An Interview with the Cambridge Satchel Company’s Julie Deane

Did you spot a familiar satchel on the Cambridge Satchel company’s homepage recently?

Oxblood Cambridge Satchel Everything Looks Rosie

A couple of weeks ago the lovely folks at Cambridge Satchel got in touch to let me know they were launching the oxblood satchel as the newest addition to their classic collection, and I was incredibly flattered when they said they liked my original oxblood satchel blogpost so much they wanted to feature one of my shots on their website.

I’m also shooting a wee something for the Cambridge Satchel blog in the coming days – keep your eyes peeled for that – and in the meantime to celebrate, I thought it was high time I posted my full Q&A with Cambridge Satchel founder Julie Deane. I think you’ll agree that she’s a very inspiring lady indeed.

Oxblood Cambridge Satchel 14-inch

We all know the story behind the Cambridge Satchel Company – but how did you get started actually designing and producing the satchels?

It always helps if you have a very clear idea in your head of what you want. It doesn’t always make it easy though, because the more of a perfectionist you are, the longer that process is going to be. I think that it needs real commitment before the whole process starts – you have to think what do I want it to look like? The more clarity you can get on that from day one, then that certainly makes things a whole lot better.

I had a whole lot of drawings and measurements – I wanted the strap to be long enough so that people could wear it across the body and to make sure it could stand up sturdily on its own and not fall on its face. There are just so many small details, you realise that there is more to even the simplest thing than perhaps you thought.

Was it important to you that bags were handmade in Britain?

I really like working directly with the people that make the bags, and I wouldn’t feel the kind of connection that we have to our bags if they rolled up in a huge lorry once a month, ordered from people I’d never met. It’s quite a different thing to go down and see the whole process – the people cutting it, the people marking it, sewing it, there’s you just get such a connection to the product. To have a handmade product and to know the people making it and to know how much work and passion goes into each one is really important. I can’t see being able to do that if they’re not places that I can just jump in my car and go and visit.

Oxblood Cambridge Satchel 14-inch

Were there any hurdles to achieving this?

I really appreciate the close connection to all of the parts of the process, including the manufacturing, but that has presented problems too. For instance because of some of the legislation in this country, there’s a natural reluctance for workshops to grow beyond 5-6 people; so that puts a limit on how many bags you’re going to be supplied with. Our brand has such an enormous worldwide demand – I don’t want to have 18 different small workshops all making them slightly differently. There aren’t that many places in the UK that are volume leather goods manufacturers.

Can you tell me a bit about the process of how each satchel is made and how long each one takes to make?

It’s quite difficult to forecast what the demand is going to be for each of the different colours and it can take about 8 weeks to get a new colour made. This is one of the hardest parts of the process that requires a lot of judgment and experience, looking at what’s going to happen and having the guts to go with an idea and push it.

Then you’re faced with the challenges of using a natural material. You’re not going to buy from anyone who’s going to keep animals in an environment where they never touch anything so they never get scarred, so some of the leather will come in with some natural defects. People tend to fall into two groups – those who think this is leather, I want it to look like leather, and that marks adds to the character of the bag. Then you have the people that think I want a handmade bag out of a natural material but I want it to look perfect. That’s a hard line to try and walk. There are going to be slight variations as the bags aren’t put through a computerised system keeping conditions the same all the time. But it’s the real deal as it’s being made by hand.

Oxblood Cambridge Satchel 14-inch

The satchel is quintessentially British – how does it feel to fly the flag for our design heritage?

I think that’s one of the most satisfying parts, seeing how the design is embraced by people around the world who have never seen a satchel before – they take one look at it and instinctively love it! It’s the simplicity of the design and the real classic look of it, all we’ve done is tweaked the design to make it more relevant for today.

Did you ever expect such demand for your satchels, particularly from the world of fashion?

I really loved the satchel as a design and my drawings with dimensions – I really believed in it. But when I was starting out I did think it would mainly be people buying them for their school children and using it as a work bag because it’s very functional. To see them on catwalks in New York, Paris and London, and fashion bloggers really getting behind them as a high fashion accessory is amazing.

Orla Kiely grey wool dress with collar

Do you think nostalgia is an important part of fashion?

I think that it is and I think that the way that our everyday life impacts on the way we want to present ourselves. Thankfully we’ve had enough of the disposable society – people now want a quality item that’s going to last them a long time and still look good. The beauty of the satchel is that it doesn’t scream to be the main focal point of anybody’s outfit and there are just lots and lots of ways people can wear it. It has that enduring quality; you know you buy something it’s going to last for a long time. I also think it’s dawned on people that if they buy something made in Britain there are people in their own community that are being given a job. It’s not just about buying something to hang on yourself for the next two weeks.

What inspired the fluorescent colour palette? Why do you think they were such a hit with the fashion world?

We had a phonecall from Amy Bannerman when she was at Elle and she said that they wanted the brightest satchel I could come up with for a photoshoot. I’d seen some flouro leathers so we bought some sample skins and had those made into satchels. I half expected her to say you’re having a laugh, you need to tone it down a bit but she told me everyone was going completely mad for them! And I thought well, this is something that caught my eye and it might be the start of something for us…

Orla Kiely grey wool dress with collar

If you had to choose one, which is your favourite satchel?

Ooh well it depends on the time of year! In the lead up to Christmas I was carrying the Downing in oxblood and navy and I was really enjoying getting into the autumnal, snuggly feel… Then I’d had enough of winter, and was really into the bright vibrant colours for spring, like our beautiful new satchels inspired by the colours you’d see at the Chelsea flower show [the Cambridge Satchel Company’s Chelsea Collection].

How has business changed since the satchels became so popular?

Well, I had to move from the kitchen for a start. We stayed in the kitchen for 2 years – as long as we possibly could to keep overheads down when we were trying to get your business off the ground. I think now it’s become a lot more strategic. There’s so much demand for the Cambridge Satchel brand that it’s become more a question of taking on people with real fashion expertise. You’ve got to recognise you cant do it all and don’t know enough about certain areas – you have to get really brilliant people to cover those areas better than you could. When you get to a certain stage it’s about developing your brand. Part of that is learning where your brand sits and who your customers are.

Orla Kiely bird print scallop peter pan collar dress

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start their own business?

I think that the thing I’ve learnt is that there are very different challenges at each step, so be selective about the advise you’re being given and whether it’s actually relevant to you. You have to be open to taking advice from all resources you can possibly take in, then look at it and think that might not be relevant to me right now but I’ll file it away. I’m doing things that are right for my brand now, that people advised me to do maybe 2 years ago – but if I’d done it 2 years ago it would have bankrupted me! The best advice I picked up early on was from people like my mum, who has more common sense than anyone I’ve ever met.

Thanks Julie!

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  1. […] taken from Everything looks Rosie ; she has a wonderful post about Cambridge Satchel on her […]

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