir unique is that an equestrian is responsible for designing and developing each item in the line. “I think the fact that I’m a rider myself makes a big difference. I design our products for their functionality and the purpose of riding,” Carolyn said. “I test them myself and always make sure their form follows function.”
Not only are the items functional and high-quality, but they are also offered at an affordable price point, nearly an impossible task. Carolyn has managed to do that by producing her products locally in South Africa.
However, just because the items are affordable doesn’t mean they are cookie-cutter. Espoir does not mass-produce rolls of fabric to produce their UV-protective shirts. Rather, each shirt is produced individually with the unique hand-illustrated designs.
“I am very proud of the fact that our wonderful country can produce items of export quality that are enjoyed by equestrians around the world,” Carolyn said.
Three years ago, while at the spoga horse trade show in Germany, Carolyn met American Susan Benson. Susan has spent her entire career building and working with equestrian brands. Her marketing agency, Somerset Equestrian Trading (SET), formerly Somerset SportArt, takes a unique integrated marketing approach.
While Susan was at spoga launching one of the other brands she works with, she came across Espoir. “After hours of wandering the trade show hall, I spotted the Espoir booth and I was immediately attracted to the beautiful hand-illustrated designs,” Susan said. “The next day I went back, met Carolyn and the partnership was born.”
In Spring 2021, Espoir officially launched in North America. “I am incredibly excited to be launching Espoir and be the exclusive North American distributor,” Susan said. “I love Carolyn’s creativity and am impressed with how well-accepted the brand has been in just a few short months. Espoir is truly special.”
Carolyn and Susan are equally excited about the future of the brand as Americans get their hands on the product and Espoir becomes increasingly popular.
Hope, hard work and creativity have taken Espoir from a dream to a reality in a relatively short amount of time. Carolyn’s just getting started sharing her Espoir with others. “I hope to keep growing the brand internationally and share my love and passion for horses and in everything Espoir,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Espoir Equestrian