Julie Deane

Taking just £600, Julie Deane CBE started The Cambridge Satchel Co., and within five years it was worth £40 million. Rosie Knighton met Julie, business guru and Shelford local.

The Cambridge Satchel Co. was borne from Julie Deane’s determination to send her children to an excellent school where they would thrive. “Education is freedom” is her strongly held belief, and she decided that The Perse was the aim and the school summer holidays was the timeframe to get a business up and running. Having drawn up a list of ten possible businesses, the revival of the traditional school satchel was the one chosen.

To start up the company, Julie describes how “I had to learn to code and coded the first website, that’s how you make £600 go a long way, you do everything yourself. My mum and I shared the same goal – to get the children into a great school. There are very few things that would have motivated me to do all that it took to get Cambridge Satchel off the ground … it needed to be something that was so important to us.”

Initially, the bags appeared in the traditional chestnut colour, but when a customer requested a red bag, Deane decided to experiment with colour, a feature the brand has become famous for – the fluorescent satchels appearing at New York Fashion Week. Originally worn by schoolchildren, the bags soon became popular with the fashion crowd and have been featured in Vogue magazine in seven countries. Collaborations with Comme des Garcons and Vivienne Westwood underline their desirability.

Having studied and worked at Gonville and Caius College, when asked how the bags associate with Cambridge, Deane replied, “The Satchel was the iconic school bag, when you think of education you think of Cambridge, so that fits together very well. What we’ve done with The Cambridge Satchel Co. is discover bags that have got a really interesting story like the satchel, and we work on them just so that they evolve a little bit, so that they are absolutely perfect for right now … I think that’s very much like Cambridge, you’ve got the tradition of the place but then it’s always forward looking as well.” Such innovations have led to popular products such as the re-designed Bowls and Doctor’s Bags, which can be viewed on their website at cambridgesatchel.com.

Knowing Cambridge well, Deane decided to move to Great Shelford nine years ago with the growing success of The Cambridge Satchel Co. Shelford, she said, had always been on her radar as “When the children were small, there was a lovely shoe shop in Shelford, and there was almost this ritual of bringing them for their school shoes, then going to the bakery and getting them some nice treat, and taking them to the park … and then of course we’d take them to Scotsdales and look at the fish!”

Now settled in Shelford, in terms of her business, she loves the proximity to central Cambridge, but also to the station, meaning she can easily make her way to London to visit the Carnaby Street shop and The British Library where she is Entrepreneur in Residence. She said, “It’s literally got everything. It’s got the Co-op, it’s got Tescos, but also a fantastic butcher, a fantastic bakery, and Boots! Then the Deli opened, and NY Wines - why would you go anywhere else?!”

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has affected The Cambridge Satchel Co. With such a large portion of sales coming from tourists, Deane says that she saw what was coming as gradually different tourist groups stopped coming to their shops. Deane emphasised how this has challenged the company, as “Different nationalities favour different colours and styles, with the drop off in foreign tourists to the shops we have had to cater solely to our home market. People don’t need to buy work bags if they’re working from home, so there was a change in the size and type of bag needed. At one point we were selling more of the canvas backpacks as customers were heading out into the countryside, now we are seeing the work bags becoming more popular once again as the return to the office commences. Sales to the US and China have remained strong online although the UK remains our main customer base – even more so now as people want to support British manufacturing.”

Already an OBE holder, in 2021, Deane was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Entrepreneurship and British Manufacturing. She is an Honorary Fellow of Caius and sits on the Advisory Board of The Judge Business School and Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises. When asked for her advice to anyone thinking of starting their own business she replied “Whatever you find yourself doing, do it with a good attitude and give it your all – every experience will add to your skill set.”

Julie Deane and her mother Freda Thomas with some of the more colourful bags (Picture - courtesy of Cambridge News)