In May 2015, Julie Deane, a mother of two and a respectable and practical British woman, was about to take a trip she had never envisioned for herself. At the invitation of Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire, Deane was setting off for Shanghai, for Alibaba’s first conference on women and entrepreneurship. At the conference alongside Deane was Arianna Huffington, who was promoting her Thrive Global initiative, as well as actress Jessica Alba and the Queen of the Netherlands. Deane would practice Tai Chi with Ma on his private island off the coast of Hangzhou before the trip was over. But she was also in the midst of a rapid expansion of a business called the Cambridge Satchel Company, which she and her mother had started seven years earlier in her kitchen, with the robust capitalization of £600. They had sought to bring back the traditional British school satchel and had become wildly successful—so much so that Deane had recently sold part of her company to a private-equity firm that had pumped her small operation full of professional managers and consultants, all of whom were beginning to irritate her. On that afternoon in May, on the eve of her trip, they were discussing ideas about how to decorate Cambridge Satchel’s first shop for men, which was opening in about a month.
Deane recalled the presentation to me when I visited her last summer in Cambridge. We sat in a café just outside King’s College and two doors down from the Cambridge Satchel Company store she had opened just a few years earlier. After the designers had finished, they asked, as she remembered, “ ‘What do you most like about this?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. I don’t like anything about it.’ And they got really huffy. They got really, really huffy.” But Deane was feeling huffy too. “It didn’t feel like our shop anymore.”
Deane cut the meeting short and asked the designers to send to her by e-mail every detail of the store they were designing so she could approve or reject each one. “And so it was when I was in China and e-mailing them from my hotel room at two in the morning, and I was saying to myself, That bloody Arianna’s been sleeping for the last seven hours.”
Deane has an oval face, wavy dark hair, a soft frame, and a sharp sense of humor. When I spent the day with her she outlined for me the rise, the fall, and the comeback of her business—a story that illustrates the entrepreneurial traps inherent in trying to hold on to a vision while growing too fast. Cheery and no-nonsense, with a chipped pedicure and a degree in biophysics, Deane is as unexpected a figure as can be in the fashion industry. My train from London had arrived slightly late, and Deane quickly shepherded me into her car and drove to Caius College—Stephen Hawking’s old school—where Deane had just been named Honorary Fellow, one of only three women to hold the title. She was congratulated continually as we had lunch in the long and elaborate dining room she had helped design 30 years ago when she was a student there. After graduating, she returned home—to Swansea, in Wales—to care for her ailing father. There weren’t any scanning electron microscopes in Swansea, Deane told me, so she went to work for an accounting firm. The experience was fortunate. She would need accounting.
The year was 2008, and Deane was living in a village outside Cambridge. She was married to a management consultant and had two children—Emily, eight, and Max, six. Deane had given up her own career in accounting when Emily was born, and had been a stay-at-home mom ever since. Emily had grown increasingly quiet throughout the year. One day, Deane arrived at the school to pick up her daughter and saw her being bullied by some of the other girls in her class. “She wasn’t fighting back,” Deane told me. Like countless other mothers, Deane found a way to blame herself. “Because I was a stay-at-home mum and I am very energetic and like to do my projects, I would seize everything that I could do” with the children. She created miniature gardens in the lids of glass jars. She made vegetables out of Play-Doh—”they’d be bored and I’d still be making cauliflower.” All of this meant, Deane continued, that occasionally Emily would miss a reference that a school friend made to EastEnders, or she would be overly enthusiastic about the latest miniature garden she and her mother had created. Those small moments, in Deane’s thinking, were enough to create a “flare point” of difference.
Deane promised her daughter that she’d go somewhere else in the fall. When Emily was admitted to a private school, “I just sort of asked about the school fees, fell over backwards, and picked myself up and thought, Right, that’s a lot,” Deane told me. “But it’s almost easier when you don’t have a choice.” One year of school cost £12,000—times two, actually, because she couldn’t send one child without the other. The couple did not have money to spare. In the previous year, however, Deane had earned £600 running a medical conference at Caius College. She quickly created a spreadsheet in which she listed possible business ideas that could turn £600 into £24,000. When I noted that £600 seemed like an awfully small amount to start a business with, Deane replied, “If you hang around too much with Silicon Valley types, you think that a million dollars is nothing. If you hang around with normal, hardworking people, £600 isn’t nothing. You can do actually quite a lot with £600.” And she did—she put it into satchels.
