Breakin’ the Rules Like Proper Brits:
The Cambridge Satchel Story
by Gene Fowler
British mum Julie Deane found herself in a pickle one day back in 2008. Her eight-year-old daughter was being bullied at school and Deane decided to move both the girl and her six-year-old son to a private school. But she and her then-husband were £23,400 short of the £24,000 annual tuition for both children. (The British pound, for which £ is the symbol, is currently equal to $1.20 in U.S. currency.)
Cambridge Satchel, the company she started in her kitchen that year to pay the school fees, is today a global brand producing handmade leather bags that catch the fancy of students and fashionistas alike.
“I’m a very logical, nerdy person,” Deane has explained to countless nosey reporters inquiring about the company’s origins, “so I took myself to the computer, with a cup of tea, and made a list of 10 jobs that I could do to pay the fees, still be a mum, and have my dog with me on the job.” Trained as an accountant, the resourceful mum gravitated to businesses that she could start with £600.
She had been reading the Harry Potter books to her children at the time and began looking for school satchels that reminded her of those that Harry and Hermione, characters in the popular series, might tote at the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It wasn’t long, though, before her British mum’s ire meter was flaming alerts. “I was sick to death of the rubbishy schoolbags that they have today,” she explained. “I was outraged, properly outraged, because the satchel is the most British bag you can ever imagine. Everyone had a satchel when I was in school. But no one in England was making them.”
Satchels, she decided. Let’s make satchels.
Teaming up with her own mum, Freda Thomas, who still helps out at the jillion-dollar bag company, Deane fashioned a crude prototype satchel from two cereal boxes wrapped in brown paper. She then found a store in Scotland that sold satchels and called the owner, but he would not divulge the name of his supplier.
Undeterred, Deane began calling the poor chap every 30 minutes, asking a new question with each call, until he grew exasperated and forked over the name. She had the supplier make three satchels to jumpstart sales. “I thought, I am going to need to sell a lot of these things,” she told CNBC, in 2017. “This is obviously a job for the Internet.”
She learned to code in 48 hours with a free Microsoft course and put up a fledgling website. Consulting Jay Conrad Levinson’s book Guerrilla Marketing: Secrets for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business, Deane adopted his “take no prisoners” sales-philosophy-on-steroids. After the British newspaper The Guardian featured Cambridge Satchel’s red 14-inch bag in its 2009 Christmas Gift Guide, thousands of orders flooded in.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to think of something that’s so crazy, a little bit probably against the rules, but it is always easier to apologize than it is to ask permission,” Deane said in a 2016 talk about her company’s success for United Kingdom Trade and Investment. “If you ask permission, people usually like to say no just to be on the safe side.”
Citing an example of a “crazy” promotion, Deane described a “cheeky stunt” the fledgling company pulled off in 2010. She had added a line of brightly colored fluorescent bags and sent “loaner” samples to Manhattan fashion bloggers in advance of New York Fashion Week and asked them to wear the bags at the shows. When The New York Times fashion writers saw the bags glowing in the darkened audience just off the runway, the American paper of record proclaimed that Julie Deane’s homegrown creation was the new “British ‘It’ Bag.”
Needless to say, Cambridge Satchel soon outgrew Deane’s kitchen table. As The Guardian reported, the company had become “2011’s accidental multimillion-pound global hit.” And while a British housewife had set out to fund her children’s school fees with satchels that she thought would only sell to schoolkids, the august daily founded in 1821 as The Manchester Guardian decreed that “the bags have become a cult among twenty-something fashion bloggers.”
In 2013, Deane curtsied at Buckingham Palace as Queen Elizabeth presented her with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, International Trade.
Two years later, she found herself studying Tai Chi with Chinese billionaire Jack Ma on his private island off the coast of Hangzhou when Ma invited her to the inaugural Alibaba Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship. As they had been at Urban Outfitters and other outlets, Cambridge Satchel bags were soon a hit on Alibaba, the Chinese version of Amazon.
The business wasn’t all tea and crumpets, however. In the early years, Deane got word that one of the manufacturers she contracted with to produce her handmade bags had been stealing some of her leather, making its own satchels and selling them at a discount under the name Zatchels. In British terms, Julie Deane was properly cheesed off. She sued, receiving an undisclosed settlement. And though she had a 16,000-order backlog at the time, she fired the manufacturer and set up a new workshop.
A few years later, a $21 million outside investment in her company proved to perhaps be more trouble than it was worth. The windfall came with a wave of new management and an alarming drop in product quality. Overhead boomed as profits plummeted. Deane reasserted her control of Cambridge Satchel and saved the company.
On another occasion, a minor inconvenience arose that could only have happened on Billy Shakespeare’s turf. As Cambridge Satchel workers were moving equipment from a rental facility to a permanent home, all traffic was blocked after the discovery of King Richard III’s bones buried beneath a parking lot.
