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The Drapers Interview: Julie Deane, The Cambridge Satchel Company

Julie Deane’s handcrafted, do-it-yourself approach has grown The Cambridge Satchel Company into a truly global brand, making her some high-profile friends along the way.

Julie Deane

Julie Deane

With a mere £600 investment, six prototype satchels made in Hull and some empty sprout and tulip bulb boxes “begged” from the local school and garden centre, Julie Deane launched The Cambridge Satchel Company in 2008. Today the label has a six-floor flagship in Covent Garden and sells to more than 100 countries worldwide. And last month Deane was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year honours list for her services to entrepreneurship.

But despite crafting this rapidly expanding brand from scratch, with support from her mother Freda Thomas, Deane still does not see herself as an entrepreneur. Speaking to Drapers at her Covent Garden showroom, she says: “I had one idea; it’s a bit grand to call yourself an entrepreneur. I’m not springing businesses up willy-nilly. People use big words.”

This perfectly sums Deane up. Far from letting the success go to her head, she is modest, relaxed and affable. Referring to herself as “a geeky person - let’s hear it for the fashion geeks”, she seems unflappable and methodical in the face of a challenge and brims with passion for her business.

Whether she likes the phrase or not, she is definitely an entrepreneur - and a very successful one.

After batting away numerous offers of investment, Deane signed a deal in January 2014 with venture capitalists Index Ventures - selected due to their desire to protect her business ethos - who took a minority stake for £12.7m. According to its latest results, The Cambridge Satchel Company turned over £12.9m in the year to June 2013, up 48% on 2012, and profits rose 50% to £3.6m. It now employs about 120 staff and has firm plans for further growth.

This includes working with the landlords of its two pop-up stores at Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow and George Street in Edinburgh, which opened just before Christmas, to occupy them both on permanent leases. This will take the brand’s store count to four, including its Cambridge branch and the Covent Garden flagship on James Street, which opened adjacent to an Apple Store in November and for Deane “really shows the ambition of the brand”.

A fifth, at 15 Shorts Gardens in Seven Dials, Covent Garden, is currently closed but will reopen in the spring featuring a new concept that Deane refuses to reveal details of just yet.

But growth isn’t limited to these shores. Her ambition means the immediate focus for further sites is international, in China and the US. Deane sees potential for a US shop before the end of 2015 to support its dollar website and wholesale presence.

In China the brand soft-launched on Tmall Global in November and plans to unveil a full Chinese language and currency website in the next two months, while a physical presence is on the cards for later this year. It will also be one of 10 British fashion brands showcased next month at UK Trade & Investment’s Great Festival of Creativity in Shanghai, led by Prince William.

Meanwhile back in Europe, a display in the window of Copenhagen’s Illum department store will be unveiled next week to run until March 8, showcasing the brand’s Made in Britain focus. Some 44% of its sales were international in 2013.

Domestic wholesale is also earmarked for growth. To support this, The Cambridge Satchel Company is likely to swell its wholesale team of four gradually over time, and will conduct research to identify suitable stockists, which are likely to include indies. The brand already has more than 100 wholesale partners globally, with about 55 UK stockists including John Lewis, Selfridges, Harrods and a few independents such as Beasley’s in Hull and Heffers in Cambridge. To keep up with burgeoning demand - production has increased from just three bags a week in 2008 to about 900 a day - Deane expects to expand into the second half of its 31,000 sq ft Leicestershire workshop before the end of the year.

Never forgetting her online roots, Deane still appreciates the importance of staying ahead digitally and will prioritise increasing editorial content and working more with bloggers and affiliates. Online now represents 60% of total sales.

Such rapid growth is not bad considering where it all started; success for Deane has been down to true persistence.

As a stay-at-home mum with two children, she launched the business after realising her eldest child, Emily, was being bullied and she needed to raise cash for private school fees. With £600 earned by organising the yearly medical conference for her former Cambridge University college Gonville & Caius, she got to work. “For me the motivation was absolutely key. It would never have been enough to say ‘I want a nice car or to be a bit flash’, because it’s really hard work,” she confesses.

Describing herself as “a very picky, quite awkward person”, she compiled an Excel spreadsheet of 10 business ideas based on things she felt could be improved. Refusing to reveal the other nine ideas, she settled on satchels after becoming fed up with existing schoolbags, which were either cheaply made or adorned with images such as High School Musical that would quickly fall out of favour.

Her own satchel lasted her entire school life. To highlight her point, she shows off her current bag - one of the brand’s original satchels from 2008, the 15-inch dark brown - which she proudly says “is still going strong”.

But the initial idea was the easy part. Determined to produce the bags in the UK, sourcing a manufacturer was the biggest hurdle, and this is where her passion for nurturing domestic production springs to the fore. “A lot of the traditional manufacturers were not on the internet,” she explains. “I think one of the main things I would like to see the chambers of commerce do is to make sure everybody can at least be found on the internet, even if they don’t have a website themselves. If there was one big database that picked up everyone, that would be real lifeblood to them.”

