Welcome to Byrdie's series, The Hustle, where we profile diverse, interesting women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Nette is the uncompromising and formidable candle brand laser-focused on clean ingredients and sustainable practices, bridging the gap between cult status candles and clean ingredients. Setting new precedence in the industry, brand founder Carol Han aims to create clean-burning candles without compromising on scent or luxury. Ahead, she discusses her career shift, starting a brand from scratch, and the importance of sustainable candles.
Tell me more about your background in fashion and beauty?
I started interning at magazines while I was in college and fell head-over-heels in love with the industry. I did three internships back-to-back at Interview, Harper’s Bazaar, and W Magazine. I was thrown into such a glamorous, crazy world working with the most amazing and inspiring people. I grew up in small towns in San Francisco and Hawaii, and it was truly like Alice Through the Looking Glass.
After about eight years, I struck out on my own and started a digital agency to help brands create content for digital channels. That was 11 years ago, and it’s still going very strong. The agency has been a master class both in launching new brands and positioning heritage brands in the digital space, and it led to a slight obsession with all things brands. I started thinking about launching my own brand years ago, and as a result, [I created] Nette. It has been a dream for a long time, and I feel lucky to have been able to finally bring it to life.
How would you say your background has influenced the development of Nette?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by visionaries throughout my career, which has really helped hone my eye. Also, being an entrepreneur for the last decade has given me a lot of training and discipline in running a business, developing organizational systems, and making decisions quickly and confidently.
Is there anyone that has mentored/inspired you to this point?
All the women I’ve worked with in my past roles have shaped who I am today as a professional, and for that, I am so grateful. Carrie Phillips and Vanessa Bismarck at BPCM gave me my first glimpse at being a female entrepreneur and building a business from the ground up. I think I was their sixth employee, and now I think they have over a hundred across multiple cities, which is so impressive. They were both very grounded and hardworking and taught me so much even in the short time I was with them.
After that, I would say my time at Elle formed my work ethic. I worked directly under two fashion editors there, Joann Pailey and Karen Reinitz, and more indirectly under Nina Garcia, who was the fashion director there at the time. These women were so chic, and they cared about every single detail. I’d never experienced such an exacting and specific point of view. There were stressful times and long days and nights at the office, but I can say without a doubt I wouldn’t be where I am without that experience and that kind of training. They were hard bosses in the best way possible.
When did your love of candles start?
My mom owned a candle store in Sausalito when I was a kid. Some of my first memories are of hanging out in that space, watching my mom hand dip and carve these colorful, gorgeous pillars. It always smelled amazing there, and it was such a happy place for me. Candles have been part of my life since the very beginning.
Tell me more about the inspiration behind Nette.
Nette took about a year to land on shelves once I started working on it full force, but the idea had been in my head for a long time before that. I loved candles but always felt that the category was crowded and didn’t want to launch anything until I knew I could do things differently and better. After a ton of research, a white space started to emerge. On one side of the spectrum, there were iconic brands like Diptyque, Le Labo, Byredo, etc., that were super luxurious and chic. Still, none of them were talking about ingredient traceability, sustainability, or clean formulations.
Then on the other side, there were these "spa" candles that were inexpensive, felt granola, and smelled like eucalyptus. Even though they used good ingredients with full transparency, I wasn’t excited about buying them or having them in my home. I felt that there had to be a way to create a brand that people would be excited about that did things ethically, transparent, and considered.
What has it been like building Nette?
So, the journey began! Setting up our supply chain was the most time-consuming, complicated part. Most candle brands use a one-stop shop to produce, and we went the opposite route, trying to source the very best partners from all over the world. Our glass is hand-blown in Italy, and our recycled packaging is made in France and the UK. We partner with the best fragrance houses that offer full ingredient traceability, and our candles are poured in the US.
Once we had the right partners in place, our focus turned to getting the branding right and creating visibility for launch. We worked with Regular Practice in London to create the brand identity, and they did such an amazing job. They created something minimal and clean without being bland, and it really resonated with our audience.
What has it been like branding yourselves in the market?
Our whole idea behind the branding is to let the materials shine through. Everything we make has been obsessed over and perfected to an inch of its life, so it doesn’t need a ton of crazy branding to make up for anything. For example, because our glass is so special, we didn’t want to cover it with a huge label. We used an unusual horizontally oriented tape-like label that was printed with language depicting what we think the scent feels like. Once we launched, it kind of exploded. We won an Elle Green Stars Award for our packaging, which was such a proud moment. I definitely cried!
You have had such an incredible inquiry from leading e-tailers since launch. What has that been like?
