Julie Deane's Cambridge Satchel Company manufactures all its leather bags in the UK and counts Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift among its fans.
When her daughter was suffering bullying at school, Julie Deane started the Cambridge Satchel Company as a means to help pay for her children to attend a different school.
Little did she expect her firm, which started in the kitchen and relied on help from her mother, turn into a £50m business within five years, be sold in Harrods, and worn by the likes of global music and fashion icons.
Speaking to Cambridgeshire Live, Julie Deane said the past 10 years had been like watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – a series of extraordinary events. Learning tai chi with Alibaba head Jack Ma was one such Walter Mitty moment, she noted.
Asked whether she had any self-doubt throughout the firm’s existence, Deane replied: “I don’t expect other people to solve my problems and I’m not prepared – after all of this – I’m not prepared to give up on this. There’s a kind of tenacity about it and there has to be some kind of self belief.”
The Cambridge Satchel Company manufactures handmade leather handbags in a Midlands factory. Julie Deane was inspired to set up the company by the Harry Potter movies. She aimed to design a handbag that in her mind would have been used by Harry Potter and Hermione at Hogwarts. Beside its traditional leather satchels, the business is well-known known for designing fluorescent coloured-handbags.
Championing British design
Last year, the firm teamed up with Brompton Bicycles to champion British design and craftsmanship. Together they have created the Brompton Bike 15″ Batchel leather handbag that integrates with the Brompton’s front carrier system. They sell for £225 on the satchel company’s website.
Despite the fast growth of the company, it’s not always been plain sailing. In 2011, Julie found out that the manufacturer of her bags was selling handbags that copied her design under a different name. They even made them using leather she had paid for.
She broke with the manufacturer, but had to set up her own factory in a matter of days to manufacture 18,000 bags that were on back-order. She achieved it though. Reflecting on the company’s ten years, she told Cambridge News that the episode with that factory is just a “story of extraordinary moments and a lot of resilience.”
In 2010, the Cambridge Satchel was dubbed the ‘British ‘It bag’ by the New York Times after the fluorescent-coloured nags were shown around New York Fashion Week by numerous fashion bloggers.
Five years later, Julie was awarded an OBE from the Queen, in recognition of her work supporting British manufacturing. She is also an ambassador for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, a charity which supports the training of people in British craftsmanship.
Despite issues with profitability in recent years, Julie has no plans to offshore manufacturing. Commenting on the craftspeople in her Leicestershire workshop, she said: “Who’s going to pass down those skills if we offshore everything? Preserving that is important.”
“We struggle with our profitability every year. If I decided to offshore my manufacturing we would be profitable overnight – but is that the right thing to do? I don’t think it is.”
Reporting by Harry Wise