Deane had been looking for a traditional school satchel for some while. “I was sick to death of the rubbishy schoolbags that they have today,” she explained. They are, she said, poorly made and typically decorated with licensed characters that feel old after one season. She remembered the leather school satchel that she’d carried for seven years when she was a student: “It looked better when I finished my upper sixth than it did when I was starting.” But when she went to shop for one, she scrolled “pages and pages” through Google “and you just could not get those bags anymore.”
She moved quickly: “This was all in a day. I mean, this is not like, ‘Let’s plan a business over a year or something and launch it with a big party and pay famous people to come.’ It wasn’t like that. It was, ‘O.K., so that’s the one we’re going to do.’ And my mom was there, and she said, ‘Well, if that’s the one you are going to do, you’re going to have to have a name.’ I was like, ‘Good point. We’re going to have to have a name. How about—since we’re in Cambridge and we sell satchels—the Cambridge Satchel Company?’ Picked up a half an hour on that one.” Deane is so self-deprecating it can almost feel illusive, but it’s possible the effect is just British understatement (or I’ve been spending too much time with Silicon Valley types).
Next came the design of the satchel itself. “In my head there is only one way a satchel can look. And so I just made the first prototype with two cereal boxes and covered it in brown paper and drew some buckles on it.” Deane figured the task of finding a manufacturer would be easy, but it wasn’t. She had rejected the concept of having the bags made by an artisanal-crafts shop—”what that means is they’ll make something but it will cost so much that schoolchildren could never buy it as a schoolbag and you could never add on any kind of margin.”
Eventually Deane found a “random Scottish school” that listed “leather school satchels” in their prospectus: “I was like, ‘Hallelujah, it’s the holy grail. This is what I need.’ ” She called the school and asked for the school outfitter. She called the outfitter, a small shop in Scotland. The owner was a decent fellow, but he would not divulge his manufacturer. Deane would not accept no for an answer. “The person who gets it, the person who is going to win, is the person who wants it more, you know,” she told me, by way of explaining how she handled the situation.
What she proceeded to do was call the shop every half-hour to ask the owner questions about his satchels. “What color do you do?” she asked. He responded that he made the bags in a chestnut color. Deane approved of this. “Because traditional school satchels are in chestnut,” she said. “You only have to look at the opening of the Narnia PlayStation game, and they’re running in the Underground and two of them have got the satchels on—chestnut.” She put the phone down and then, half an hour later, called him again.
“Do you have navy satchels?”
“No, because they’re chestnut.”
“Oh, that’s too bad—O.K.” Deane phoned him yet again. “Do you have red satchels, because I think red satchels would look so swift. They would look really, really nice. Do you have them?”
On it went, every 30 minutes. Midway through the second day, the man asked, “How many questions do you have?!”
Deane said to him, “You know, that is the really funny thing. I feel like I have literally got thousands of questions about satchels. And the really weird thing is, they only ever seem to come one at a time.”
The shop owner gave her the name of his manufacturer, who was located in the town of Hull. She drove there immediately and made a deal.
III. “The British ‘It’ Bag”
By the end of that first summer, in 2008, Deane and her mother were selling 6, sometimes 10 bags a day, from her house. Neither of them took a salary. Marketing was done online and by word of mouth. Meanwhile, Deane settled on an arrangement with the headmaster of her daughter’s new school to pay the fees monthly, instead of by semester, so that she could write checks on a rolling basis as money came in. She and her mother packaged the bags they sold in tissue, brown paper, and string. They discovered that the garden-center Dumpster had boxes used for packing bulbs that happened to be the right size for packing satchels. The early bags sold for about £60 apiece.
