The story of how Julie Deane founded the Cambridge Satchel Company has been retold many times with the air of a business fairytale. Weve heard how the company began life at Julies kitchen table with only £600 and a tenacious spirit driven by one simple goal – to turn that money into enough to send her two children to a better school in a matter of months. The business grew organically (and rather quickly) and within five years the company was worth £50 million. Cambridge Satchel Company turns 10 this month and Julies not afraid to acknowledge the last decade has been far from smooth-sailing – “there have been extraordinary highs and extraordinary opportunities but then there have been periods that have been beyond stressful.”
Asking Julie to reflect on the companys history, “looking back over the 10 years its like watching that film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – a series of extraordinary events. Learning tai chi in China with Jack Ma the [billionaire] head of Alibaba – that is a Walter Mitty kind of moment.” Shes brimming with stories of the journey, all laced with her sharp wit and humility. But its by no means been an easy ride – one particularly challenging time came in 2011 when Julie discovered her manufacturer was copying her bag designs and using the leather she had paid for to launch an identical product under a different name. With 18,000 bags on back-order at the time Julie had to set up her own factory in a matter of days, with no previous manufacturing experience. But she pulled it off, “it is just a story of extraordinary moments and a lot of resilience,” she says. When I ask whether there was ever self-doubt, she reflects, “I dont expect other people to solve my problems and Im not prepared – after all of this – Im not prepared to give up on this. Theres a kind of tenacity about it and there has to be some kind of self belief.”
The companys remained adaptable over time, especially in relation to how the digital world has changed in the last decade, dramatically affecting retail. “There are always new challenges. And if its plain-sailing then it probably means youre not noticing the monster thats coming up in the rear view mirror.” The role of fashion bloggers played a key part in catapulting Cambridge Satchel into the spotlight. The company sent some fluorescent-coloured satchels to certain bloggers in 2010 which were then seen all over New York Fashion Week, leading The New York Times to dub them the British It bag of the season and a landslide of orders followed. As Julie notes, the world has also changed drastically around influencers, “within two years weve seen people we worked with in that capacity now saying, yes, I will mention you but only if you give us £50,000.” She continues, “they went from this very authentic community of people who were doing something they loved because they want to do it, to suddenly being paid to say what they loved and then the lack of trust that comes along with that.” And its a new system she refuses to go along with, choosing alternative marketing strategies instead.
Julies values are clear and strongly represented in the brand – championing British manufacturing is one such passion. Julies an ambassador for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, a charity which supports the training of people in British craftsmanship. Talking of the craftspeople at the companys workshop near Leicester, where every bag is handmade, “those are the people that know the skills because they used to make leather goods when craftsmanship was not as unique a thing in this country. Whos going to pass down those skills if we offshore everything? Preserving that is important.” But its certainly not the easy option, “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 dont think it is.”
Shopping in Cambridge
Her mother Freda Thomas is credited as co-founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company and is still involved in the business today. Im told she has the most impeccable style, but is also very practically-minded, “as an overall brand guardian and to keep us on the straight and narrow, shes perfect,” Julie says, “I think every brand could benefit from someone like that.” Influenced in part by her mother and “obsessed with Chanel” since her teens, Julies love of timeless style over trends is reflected in the bags produced. “Hopefully the beauty is in the simplicity of the design of it. Thats certainly what we aim for.” After first expanding the colours and sizes of satchels available, the company went on to handbags starting with the Poppy – a cross body bag with a rounded shape – which remains a firm favourite. “Poppy is a free spirit, shes beautiful and she knows it,” says Julie of the bag. The newest member of the family is the Emily, a large tote bag, released in October and named after Julies daughter, who inspired this whole endeavour.
The city in which the company was founded remains more than just a namesake, Julie brims with admiration and love for Cambridge. “Such brilliant people are here and make me really proud to be based in Cambridge. Its a city that punches so far above its weight and yet still manages to not come with the kind of aggressive arrogance that is found in bigger cities.” Cambridge Satchel Companys head office is based here, but Julies involvement in Cambridge life goes far beyond the company, “Im still involved in the university with the Judge Business School and with the Fitzwilliam Enterprises because there are institutions, organisations and groups of people here in Cambridge that are extraordinary and yet its just a chilled place to be. I love it.”
Above all its been one remarkable journey over the last 10 years, and to have a company which has retained its integrity through it all is surely a thing to be proud of. After some bumps in the road Cambridge Satchel Company has found its feet again and moves into a second decade, older, wiser and with renewed confidence. And what advice would Julie have for budding entrepreneurs? “You need to give yourself permission to be brave.” Note taken.