"I think you're really well meaning and nice but no one wants a satchel"
December 22, 2014 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I AM INTO THIS. Who are the Cambridge Satchel Company and why should we care? The company started in 2008, and they sell old-style 1950s/60s era British school satchels. Originally meant for kids (the founder states, "I honestly thought that it would be schoolchildren and parents buying my bags!"), the satchels have become a more modest and budget-friendly alternative to designer bags. As a small startup company, they relied on enthusiastic word-of-mouth from the internet to bolster their profits; Deane states,"I think online was the only way that we could really engage and get traction really quickly" (warning: autoplaying video). This is the perfect storm of internet obsession: you click the link, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Everything you need to know about The Cambridge Satchel Company's origins, and its founder, Julie Deane, is in this article from 2014 that appears in Wales Online. If you're more into videos, you can view the company's official video, or this one: The Access Effect — It's in the Bag (official FedEx channel). Sample quote: "You think of high fashion of Paris and Milan. You don't really associate it with Wigston in Leicester."


The company has been known to wine-and-dine bloggers and key fashion figures — at "housewarmings" (store openings) and other events, strengthening good will and stimulating blog posts (and other social media PR like Twitter).

Here's a blog post about the CSC's London boutique grand opening in February 2013:
"I’m practically surgically attached to my red ‘batchel’ so when I was invited to the opening of the new Cambridge Satchel Company boutique in London’s Covent Garden I was excited to attend and check out the new designs in store. [...] The store itself has a lovely fun layout — library shelving style — which shows off the products well. Organised by size and colour, if you are browsing for a gift it’s a great place to get a firm idea of the possibilities to buy. You can also browse the designs from the recent collaboration with designer Chris Benz and there is an embossing station in the boutique too (transformed into Sophie Ellis Bextor’s DJ booth for the night of the event). You can add initials to your new purchase then and there or return later with your satchel for this service – I need to go back with my batchel for the gold lettering soon!"
While bloggers have been very good to the company, it's not all roses and there are some frank and critical write-ups of the satchel's limitations.


How the internet is democratizing luxury, TNW:
In a world where everything is available for cheap, the internet is giving birth to a new batch of luxury startups like Julie Deane’s Cambridge Satchel Company and Paul Van Zyl’s Maiyet. Customers increasingly want brands that focus on the traditional craftsmanship of the product, and are willing to pay more for an item that has clearly been hand-crafted.
Seth Godin weighs in: Is digital the end of luxury brands?


From a 2011 interview with Julie Deane by Leah Chernikoff , Fashionista:
"How did you come up with the design and go about producing them? I had no design experience but I just knew what a satchel should look like. To me a satchel should be uncomplicated, classic, not at all fussy, it should stand up and not sag or slouch--it's a classic British design. I thought maybe if I went to leather working places--places that would make saddles for horses--I thought they'd know. It took me three months of traveling around and some devious thinking but I finally found a school in Scotland that still required their students to have satchels. So I kept phoning the supplier until they gave me the name of the factory. They made less than 100 a year. I was so excited that I had found a lead that I drove right up there [from Cambridge] and turned up on the factory doorstep. He said I think you're really well meaning and nice but no one wants a satchel. But he made my first batch and I took photos with my children with them standing around Cambridge--and those photos were on my first website. I still work with this factory and have them manufacture as many as I possibly can because he's been the nicest person to work with."
The satchels come in seasonal colors that change, as well as in red, yellow, green (one, two), fluorescent pink, biscuit, pink (and pastel pink), pastels and all the colors of the rainbow. Not to mention the classic vintage brown. Bloggers have been very good to the Cambridge Satchel Company, and their reviews range from brief, with helpful photos to idiosyncratic.


But how do they wear? One report shows some wrinkles where the leather is bent the most (around the buckles), but mostly the customer seems happy with the durability of the product, the only hiccup was an accident: "Seven months in and I have ONE scratch on my batchel... thanks to my boyfriend. He rammed a shopping trolley into me during a stint in Tesco. Many bricks were shat that day. Other than this unfortunate incident, and despite daily abuse by me, the leather is looking in top condition."


But what size to get? This drives customers to distraction; there is an official CSC size guide, however, consumers demand more complete information prior to purchase. This need gives rise to quite a few non-official, amateur (yet pretty accurate) size guides and comparison guides using models.


This detailed blog post sheds light on the embossing process, sample quote: "Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of Sam embossing her satchel because I was laughing so much. For fear of looking like a wimp (like I had) she went full throttle and almost pushed the machine off the table."

