Julie Deane, Creator of The Cambridge Satchel Hysteria Interviewed

Starting out at her kitchen table with just £600 to burn, Julie Deane created the Cambridge Satchel Company in 2007. Now her bags are seen everywhere from the red carpet to the catwalk...
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Starting out at her kitchen table with just £600 to burn, Julie Deane created the Cambridge Satchel Company in 2007. Now her bags are seen everywhere from the red carpet to the catwalk...

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Starting out at her kitchen table with just £600 to burn, Julie Deane created the Cambridge Satchel Company in 2007 as a way to pay her daughter’s private school fees.

Her bright handmade leather bags are based on a traditional satchel design aimed primarily at school kids, but have since become a multimillion-pound global hit and “a cult among twenty-something fashion bloggers” (according to The Guardian. Well, I should know, atch – I own two such satchels meself! Although I’m sadly not a ‘twenty something *cough*)

Following coverage by international fashion magazines and a collaboration withComme des Garçons, Cambridge Satchel production increased from three homemade items a week to 1,500 in 2011, and the satchels are now sold in shopping destinations from Dover Street Market to Harrods to ASOS, with an army of celebrity and fash pack fans. The satchels were even spotted on the catwalk at London Fashion Week (see my Cosmo article here).

We sat around the kitchen table where it all began, and said to Julie: “we want your job! How do we go about ‘bagging’ it?” < cue massive LULZ

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When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you say?
That’s a funny one, I say “I run my own business, what about you?” That’s usually enough as they assume I’m baking cookies to sell on a stall and leave it. When I’m not working I like to enjoy my family and life generally.

What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
I love animals, dogs especially and wanted to be a vet, or a doctor but I’m too squeamish for those to have been on the cards.

Having graduated from Cambridge, do you think a degree is essential to be successful?
No, for me it was right – I like to set a really high goal and then work like a mad thing to achieve it – no one in my family had gone to university so getting into Cambridge made me feel very proud and that I’d really achieved something.

That’s what’s important (I think) to set yourself a goal and focus, do it and then feel good about yourself.

Did your experience working as a chartered account help with setting up the business?
Yes, enormously. I had never set out to be a Chartered Accountant but after graduating my dad was very ill, I needed to go back home (Swansea). At that stage I knew I didn’t want to carry on studying, I had my Masters and was ready to move on, but I didn’t know what I wanted.

Accountancy turned out to be perfect, I gained so much business experience and it gave me the opportunity to work abroad (Chicago).

Do you wish you’d moved into bag-making sooner?
No, I was lucky enough to have had the chance to stay home whilst the children were small and that was the happiest time of my life. I started Cambridge Satchel when the children were 6 and 8, working from home in the early days was perfect.

The flexibility of your own business is great for family life – I see my mum every day and bring my dog Rupert in to the office. Look at him!

Julie's dog, Rupert

You created the Cambridge Satchel Co in 2007 to fund moving your daughter from a school where she was being bullied to a private one – but why satchels? Tell us more about your ‘eureka’ moment!
It really wasn’t a eureka moment – it was more a case of knowing how much I needed to make and making a list of businesses I could start that would get me there.

Satchels were on there – I had been hunting for some for my own children, without success, and so I hoped that I wasn’t the only one.

I think it’s important that people realise that it isn’t a matter of waiting for a great idea to hit them, if you need to change your life then get a pen and paper out and start listing ways you could actually do it.

Once you had the idea, where the bobbins did you start? I mean, I often have ideas but am sometimes overwhelmed with making them a reality…
It’s always about breaking it down into the small steps and trying to find the first one – so for me it was finding a UK manufacturer.

I hit Google and started searching – the internet makes so much possible – then I phoned bag manufacturers and leather manufacturers. It took ages, leather satchels made in the UK had become a thing of the past but eventually I found someone who had made them in the past and was willing to make some samples for me.