Oh, my goodness, it’s been the most amazing experience. I couldn’t have imagined that we would be in conversations with retailers like Nordstrom, Harrods, and Selfridges—and more upcoming—so soon after launch. It’s been thrilling and scary at the same time. I’m learning more every day how to be a good partner to these giants of retail. I don’t want to let them down.
Tell us more about the exciting collaborations coming up.
We have a couple of exciting brand collaborations coming up—one with a big clean beauty brand that I’ve admired for years and one with a design-focused brand out of Copenhagen—that I’m beyond excited about. We were approached early on by many dream brands that wanted to work with us partly because of our laser focus on sustainability. There aren’t many super luxury home fragrance brands that talk about things like ingredient traceability, green chemistry, and sustainability. The fact that we received so much immediate interest from iconic brands indicates that being mission-driven and operating ethically is valuable. I think that it’s just going to be table stakes for all brands soon.
What are you hoping to re-imagine around the candle industry?
I started Nette because I felt that all the luxury candle brands that I loved were very chic but weren’t talking about ingredient transparency, sustainability, traceability, or any of the topics my friends and I cared about. It was all style with little substance. I wanted to change that and prove that candles can be super luxurious, clean, and sustainable. It’s hard for me to relax into a product-focused ritual when I have doubts about the product I’m using, whether that’s a face lotion or a candle.
Candles are such a big part of my daily rituals, but I was always a little nervous about burning them because the ones I loved were so opaque about their ingredients and formulations. Either that or they were openly using things like paraffin wax, which is known to be harmful. I want people to be able to use our candles and relax into their rituals, knowing that what they’re burning is formulated incredibly thoughtfully and to the highest standards.
I want people to be able to use our candles and relax into their rituals, knowing that what they’re burning is formulated incredibly thoughtfully and to the highest standards.
What makes Nette candles so different?
Most candles use a one-stop-shop for production—the factory sources the glass, the labels, the packaging, the fragrance, etc. It makes production simple and cost-effective. With Nette, we wanted to ensure that every detail about our product was reconsidered to make the best product possible, not the easiest or cheapest.
We went to Italy for our hand-blown and hand-painted glass, which costs 20x the amount a typical candle vessel costs. We have pictures from our factory there of artisans painting our glasses one by one with these tiny paintbrushes. It’s incredible.
We work with the best fragrance houses and master perfumers to develop our scents from scratch—there’s no reverse engineering or stock fragrance used. The paper for our packaging and labels is sourced from a small mill in France that uses old shoeboxes and shoe parts from a nearby shoe factory to produce our amazing paper. We print everything with seaweed ink.
We offset our footprint by planting trees with every purchase with Ecologi and donating a percentage of revenue to 1% for the Planet.
You also run an agency, CA Creative. Tell me more about that.
CA is so fun. Sometimes, I can’t believe I’ve been doing it for 11 years. We handle content and digital for a fantastic stable of clients across beauty, luxury hospitality, and lifestyle, some of which have been with us for 7-8 years—a long time in the agency world. They’re like family at this point, and I’m so grateful for that kind of loyalty.
How do you balance the two?
A lot of working weekends! Aside from that, I take a full two hours every morning just to myself and that time saves my sanity. I journal for 30 minutes as soon as I wake up, then I do an hour of Tracy Anderson to get a good sweat going, then I do a 30-minute walk outside alone. It’s a lot of time, and my days start early, but I figure if I can give myself to work for 8-10 hours a day, I can take two hours to take care of myself. Also, I think maintaining a sense of gratitude around it all is a lifesaver. Every time I get stressed, I check myself and consciously remember how lucky I am to be in the position I’m in with the opportunity to build two businesses I care deeply about.
What are the most rewarding aspects of being a brand founder?
The most rewarding part is creating something and then seeing your customers really resonate with it. Seeing the first Instagram post from someone I didn’t know with a candle on her fireplace mantle was mind-blowing. And I always have one eye on our returning customer rate, which is very high now. When someone buys a candle, I’m so happy, but when someone buys a candle again a couple of months after their first purchase, I’m over the moon. To me, it means that we’re doing something right.
What is the most challenging part of being a brand founder?
The most challenging aspect has been the learning curve. It’s my first time developing a product, and there were many mistakes to learn from in the beginning. Also, I have so many ideas and want to execute them all right away, but they’re all expensive. So, figuring out how to finance product and category expansion is an interesting challenge.
How do you hope to change the industry?
[Nette wants] to help transform routines into rituals by creating beautiful, thoughtful products with clean ingredients and sustainable practices. [Also, we want] to provide tools to help people take good care of themselves and the world around them.