New investment and a firm commitment to UK manufacturing are bringing fresh focus to The Cambridge Satchel Company
A discreet black limousine pulls up to the loading bay of The Cambridge Satchel Company’s factory in Leicestershire. The bag brand’s CEO and founder Julie Deane waits nervously outside, lined up next to several of the business’s board members, the mayor of local district Charnwood, and a huddle of royal correspondents. Without fanfare, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall step out of the car, and greet the waiting party warmly.
The visit is part of a royal tour of Leicester, which has also taken their royal highnesses to Leicester General Hospital, and the UK’s last remaining rattan workshop, Soane Britain, in the nearby village of Thurmaston.
It is six years since Deane was awarded an OBE for services to entrepreneurship, and the royal visit marks another significant milestone for The Cambridge Satchel Company, which has just received a new injection of funding from Hong Kong-based private equity firm Cassia Investments – it will not disclose the amount – to support its continued growth in the UK and internationally.
We take traditional bag styles and bring them up-to-date with slight modifications, learning from the craftmanship of the past
Its factory is in Syston, about six miles from the centre of Leicester. At the time of the royal visit, the staff are working on a special collection of bags created to support The Prince’s Foundation – a charity dedicated to strengthening local communities through education and training. The royals are taken through the different stages of production, including use of a 200-year-old vintage blocking and embossing press.
“We take traditional bag styles and bring them up-to-date with slight modifications, learning from the craftmanship of the past,” explains Deane.
The collection of satchels – of which only 600 will be made – is being sold exclusively via the brand’s own ecommerce site and four UK stores. The brand will donate 20% of the retail price from each bag to support the work of the foundation. Retail prices range from £140 to £240, depending on the style.
“It is a great fit for us because The Cambridge Satchel Company is a real home-spun story,” says Chris Martin, deputy executive director of The Prince’s Foundation. “It was started at a kitchen table and now it’s global. The Prince of Wales loves those stories.”
The Cambridge Satchel Company has been growing at a steady rate since it was founded by Deane and her mother, Freda Thomas, in Cambridge in 2008. Today it employs around 120 people, including 50 at the Leicestershire factory. Its fourth store opened in Oxford in early February, and it has a handful of stockists, including Manchester independent Lanigan & Hulme and etailer Country Attire.
Deane hopes the investment from Cassia will help it to expand further into China, which, alongside the US, is one of the brand’s largest markets outside of the UK. It has a localised Chinese website, and trades via ecommerce platform Tmall Global. The investment has allowed it to open a Hong Kong office, and hire a chief operating officer to oversee the development of its route to market in China.
We keep to the important principle of selling fewer, well-made things that will last
“Exporting is key to our growth,” says Deane. “China is a fascinating and fast-moving market, so having local expertise [in the form of Cassia Investments] is giving us a real advantage. Trying to do everything from Cambridge was proving challenging!
“We have a website hosted within China to allow us to achieve decent page load speeds and a stable service, we are also on Tmall Global and soon to migrate to the main Tmall platform. Owning the channel content is critical to ensure purity of brand culture, message and vision. Our Asian customers are fans of British style and the craftsmanship that goes into each bag.”
She adds that some of its plans to expand further in Asia are currently on hold because of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Last summer, The Cambridge Satchel Company reported a loss of £1.4m for the year to June 2018, on a turnover of £11.2m. Deane says it continued to make a loss in the year to 30 June 2019.
“We had signed up to digital platform that was not suited to our size and that contract caused us major challenges, as did an extraordinary rent increase at our Covent Garden shop,” she explains.
“We were able to finally exit both, and start to rebuild with a lot more knowledge and experience going forward. We now know what to look for and what to avoid at all costs. Another part of the turnaround has been moving dispatch back to our factory, getting sight and control of the stockholding, and directly managing logistics has been a big step forward.” The brand moved its logistics in house last autumn.
The investment from Cassia has supported capital expenditure on machinery to allow new shapes to be developed, although Deane remains tight-lipped about what these might be. For autumn 20, The Cambridge Satchel Company has partnered for the second time with Japanese fashion brand Comme des Garçons, following the success of their first collection in 2011.more examples of UK Manufacturing
The 30,000 sq ft Syston factory manufactures 8,000 to 10,000 bags per month. It has capacity to double that number to 20,000, but Deane is not in a rush.
China is a fascinating and fast-moving market, so having local expertise [in the form of Cassia Investments] is giving us a real advantage
“We keep to the important principle of selling fewer, well-made things that will last,” she says, adding that all of its product is made with “an ethical and sustainable view”. The business uses a leather supplier in the Netherlands, and two tanneries in the UK. The leather is a by-product of the meat industry.
“We’re taking something that would otherwise go into landfill, as you can’t burn it,” says Deane. Its own cut-offs are repurposed into accessories and bookmarks.
Leicester has earned a reputation over the years for poor working conditions in some of its garment factories, but The Cambridge Satchel Company shows a better side of the city’s manufacturing industry: the factory is clean, light and spacious.
Deane is resolute in her commitment to manufacturing on these shores: “I’m focused on strengthening what we can do here from the factory [by] enabling capital expenditure,” she tells Drapers. “We’re really committed to this factory. For us it’s always made sense to be able to visit the place making your product.”
Lanigan & Hulme is one of the few third-party stockists of The Cambridge Satchel Company’s men’s collection. “It performs well – the leather options work for us,” co-owner Phil Lanigan tells Drapers. “It fits with our ethos of ’made in England’, which is what our customers want.”
Like most of brands operating in today’s highly competitive market, The Cambridge Satchel Company has faced some hurdles. However, its expansion into China and commitment to UK manufacturing should strengthen it for the future.
As the royal visit comes to an end, the Duchess of Cornwall cuts a commemorative satchel-shaped cake and tea is served in china cups to the factory workers. It is a heart-warming sign of the regard in which Deane holds her staff.
“It is a huge thing to have come so far and have everyone here feel we have the royal seal of approval,” she concludes. “The excitement and pride of everyone here is palpable.”