Cambridge Satchel Company: The Inspiring Story Behind Fashion Month's Most Affordable 'It-Bag'

If you looked at street style blogs from fashion month (and we're guessing you did), you surely noticed those fluorescent old school style satchels hanging from many a fashionable shoulder. You also might know that they're from the Cambridge Satchel Company, and retail for under $135. An It-bag that's actually within our means? We had to have one and we had to know more. We found out that Julie Deane is the lady behind the Cambridge Satchel Company. She had no previous design experience before starting the company just under five years ago with only £600. This past year profits reached £2.2 million and next year the company stands to make between £10 and £15 million (that's up to over $23 million). So how did Deane do it? We hopped on the phone with her to find out. Hers is a true success story, born, of all reasons, out of the desire to remove her six-year-old daughter from a school where she was being bullied. She tells us about her motivation for starting the company, being knocked off by her own manufacturers (she's pursuing legal action), and what's up next for Cambridge Satchel (hint: think clutches).
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Leah Chernikoff
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If you looked at street style blogs from fashion month (and we're guessing you did), you surely noticed those fluorescent old school style satchels hanging from many a fashionable shoulder. You also might know that they're from the Cambridge Satchel Company, and retail for under $135. An It-bag that's actually within our means? We had to have one and we had to know more. We found out that Julie Deane is the lady behind the Cambridge Satchel Company. She had no previous design experience before starting the company just under five years ago with only £600. This past year profits reached £2.2 million and next year the company stands to make between £10 and £15 million (that's up to over $23 million). So how did Deane do it? We hopped on the phone with her to find out. Hers is a true success story, born, of all reasons, out of the desire to remove her six-year-old daughter from a school where she was being bullied. She tells us about her motivation for starting the company, being knocked off by her own manufacturers (she's pursuing legal action), and what's up next for Cambridge Satchel (hint: think clutches).
Julie Deane and her dog Rupert

Julie Deane and her dog Rupert

If you looked at street style blogs from fashion month (and we're guessing you did), you surely noticed those fluorescent old school style satchels hanging from many a fashionable shoulder. You also might know that they're from the Cambridge Satchel Company, and retail for under $135. An It-bag that's actually within our means? We had to have one and we had to know more.

We found out that Julie Deane is the lady behind the Cambridge Satchel Company. She had no previous design experience before starting the company just under five years ago with only £600. This past year profits reached £2.2 million and next year the company stands to make between £10 and £15 million (that's up to over $23 million).

So how did Deane do it? We hopped on the phone with her to find out. Hers is a true success story, born, of all reasons, out of the desire to remove her six-year-old daughter from a school where she was being bullied. She tells us about her motivation for starting the company, being knocked off by her own manufacturers (she's pursuing legal action), and what's up next for Cambridge Satchel (hint: think clutches).

What inspired you to start the Cambridge Satchel Company? Why satchels? I had the strongest, most compelling of reasons: I started The Cambridge Satchel Company to earn money to send my children to a great school. My daughter, Emily, was being bullied. She is the brightest most sociable girl, but had become quiet and withdrawn. I had to do something, I was determined and that determination has been invaluable.

Satchels were popular when I went to school and I loved mine, and I was amazed to find how difficult it had become to get an authentic school satchel. I was on the look out as we were reading Harry Potter and there was no doubt in my mind that Harry and Hermione would have had a satchel, I wanted to buy one for my children but those on the market were poor imitations of the satchel I had enjoyed carrying. I hoped that I wasn't the only one looking. I wasn't!

How did you come up with the design and go about producing them? I had no design experience but I just knew what a satchel should look like. To me a satchel should be uncomplicated, classic, not at all fussy, it should stand up and not sag or slouch--it's a classic British design. I thought maybe if I went to leather working places--places that would make saddles for horses--I thought they'd know. It took me three months of traveling around and some devious thinking but I finally found a school in Scotland that still required their students to have satchels. So I kept phoning the supplier until they gave me the name of the factory. They made less than 100 a year. I was so excited that I had found a lead that I drove right up there [from Cambridge] and turned up on the factory doorstep. He said I think you're really well meaning and nice but no one wants a satchel. But he made my first batch and I took photos with my children with them standing around Cambridge--and those photos were on my first website. I still work with this factory and have them manufacture as many as I possibly can because he's been the nicest person to work with.

But others haven't been so nice? Well, the day came when that factory and the first ones I found weren't enough to keep up with demand. I was told there was a leather working company looking for more work and they didn't know how to make satchels. So I sent them to my first manufacturer, showed them how to make the bags, had a list of the machinery, and they were the ones who turned. I didn't know anything about it and then one of their employees called me and said they felt they were getting dragged into something and felt weird and gave me name of a site and I was paralyzed. I told them all my plans, all my ideas and there they were on my computer screen [being sold by another site]. We're pursuing legal action so it's in the hands of the lawyers now. I had no choice but to withdraw immediately and take out our leather. But that was my main manufacturer--I was getting 800 bags a week from them, so suddenly I was 800 bags a week down. [If you ordered a Cambridge Satchel and waited a while to get it, now you know why.]

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The satchel bags are a huge hit in the fashion world, especially in the neon colors. What inspired the neon palette? We had a request for a fluorescent satchel and once we made one we sourced more fantastic colours--there's another on the way. We have become known for these outrageous bags. There's something very alluring about such a classic design in such a nonconformist colourway.

How has business changed since the neon bags became such a must-have item? There's now a shortage of fluorescent cows! Honestly, we have been bowled over by the response. This is a family company and to have such attention has been wonderful. Every bag is hand made, the work and craftsmanship that goes in to each one means they can't be rushed and so we have had to suddenly increase our production capacity. Having been betrayed by our main UK manufacturer I decided to start manufacturing for ourselves, and now there is a Cambridge Satchel factory in the UK (near Leicester). Leather workers are hard to find, it was a dying craft in many ways but we will be working with local colleges to build apprenticeships and revive this type of manufacturing. I'm excited about the factory.

What comes after neon? Any new colors or patterns? We have been making some metallic finish satchels for Comme des Garcons, ASOS and Urban Outfitters (UK). They are very exciting and have been exceptionally well received. Yes, new colors and limited editions in the works!

Do you have any plans to expand into other areas of design? A Cambridge Clutch Co. perhaps? Yes! We will be introducing clutches and in 2012 there will be a new bag shape that fits perfectly with our brand.