Julie Deane’s story: Building the Cambridge Satchel Company
Julie Deane, founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company, first came to the British Library a few years ago when she took part in my ‘Make it, Sell it’ speed mentoring event. She gave her time to talk to designers and makers about how to make a business out of their work.
Today she was back at the Library on the panel of an ‘Inspiring Entrepreneurs’ event run by our Business & IP Centre. She started her business in 2008 with £600 in her pocket. Today the Cambridge Satchel Company turns over more than £13m, sells in countless countries, employs 120 people and has a store in Covent Garden.
One of the great things about Julie’s story is that she didn’t start out as an entrepreneur, or as an accessories designer. It was something that took off when she was at home with her two children, aged 41 and needed money to send them to private school. She laughs about what her own classmates would say if they knew – at school she was into mathematics, the periodic table and analytics. Not fashion. As she says, just because it’s not in your background, if you have a passion for it, it doesn’t mean you can’t change direction and give it a try.
She sees the satchel as a timeless British classic. Britishness is important to Julie – she believes a British satchel should be manufactured in the UK (she has a factory in the Midlands that makes 900 bags per day).
Julie also believes in funding things yourself and never borrowing money. In her mind, borrowing money makes you scared – which can inhibit you. I agree to an extent, although I think in some sectors it’s impossible to scale up your business without investment. I also know some entrepreneurs thrive on that element of 'fear'. She eventually did allow some outside investment from US company Index Ventures, enabling her to rapidly expand the business. It's a safe pair of hands - they have also worked with Moleskin, ASOS and Net-à-Porter).
Julie learnt everything for herself, from coding websites, embossing bags to running photo shoots. She didn’t worry about exporting – in her mind it just means the man in the Post Office puts a different label on the parcel. It’s no big deal.
However there was one lesson she learnt the hard way. The owner of one of the factories she was using decided to copy her designs and sell them under his own label. Not just her designs, her whole business plan. She hadn’t known enough about manufacturing and non-disclosure agreements and had been royally screwed over. Now she is very smug that her business is still bigger and better run than this new competitor.
The big turning point for her business was New York Fashion Week. Inspired by a request from Elle magazine, she created a fluorescent range of satchels which took the fashion world by storm. She didn’t even need to advertise.
Her bags have been worn by fashion bloggers (Style Bubble, What I Wore, La Petite Anglaise) celebrities (Emma Stone, Alexa Chung, Rita Ora, Taylor Swift) and featured on TV shows (The Goodwife, Gossip Girl and Girls). Not to mention the huge amounts of press coverage she has gained.
This week she launched a new collection during London Fashion week: The Peanuts Collection. The new collection features familiar characters including Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and The Gang.
She’s working with new designers to create new styles of bags. To me this makes lots of sense – so that her product range does not become stale. She hired skilled and heavy hitting designers from Karl Lagerfeld and Paul Smith for her latest ranges.
There's no doubt that for someone who never intended to work in fashion, Julie Deane knows her stuff. This brings us back to what the Cambridge Satchel company is all about. Offering beautiful and stylish design with British workmanship at an affordable price.
Oh, and did I mention that I also own one of her classic satchels in red?
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