Cambridge Satchel Company Founder Julie Deane on Winning the European Business Award, Bloggers, and the Queen
There's almost no way your trend-following self doesn't recognize the silhouette of a Cambridge Satchel Company bag right off the bat — and chances are, it's been that way for the past three years. Characterized by shiny leather, double buckles, and their timeless shape, the roomy satchel bags pepper snaps of celebrities and bloggers, and hang from the shoulders of women globally. (What's that? You have one, too?)
What you may find surprising is that the brains behind the brand is a Cambridge, England mom who was just trying to find a way to pay for a private school education for her daughter who was being teased and bullied. Julie Deane doesn't consider herself a fashionista, but her satchels have been carried by everyone from Susie Bubble to Alexa Chung. And Deane's sea of pastels, metallics, near headache-inducing fluorescents, printed florals, and (wait for it) tartans remains just au courant enough to keep trendsetters coming back for more; these classics sell themselves.
Deane was in town after Fashion Week for meetings with J.Crew and store appearances at Bloomingdales. Bustle caught up with the affable, inspiring Deane in the lobby of the James Hotel in SoHo minutes before her flight back to London.
BUSTLE: When did you launch, and where did your start-up cash come from?
JULIE DEANE: I launched in 2008 and we started with £600 — like $800 to $850. I was a stay at home mom at that point, I had been full time at Cambridge University before that, before I had children but at that point I decided to be home with the children. I really loved it. But then when they were six and eight years old when we started, I was doing this thing where I organized a medical conference for one day a year. That paid me £600. That felt like money that was not allocated to anything else. This is exactly the right money to do for this.
You’ve said that you started the brand to earn extra money so that your daughter, who was being bullied at school, could attend a private school.
I had to fund my daughter. I would pick her up and she had been kicked on the floor at school. Everybody knows that school is not an easy place to be, and children can be harsh. There’s only so much you can legislate against. For the most part, that school was lovely, but we were in a class with some challenging families, and often schools will approach problems where the families involved are reasonable, they’re always reasonable. There’s always going to be reluctance for people to step in where maybe the families look like they have some really difficult individuals involved. For whatever reason the school was just not solving it. They were focusing on my daughter rather than focusing on the people that were causing her difficulties. That just made the situation worse.... My mom and I looked at the private schools and we found one that we just thought, this school is perfect [to move her to].
Then it’s a question of practicalities: what are the school fees, I’ve got two children, I don’t want to treat them differently. That’s the size of the challenge. Then you know how much you need to make and what the cash flow needs to be. I had my £600, and I sat down and thought, Come up with a list of 10 ideas that I can do to make school fees. Then I just sort of evaluated each one of them against how much, do I have enough money to fund it seed money, what’s the cash flow likely to be, what’s the chance of success, is it scalable, is it something that could carry on if I got run over by a bus. It’s all those kinds of things. Satchels were on the list.
Did you go to business or management school?
I was at Cambridge University for undergraduate and I have a masters in plant cell biology, so I have a very scientific background — a nerdy background, not a fashion background. Then I joined Deloitte and so I trained in accountancy. The years I was with them, I was with them for about four and a half years, qualified as an accountant in the U.K. And that’s really really been helpful. The whole thing like the cash flow side of the business is key. The VAT side, the taxation side, knowing when you pay people, the deductions. That kind of thing can really cause a problem, but those are the things I was comfortable with.
Give us an overview of your business model.
I think the important thing is we have agility, we’re very flexible, and we will change as our situation changes and we grab every single opportunity we can as long as it’s in line with the brand. As the brand has grown, it’s become more and more important to protect the brand, to have a really clear idea of what is Cambridge Satchel. It’s made in the U.K., it’s very ethically strong as a company, we treat people well, we only do collaborations with people we’re excited to work with. Chris Benz, Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons are really fantastic people. We don’t make bags for other people without our name being on it, and we only work with people that we think are brilliant.
Cambridge Satchel Company designs have managed to stay on trend and to start trends since you began. How do you do that with no fashion background?
I think we do what we love. We’re very aware of the world around us. We don’t slavishly look over our shoulders at what other people are doing. It’s about what’s going on in the world — what’s going on in our world.
For example, the Chelsea Collection was named after the Chelsea Flower Show, which is a very big deal in U.K. It was the hundredth anniversary of the Chelsea Flower Show this year so we thought, We have to celebrate that. It’s all about flowers, so we picked four of the flowers that were in the show and that’s how we chose the colors for that one. That collection was sold out over and over again. It was incredibly successful. Looking at autumn, it’s berries, it’s baking, people are looking to Christmas. You want something that’s a bit warm and comforting, and so that’s why we chose the colors that are coming through at the moment.