Before long, Cambridge Satchel attracted the attention of Urban Outfitters, and Deane had to expand her manufacturing capabilities to service the orders. She was still operating out of her kitchen, and now she added two more manufacturers, one outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, and another in Norfolk. Deane and her mother would pack the bags with small personal touches, like a dog biscuit for a customer who had a dog or a chocolate bar with a handwritten apology if a bag arrived late. “It really sort of set us apart,” Deane told me. She paid close attention to the e-mails she received. “If somebody was @dailymail.co.uk, straightaway I would e-mail them and say, ‘I didn’t know you were working for the Daily Mail. Can you please tell me how do people get their products featured in your pages?’ ”
Video: Cambridge Satchel’s Julie Deane Found A Way To Pay For Her Children’s School
Deane contacted fashion bloggers and sent them bags for free. Sophie Ellis-Bextor, a British singer and songwriter, ordered a bag, and Deane called her to thank her personally. Deane asked if she could publicize the fact that Ellis-Bextor had bought a bag, and Ellis-Bextor agreed. Soon there were photos of her all over the Cambridge Satchel Web site. Photos of the British fashion designer and model Alexa Chung carrying an 11-inch classic satchel in navy were appearing in the British press. An early customer was a fashion editor at Elle U.K. If Deane could produce some bright-colored bags, the editor said, she believed she could get them into a photo shoot for the magazine. Deane was still working out of her house, and she sent one of her bags to a Brooklyn-based blogger, Jessica Quirk, author of the blog What I Wore, and asked Quirk to help her run a contest on her readers’ favorite color of bag. Quirk posted a photo of a circle of Cambridge Satchel bags and solicited opinions. She passed those opinions back to Deane, and the result was what became Kelly Green. Deane soon launched the Fluoro Collection of bright fluorescent-colored bags, which she sent to fashion bloggers in time for New York Fashion Week in 2010. That same year, The New York Timesidentified Cambridge Satchel as “the British ‘It’ Bag.”
The business was taking off and Deane moved operations out of her kitchen. Suddenly her bags were being stocked by large department stores and she was being approached about partnerships with Comme des Garçons and Erdem. That presented a problem of its own. “I had a backlog of 16,000 bags,” Deane remembered. Her three factories could make between 100 and 150 a week. It was untenable, and new orders were pouring in every day. Deane contacted another factory, Leicester Remedials & Sewing, which agreed to take on additional production. She brought the manufacturer from Hull to train the new manufacturer, and provided her own leather, patterns, and knives to cut the satchels. What followed is in dispute, but Deane told me that her new manufacturer was stealing the leather and designs and selling satchels under a new brand name, Zatchels. “It’s like seeing your child with different parents,” she said.
Deane sued Zatchels’ parent company, Leicester Remedials & Sewing, in 2011, seeking compensation and damages for breach of contract and the unlawful use of goods. Zatchels eventually paid Cambridge Satchel an undisclosed sum to settle the case out of court. When I asked Zatchels about Deane’s allegations, Dean Clarke, one of its directors, wrote in an e-mail, “We have no wish to engage in this ridiculous rubbish with Julie Deane whose only wish seems to be to destroy all UK competition.” Whatever the reasons behind the bad blood and legal wrangling, the upshot is that Deane decided to set up her own manufacturing operation, in Leicester.
At this point during Deane’s recollections, her son, Max, now 16, joined us at the café near the large Cambridge Satchel store, where we spotted a group of Chinese tourists who had come to see King’s College. They would buy seven or eight bags each. Max seemed wholly amused by his mother. He’s well acquainted with the time line of the business and remembers the need to open a new factory in a hurry. He also remembers pitching in to help pack the bags in time for the Paris shows in 2011.
At their most anxious point, Cambridge Satchel had back orders for 36,000 bags. Deane’s daughter, Emily, the one who had inspired the business in the first place, was tasked with helping to respond to all the angry e-mails from customers demanding their bags. There were moments when the Fates seemed to be conspiring against them. One day, when they were hauling their equipment out of a rental facility and into a more permanent location, the moving trucks were blocked from crossing town because King Richard III’s bones had been discovered under a parking lot, and all traffic was stopped.
IV. Too Much Success?
In 2012, Deane was featured in a Google television ad for its Chrome Web browser that told the story of Deane’s scrappy origins. She became as well known as the satchels themselves. Later that year, Samantha Cameron, the wife of then prime minister David Cameron, hosted an event at Downing Street for the winners of Red magazine’s Hot Women Awards, and Deane, who had won that year for entrepreneurship, was a guest. In 2013, Deane collaborated with British designer Vivienne Westwood and opened two brick-and-mortar stores, one in Cambridge and one in London. She was invited to Buckingham Palace to collect the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, International Trade from Queen Elizabeth. That same year, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner chose Cambridge Satchel bags as wrap presents for the show’s actors. At the end of the year, she joined a delegation to China led by Prime Minister Cameron.