Without this, and having unsuccessfully trawled the internet for leather craftsmen, Deane finally located a Scottish school that listed traditional satchels on its uniform page and contacted the outfitter, who refused to reveal his manufacturer.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be the most disruptive person he’s ever come across. I’m going to be the biggest thorn this man has ever had in his side’,” she says. She achieved this by calling him every 35 minutes to ask repeated questions about the satchels’ specifications, from colour and interior dimensions to straps.

“This poor man was trying to run a shop, and to his credit he lasted all of the first day,” she laughs. But on the second day, after the second or third call, he caved. With a faint mischievous look, she adds: “A huge amount comes down to persistence.”

With six prototypes sourced from the Hull manufacturer - who Deane still uses and refuses to name for fear of counterfeiters - she turned to web design using a free online tutorial. “I did the course over two nights and launched a website on the third.”

The same approach was adopted for the company logo - designed using Microsoft WordArt - and the first product shots, which featured her children as models. “They were paid in Mars bars,” she jokes.

As sales started to come in, Deane’s handcrafted approach continued, with satchels initially dispatched in frozen sprout boxes sourced from her children’s school or tulip bulb boxes from the garden centre. “I would handwrite every tag. People absolutely loved the authenticity of it,” she says.

And all of this was done during the recession, without bank loans or going overdrawn.

This DIY attitude has certainly not left Deane as the company has grown. Despite using Index Ventures’ investment to build a senior team - including recruiting chief marketing officer Mario Muttenthaler from etailer Mr Porter and leather firm Globe-Trotter’s Mark Fitzpatrick as UK general manager - as it was getting “a bit lonely at the top”, she still turns her hand to every element of the business.

“There isn’t a single job I haven’t done myself; I do like dipping in and seeing what’s happening in all the different areas. I’ll suddenly appear on the Facebook page or the Twitter page, I’ll answer the phones, I’ll respond to emails and I still do the embossing.”

Despite her jet-setting lifestyle - which includes regular trips to China and the US - she was involved in hiring all staff for the Glasgow and Edinburgh stores, because they are “the ambassadors of
our brand”.

“I don’t want people being hired that will misrepresent who we are and who are in any way arrogant, off-putting or unappreciative of the customers who have made us who we are. So even if sometimes I have to do that by Skype, I really want to meet the people who will be representing what my mum and I have built.”

With her team in place Deane is also expanding the product range, enabling her to ensure the business does not lose its way if demand for satchels declines. For spring 15 this includes totes and clutches, while the first dedicated men’s collection will launch in June for autumn 15. The 13 styles will range in retail price from £125 for the small vintage-inspired Map Bag to £265 for the Multipocket Batchel, a classic satchel with a top handle.

Prices for the spring 15 collection range from £69 for a small push-lock bag to £195 for the East West Tote. The more premium Saddle Leather collection, launched last December, retails at £195 for a clutch and £390 for a tote.

Collaborations are also key - a tie-up with US cartoon strip Peanuts, featuring satchels, pouches and a dog collar, launches next week. This follows previous collaborations with Comme des Garçons and Vivienne Westwood.

Guiding Deane through this rapid evolution has been a high-powered set of friends, including Andy Rubin, boss of fashion and sportswear brand house Pentland Brands, whom she met at a Drapers Next Generation event in 2012. She says he “has been fantastic” and “just knows what he’s doing”.

Rubin is equally complimentary, saying he has offered advice on trading overseas and “was impressed with her story, her passion and her humility” as she builds the brand “with authenticity and creativity”. “She is a role model for entrepreneurs who have an idea and then through sheer hard work and tenacity make things happen. She knows what she doesn’t know and is keen to learn, and this has ensured she has avoided many of the mistakes entrepreneurs make.”

Another is J Crew chief Mickey Drexler. They first met when he visited her Seven Dials store in 2012 - although she admits when he first contacted her about the visit she didn’t know who he was. Thinking he was a US buyer on his first trip to London, she invited him to a “greasy breakfast”, which he politely declined. She only found out his identity moments before he entered the store. But they hit it off nonetheless, with him inviting her to New York in the summer of 2013 to help her decide on an investment partner. She says Drexler is “always at the end of the phone”.

For her new partner Giuseppe Zocco, co-founder of Index Ventures - which also invests in retailers including Asos.com, Etsy and Farfetch - “it was easy for us to see the potential of what Julie was building”.

“She takes no nonsense, surrounds herself with the best-in-class team and doesn’t seem to ever lose the energy and drive that we saw when we first met her,” he says. “She’s also still the same Julie that started the business with just a few hundred pounds, contributing her views and energy to her executive team, maintaining the culture of frugality and attention to product perfection that has infused her brand all along, and focusing only on the things that matter to her customers.”

With these retail titans and investors in her corner, an already hugely popular brand and a clear focus on her future growth plans, Deane clearly means business. Crucially, though, she’s aware of the potential dangers that lie ahead.

“It’s incredible how far we’ve come, but so many doors are open to us and now it’s up to us to make the right decisions and not to dilute the brand as we grow, but to make sure the ethics and voice are really looked after,” she says. “And to not become faceless because that would be such a shame; that’s the real pitfall.”

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