And then there's being aware of what’s going on generally. The British Invasion at Bloomingdales, Printemps did a big British Day themed thing, and then this whole celebration of David Bowie at the V&A, and the Punk Collection. You’ve got to sort of have a bit of a nod to that kind of thing — that’s why we came out with some of the plaids, the tartan. It could still appeal to our very wide, diverse customer base, but we could have something edgy so we could have something with studding on as well. We’ve got to just bear in mind that it’s really important to us that the fashionista, the bloggers have something that they’re excited about and feel is fun. But that there is something that is going to appeal to the core of our customer base. They want something that is well made and durable and affordable and feel good about wearing.
Tell me a little about your relationship with bloggers and street style.
We have a bloggers' lounge in the bottom of our store in London! It’s a bit of a thank you to give those people some space during fashion weeks to work from. Without the bloggers, I would still be in the kitchen. My brand wouldn’t be known. And so this is a group of people who, lots of them don’t get paid, it’s not their main job. And they just have this real passion and honesty for what they do, and what they write about that makes their blogs really worth reading. They’re completely true to themselves, and they have been such a huge support to us so it’s lovely to say, Look, you don’t have to seek out the nearest Starbucks or WiFi place, you don’t have to sit on a curb outside the fashion shows, you can come down, have a nice cup of coffee and use the bloggers' lounge. They’ve helped with market research, running competitions with their followers to find out which colors people would like and what shapes, and what people think about things... they’ve been my sounding board.
Any names in particular that you work with a lot?
I think that in the beginning it was Jessica Quirk with What I Wore— she was super helpful. We work with Liberty London Girl and Susie Style Bubble. I have a real weakness for Prince Cassius — he’s a male blogger in the U.K. who has the most perfect hair you’ve ever seen in the world. He has the crazy, sort of stunning perfect afro. He just cuts a figure and he’s brave. I think back to Emily being bullied at school just because she liked gardening instead of watching a soap on TV. That’s not that different. Prince Cassius has this hair that he loves and looks spectacular, and it doesn’t make him part of the norm, but celebrating people like that is really, really important. I have great regard for him.
I’ve seen some Cambridge Satchel Company knock-offs at Forever 21 and other stores. How do you handle the counterfeiters?
There are many different levels that can happen on. Mulberry is a brand that’s been great to us and very supportive of us when we’ve had questions about the industry. They’ve been a brand that we bounce things off. The worst was when one of our main manufacturers was actually taking the leather, using the knives, and then setting up their own brand with bags that looked identical to ours. That one we had to launch a lawsuit against. That’s as bad as it gets, as personal as it gets, even to the point of knowing who your customers are and going after them. That’s bad.
Then you sort of see the really pathetic attempts of people who do something identical and call themselves anything from The Oxford Satchel Company, the Original Satchel Company, Canterbury Satchels — their handles and hashtags are so similar to yours. You just think, it’s tiresome, and it’s a shame that people don’t have originality and ideas of their own. But you’re always going to have that... It is a continuous battle. What I pay for [fighting] that, I could have a new cutting press, I could employ more people.
You were the first woman to win the European Business Award — how did that feel?
I think that people have really liked that, and they said, Well, look, a woman has one now, it’s something I should enter. But you should have entered it, anyway. You don’t look at something and think, Oh wait, but has a woman entered it before. Get in there! You fight your corner.
What’s some advice that you have for other ambitious, multi-tasking women?
I think the thing is that I would honestly say, it has never been easier. It’s hard to think that there are reasons not to do it. I started this with £600. I didn’t take out a second mortgage on my home; I didn’t risk anything to do this. I’ve worked really hard and I kept going when people said no and said, It can’t be a good idea. If it were a good idea, somebody else would have done it. Don’t expect people to support you until you’re successful, and then you’ve have more friends then you ever realized that you had.
With the Internet, you can be selling to people in Israel from your kitchen table. I was doing that. You can export to Sweden. That’s as legitimate a business as Apple has. People need to stop looking at all the problems that could crop up, thinking that’s the way to be better prepared, and instead just look at the vision and where they want to be, and tackle things as they come up. Because they don’t all come up on the same day.
How many bags have you sold since you’ve started?
I don’t know. What I do know is we make about 900 bags by hand everyday in the U.K. So I have 93 people working for Cambridge Satchel now. That’s 93 mortgages, that’s 93 families that Cambridge Satchel supports. Hopefully in the next year we’ll at least double that. We should at least double production too because just last month we moved into a factory that was four times the size of the existing factory. No guts, no glory.
Okay, finally, you met the Queen a few weeks ago…
Yes, my mom and I won a Queen’s Award for Export in the U.K., and that meant that we were invited to a reception in Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. It was lovely because it was the day after Prince George had been born. And she looked so happy. Absolutely bursting. It’s just that humanity — that it doesn’t matter that she’s the Queen, actually the baby’s been born, and makes her happier than anything in the world. And just to see my mom shaking her hands and speaking with the Queen — it doesn’t get better than that.
What’s she like?!
She’s lovely! She’s quite small. The royals that we spoke to for the longest were Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie were there. They’re very fashion-conscious. One said she had taken clippings of the brand and had followed our story. We were just amazed!