In early 2014, Deane received her first private-equity investment: $21 million from Index Ventures, which had previously backed the digital fashion retailers Net-a-Porter and Nasty Gal, as well as Moleskine, the Milan-based notebook company. Index acquired a minority stake, and Deane announced that she would redesign the Web site, bring on guest bloggers to build engagement with customers, open new stores, and double the company’s sales. On the heels of that announcement, she was made an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Prince Charles awarded her the O.B.E. at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. Her charming kitchen-table business appeared poised to take over the world. She had big plans for China and the U.S., and the money and professional management promised by Index Ventures made expansion feel assured.
Instead, overhead costs ballooned and sales plummeted. Rather than being involved in the day-to-day business, Deane took a step back and was updated every month by her new management team. The company increased the kinds of bags on offer, but did so in a race to reach revenue targets, not with the same fastidious care as before. In 2013, Cambridge Satchel had generated nearly £13 million in sales. The following year, in 2014, sales fell to £10 million, and in 2015, they slid to £7.5 million. The company had become deeply unprofitable, with an operating loss that year of more than £5 million. “It didn’t go well the two years after the investment,” Deane told me. “There were a couple of reasons, and one was that my 24-year marriage fell apart and I didn’t see it coming. The other one was that when you get an investment and you think they know how to scale, and all these kinds of things, you are almost saying: I’m taking this investment because I don’t know enough how to do it. And along with that, you just start taking advice that just shakes your confidence in your own abilities.”
What had set Cambridge Satchel apart, Deane told me, was its attention to detail. People with experience at companies with $100 million in sales—the kind of people who came in to help her company expand internationally—”are not the kind of people who dive in and roll up their sleeves and do stuff themselves.” Money was wasted on everything from consultants to caterers. Deane told me of custom-designed crackers for the launch party of a new flagship store in Covent Garden, along with grapes and bits of cheese assembled into the shape of penguins. “Penguins on sticks—we had those,” Deane recalled. The launch party alone cost £100,000. Worse, the company began designing bags by committee—and customers could tell. “There was a churn of creating new products for the sake of it,” a Cambridge Satchel spokesperson told me candidly.
Deane thinks back on all this as an exceptionally dark moment in her life. Using agencies to help her design her stores was, she told me, “sort of like saying you don’t know yourself, so you’ve got to pay somebody to tell you what your shop should look like. It’s like farming out your children.”
By the summer of 2016, Deane had changed her C-suite executives—the chief financial officer, the chief marketing officer, and the chief technology officer. She re-asserted control over day-to-day operations and hired her own executive team. Rather than receiving monthly updates, she insisted on knowing what was happening every day. To stay connected with senior executives, she made heavy use of WhatsApp’s group-chat function and called her group Table Talk, an effort to hark back to those early days at her kitchen table. Meanwhile, Deane redoubled her efforts in China and took multiple trips to scout out the market. She now sells Cambridge Satchel bags on Alibaba’s Tmall, China’s equivalent of Amazon. After the U.K., China and the U.S. vie to be Cambridge Satchel’s second-largest territory, and the company has expanded its offerings to include clutches and other accessories. Last year it sold 9,000 units of its new Poppy bag, a takeoff of a traditional doctor bag. In 2016, sales of Cambridge Satchel products edged back up to £11 million, and the company is poised to return to the black. This autumn, Deane launched a line of new products, starting with cashmere scarves and scented candles, under the name Cambridge Life. What Deane is selling is her very particular brand of English taste. Her inspiration for scented candles came from some she purchased at a spa during a low moment in her fortunes—candles that had vastly improved her mood. “Sometimes, it is that simple,” Deane told me, which struck me as a quintessentially British thing to say.
As we parted, Deane was preparing to go to a garden party at Buckingham Palace with her mother, and she had rented hats for the occasion. She showed me both, each stylish though not overdone. She may have ambitious plans for the future of the company, but she now knows she must stay very close to the business. Deane has started, tentatively, dating again, but her highly developed interest and tastes sometimes get in the way, as she is the first to admit. She asked one man in the course of a date, “If you were an element on the periodic table, what would you be?”
Meanwhile, her daughter, Emily, started university in the fall. It’s easy to forget, but the whole point of starting a business had been to make it possible for Emily to go to the right kind of school. Well, it worked. “No matter what happens now,” Deane said, “I accomplished what I set out to do.”
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