of the Cambridge Satchel Company
When Julie Deane needed to make money for her family, she had to think quick. Never working in the fashion industry before, she took a huge risk by deciding to put a modern spin on an old British tradition, the satchel. Entirely designed and manufactured in the UK, the Cambridge Satchel Company has created a buzz as an affordable and chic handbag. Originally made for school children to carry their books, the satchel has become an international style sensation; “loved by bloggers and fashionistas worldwide.” In fact, the prominence of the satchel proved itself during this season’s fashion weeks. From New York to London, the distinctive bag, in an array of colors and sizes, was seen throughout the tents on some of the biggest trendsetters. Available in classic colors and vibrant tones, the Cambridge Satchel seems to have lasting power in this fickle industry. We talked to Julie Deane about her unconventional transition into fashion, maintaining integrity through manufacturing and what she keeps in her own Cambridge Satchel.
Fashion Salade: How did the idea to create the Cambridge Satchel come about?
Julie Deane: Cambridge Satchel was born from necessity. My daughter, Emily, who was eight at the time, was being bullied and I needed to move her to a school where she would thrive. After scouring the local area, I found the perfect one but it happened to be a private school and so the question of fees arose. Having two children meant I had to come up with a monetary solution. I made a list of projects I thought would meet the challenge and Cambridge Satchel was on there!
FS: Did you ever imagine your bag would become so ubiquitous and popular?
JD: No, definitely not although I was convinced there was a market for a traditional yet colourful leather school satchel. The design is such a classic; it was a shame they dropped below the radar. The satchel is part of the British heritage, the colourful twist has made them desirable again.
FS: The company is based in Cambridge and each bag is manufactured in the UK. How important is it that the bags are authentic and entirely produced in the UK?
JD: It is nonnegotiable. For me, a satchel is a quintessential British item and to be authentic, they need to be made here, every one of them, from cutting to the final rivet.
FS: What was your background before beginning the company?
JD: I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and then qualified as a Chartered Accountant. After a spell of living and working in America, I returned to my college, Gonville and Caius, to set up the Development Office and became the first female Registrary in its 650 year history. I took a break to bring up my children. It is hardly the traditional route into fashion.
FS: You started the company to make satchels for school children but they quickly became wildly popular among fashion bloggers and celebrities. What is it like to see your now famous bag in magazines and all over the web?
JD: My mother has helped in the business from the first day. It is amazing to see the bags when we’re out and about. I remember seeing the satchels with my mother in Selfridges for the first time. We stood dumbstruck and felt so proud and still do whenever Cambridge Satchel gets a mention.
FS: The satchel is available in four different sizes. Why?
JD: The satchels are good for so many uses and roles. The 11” and 13” are great for handbags. The 11” is perfect for the bare essentials while the 13” holds quite a bit more and is a great bag for an outing. The 14” holds an iPad or is equally at home on a primary school child with reading books and a pencil case. We sell the 15” to many professionals as work bags and students for secondary school or college.
FS: What is the most popular color and size?
JD: No matter what we offer, it is always the 15” traditional satchel in “Chestnut.” There is a lovely photo of a trendy young man wearing one as a work bag. It was taken at Milan Men’s Fashion Week and shows the versatility of the bag. It is equally at home with a very smart outfit or a casual one.
FS: Why did you decide to allow customers to personalize their satchels by embossing it with their initials?
JD: I love the embossing. It has proved very popular. The satchel is a classic design and the embossing adds a personal touch, so your satchel can stand apart. Amusingly, we have had many very strange requests for text to be embossed. There is much more coming soon on the embossing front as we are always on the lookout for new developments to make the bags even more special.
FS: Describe the typical Cambridge Satchel customer.
JD: Our typical customer is aware of our brand, our story and our ethical approach to business. They are people who take pride in their appearance yet do not follow every trend. They know what looks good on them and value their possessions. They appreciate good design and craftsmanship and do not subscribe to the ‘throw away’ mentality. They buy our brand and return for more once bitten by the bug!
FS: Would you ever consider collaborating with another designer or brand?
JD: We have had successful collaborations with Comme des Garcons, Dr. Martens and recently with Basso and Brooke for London Fashion Week. There are more in the pipeline as we value the opportunity to work with talented and creative people.
FS: What do you keep in your handbag?
JD: Too much! Although the 11” keeps me in line so I try to stick to it. I am currently carrying a red and navy “batchel” in 14” and I have an iPad, phone, purse, keys, some sweets, a small umbrella, a children’s puzzle book and…a teaspoon? I need to go back to the 11”!
FS: Are there plans to expand the company to include a broader range of handbags or accessories?
JD: We do have two new bag shapes coming that will fit perfectly within the collection. We also have some amazing new colours and leather finishes but are careful to keep our focus.
FS: What’s next for the brand?
JD: Setting up our own UK manufacturing was a huge step for us and a real learning curve, which has benefitted us greatly. We will continue to build and improve our workshops, which will allow us to take on more of the very beautiful and highly regarded shops we wanted to become stockists. We have so many plans, I hope you’ll come back in six months and see how we’ve done!
The Cambridge Satchels are available at Selfridges, Bloomingdale’s and on the official website, www.cambridgesatchel.co.uk
By Juliet De Rose