Then I made the first website – a free tutorial on the web. I set myself a budget to start the business – £600 – and never went over it – or borrowed. I don’t like risk, especially when it was my children’s school fees…

A Cambridge Satchel on Julie's kitchen table

Do you still see yourself as a ‘kitchen table’ business?
Yes, it’s still me and my mum but the kitchen is a lot bigger as in Cambridge we now have around 30 people in the office, but it’s a very close knit team.

We have family values – people often bring their children in, my dog is there and gets fussed over all day; at Christmas when we are flat out I always stress that the team needs to go and see their children in the school play or whatever. It’s a happy place and not at all corporate but we perform wonders!

Julie's dog, Rupert

How did you catch the attention of the fash pack?
That was thanks to one of our first customers who worked in the record industry; Sophie Ellis Bextor is a friend of his and bought one of our satchels and has been a great supporter of our brand and our story.

The fashion bloggers are also incredibly supportive – I had a thank you tea party in New York for them during Fashion Week in February and it was just like they were sitting around the kitchen table.

I really appreciate and enjoy the many friendships made through this journey – Cambridge Satchel is about a lot more than selling satchels.

Cambridge Satchels and fashion bloggers

What do you make of the wannabe (rather crap) Cambridge Satchel imitations out there?
My mum always says that imitations are the most sincere form of flattery but I find them annoying, every time we issue a new colour or design they are copied. I suppose it’s to be expected, but the fashion savy will always know the original.

One brand was a former manufacturer, that was the real betrayal; we would never treat a customer they way we were treated but it gave me the push to set up our own manufacturing workshops in Leicester and that has been a huge success.

Yesterday we celebrated our first anniversary of manufacturing for ourselves – but we still keep the first five manufacturers busy as without them I wouldn’t have grown the business.

What do you know now that you wish you knew in the formative years of your career?
Be creative and have the guts to follow your dream, it doesn’t mean putting everything on the line. Test things out, put a toe in the water…

Career highlight(s) so far?
Two, the first was taking the children for their school uniforms – my mum and I howled our eyes out as we had done what we set out to achieve, together.

The second was being invited to 10 Downing Street – coffee with Samantha Cameron, part of winning a Red Hot woman award (me and my mum!)

Julie Deane and her mumat 10 Downing Street

We must ask: how is your daughter getting on now? Want to send the bullies our way for a ticking off?
She is now the happy, outgoing girl I knew she could be. Sometimes out of a bad situation great things happen – Cambridge Satchel has created over 50 jobs this year, my mum has never been happier, the children see what can be achieved from a kitchen table, hopefully others will be inspired to – just give it a go, nobody will change your life for you.

How do you spend your time when you’re not working?
I love board games (argh, I can hear the shrieks) – our family faves at the moment are Blokus, Labyrinth and Dixit. I love being out (anywhere) with friends, family and of course my dog (Rupert). Photography is another passion, and gadgets!

Favourite satchel colour?
I love the oxblood and navy satchel that we made last year – we’ll bring it back soon, I carry mine everywhere. I also love the fluoros, they make me smile and they are unique.

Fluoro Cambridge Satchels

Cats or dogs?
Dogs – big dogs!

Chocolate or cheese?
Chocolate, bit of a thing for rose and violets at the moment.

Song that best describes your life?
Easy! Robert Palmer’s ‘She Makes My Day’.

A long time ago my boyfriend proposed and it was one of those steady but no great shakes kind of relationships. I was considering it, as maybe you don’t meet Mr Right and he was a dependable kind of man… but I heard this song on the radio and thought that that’s how I wanted someone to feel about me, and that I was going to hold out for someone amazing. I did, and we have been married for over 20 years. Don’t settle.

What’s next for The Cambridge Satchel Co? Would you consider branching out into other accessories or leather goods?
We have some HUGE news that I can’t break for a couple of weeks but I’ll be sure to let you know…

Also, a new colour collection will launch next month; a SS13 to make you drool and two very interesting new collaborations…

Thanks Julie! Head over to cambridgesatchel.co.uk to bag a Cambridge Satchel of your very own. Sadly, Rupert the dog isn’t for sale – WE LOVE HIM.

For more down to earth fashion advice visit www.leblow.co.uk