Deane added bags for men to Cambridge Satchel’s product line in 2015. Today, most of the company’s bags are aimed at both men and women, including the iconic Satchel that started it all and which the company’s website says “is carried by the world’s most interesting people.” Others intended for both birds and blokes include the Traveller, the Music Case, the Briefcase, the Backpack and the Bowls Bag.
The Doctor’s Bag and the Poppy (“No bag combines pretty and practical quite like The Poppy and The Mini Poppy”) are marketed to the ladies, while the Messenger (“a bag from an analogue era”) offers plenty of room for all the gear one needs for manly endeavors. Many are available in a variety of sizes and shades. The Poppy, for instance, comes in rose matte, honeysuckle, aloe, fizzy grape matte, oxblood, azurite and more.
Vloggers and bloggers continue launching digital reports praising Cambridge Satchel products. One bubbly Youtuber, quintessentially British, swooned that the Poppy “is beautiful because it’s got a satchel vibe, but it’s not a satchel. It’s kind of old fashioned and it’s kind of modern, and I love its gorgeous silhouette.”
London educational researcher Dr. Amina Yonis, who has 179,000 YouTube subscribers, posted a lively and entertaining excavation of the contents of her “university bag,” the classic Cambridge Satchel. “I get loads of compliments on it all the time,” she said. “It looks small, but it holds so much. And the leather is amazing. It’s gone through so much wind and rain because London weather is a constant battle.”
The mum-powered brand is not slowing down after a decade and a half either. Deane recently introduced three new limited edition tartan designs for bags that celebrate this year’s Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh (“the best of food, farming and rural life at Ingliston in Edinburgh”) and the 150th Open in St. Andrews (a golf tournament). Royal Highland unveilings included “Bay with Locharron Linnet Tartan, a beautiful combination of warm pinks, muted oranges and a soft brown” and “Biscuit Matte with Locharron Stewart Blossom Tartan. This intricate pattern of lilacs, greens and sandy tones makes for a perfect pairing with our charming neutral shade, a fantastic tone which is anything but ‘beige.’ Softened by a matte finish, this bag boasts a wonderful blend of textures and colours.”
Celebrating “the home of golf in St. Andrews, Scotland,” Cambridge Satchel announced, “a series of bags in Navy Celtic Grain with St. Andrews Tartan….Thanks to this beautiful blue and white tartan, a unique pattern which once was a restricted royal design, these bags boast an extra eye-catching layering of color and texture.”
The company also launched its UGC [User Generated Content] Competition called Wear It Your Way. “Whether crossbody, on the shoulder or top handle in hand, whether personalized with embossing, a scarf or a webbing strap, we want to know how you wear your Cambridge Satchel Co. bag. Think outside the box and share your photos of your bag in action. Every three months, we will choose the three most creative entries and they will win a bag of their choice under the value of £250.” See the Cambridge Satchel Company website Journal pages for details on entering on social media.
The company participated in Cambridge Pride 2022 this summer, giving out 15 percent discount cards to people stopping by its stall at the annual Pride fest. And CSC donated 10 percent from each purchase at the event to the Pink Festival Group, a Cambridge charity that celebrates community diversity through the arts and raises awareness of issues faced by LGBT+ people. The satchel maker also supported Cambridge Pride this year “with our very own 11-inch Pride Batchel in Azurite with a beautiful Rainbow Canvas Webbing Strap.”
Cambridge Satchel will likely continue its sparkling track record of collaborations with a variety of entities. In the past, these have included Comme des Garçons, a Japanese fashion label based in Paris; Vivienne Westwood, an English designer credited with making punk and new wave styles mainstream; and the Paddington Bear clothing line, for which Deane’s team “created an extra-special, teeny-tiny Satchel.” An ongoing relationship with the Royal Opera House offers several bags in “ROH Tweed” and one colorful Satchel in “ROH Red.”
Julie Deane’s unlikely empire of satchels that began in her kitchen is now represented in other company’s shops in more than 100 countries worldwide. United Kingdom visitors can stop by the company’s own retail outlets. The flagship shop is on St. Mary’s Passage in Cambridge and a second brick-and-mortar location is on George Street in Edinburgh. A Cambridge Satchel shop on London’s fabled Carnaby Street closed this past July, but Deane’s team is currently looking for a new London location.
And all of these products, of course, are created with the finest leather available. “We love leather!” proclaims the CSC crew. “It’s natural, reliable, durable and it lasts a lifetime. As in everything we do, we carefully consider where we source our materials from. This is why our bags are made from only the highest quality, ethically-sourced leather. All the leather we use is a by-product of the food industry. We like to call it ‘upcycling with style.’
Leather ages beautifully. As it softens and changes with time, its unique patina becomes a map of its wearer’s experiences, gently shaped by each use.”
“There is a spotted-dick Englishness about the satchels, which Deane believes forms part of the appeal” and is responsible for her success, declared The Guardian in 2011. (Um, a spotted dick is an English pastry.)
“There is nothing more British than a satchel,” added Julie Deane.