This blink-and-you'll-miss-it video shows the machine in action (and Blur t-shirt wearing employee). People can emboss almost anything on their bag, to suit their purposes.

Finally, they are not above having clearance sales, which is great if you can catch them.


Other satchel companies creates a dilemma for shoppers, as they try to decide which satchel to end up with. This leads to inevitable comparison blog posts.

The Leather Satchel Company

From their history page: "In the swinging 50’s and 60’s of British Culture, no school child would be seen without a leather satchel usually in a dark brown or chestnut coloured leather. The leather Satchel has now become associated with and epitomises true British Quintessential style. Worn all over the world by young and old alike and considered to be a true fashion icon." Click to read about the link between satchels and Shakespeare.

Fashion: A Satchel for AutumnThe Life & Loves of Ninegrandstudent Brief quote: "Colour is gorgeous. Completely season appropriate, it looks like a bar of dairy milk with stripes of bournville." The blogger's previous experience buying from the Leather Satchel Company.

The Leather Satchel Company will also send you free leather samples, and will customize your satchel in several ways, should you so desire. Example review.


Zatchels, with whom CSC had to file copyright suit against (and have reached a settlement), are also actively talking to Twitter and blogging folks, and extend invitations to bloggers to events, such as touring a factory. Zatchels' Leicester factory was recently visited by Queen Anne, in her capacity as President of the UK Fashion and Textile Association (UKFT). Here's a nice Zatchels review blog post by someone who ties it in with classic children's litereature (Enid Blyton).

Further reading: Mashable: How This Mom Used Google To Build a Global Fashion Brand
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (35 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, but are you eligible for your own contest prize?
posted by silby at 8:10 PM on December 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

There's some critical links - take a look! :) The official videos I link to are good primers on the company and, yes, good PR. Take it with a grain of salt.

I also found the skirmish between Zatchels and CSC very interesting, as it raises questions about design and if someone can "own" a design that appears a bit generic and classic (timeless).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:17 PM on December 22, 2014

(Another company that is flirting with design copyright disaster is Target, who have been wholesale copying Coach's designs for a few years now./derail)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:20 PM on December 22, 2014

Oh, nice. Elder Monster bought the Pastel Pink one for Elder Monsterette earlier this year as a thank you for her help on a particularly fiddly catering job. She carries it EVERYWHERE, it is standing up well to a lot of abuse. (She's a Journalism student.)

These are great bags.
posted by MissySedai at 8:39 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having lived just around the corner from the Cambridge Satchel Company for years, it's been fascinating to see it grow to such popularity. Thanks for sharing the backstory!
posted by honest knave at 8:43 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'll take the shoulder bag.
posted by bq at 8:52 PM on December 22, 2014

I have been looking at one of their satchels for years, so thanks for posting this and letting me get an inside look at what I'm considering buying.
posted by immlass at 9:00 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Er what? I didn't dig deep enough for that one.
posted by bq at 9:10 PM on December 22, 2014

How could anyone stand having to undo two buckles just to get into your bag? (And then redo them again to close it?) Seems very inefficient. I must be more practical than fashionable.
posted by Mallenroh at 9:32 PM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

Mallenroh: They have one for you too: the magnetic closure version.
posted by el io at 9:42 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

They are nice bags, but the ways the sides curve in (as discussed in the "frank and critical write-ups of the satchel's limitations" link) drives me nuts. Why carry a big bag around if a portion of that space is unusable for absolutely no good reason?
posted by zachlipton at 9:47 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

old-style 1950s/60s

Some kids used them as late as the 1980s before backpacks took over. But they can't have been newly made by that point, and some must have been decades old. I remember seeing the names of several former owners written on the soft inside of my elder brother's satchel (were they written inside the flap? I can't recall). It was a mid brown leather, with the buckle straps almost coming off. It smelt beautiful inside, but had several blue inkstains.

I can't think that I ever used one myself, but several children in my class did. We're probably still young enough to wear them as a fashion accessory now too. Odd kind of fashion nostalgia.
posted by Thing at 9:49 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

The school satchels I had weren't made of real leather but of laminated cardboard with an embossed leather finish, that a bored boy would eventually peel off in long grey strips.
posted by Flashman at 9:57 PM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

Some kids used them as late as the 1980s before backpacks took over.

I bought a school one decades ago while I was travelling in the UK. It was stiff like cowhide, so stiff, it could hurt someone. It was fun carrying it for awhile but I tell you, I got pretty damn sick of unbuckling the two straps every time I needed to open it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:05 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

It has been interesting seeing the leather satchels of my youth (I am 44) turn up in "vintage" stores at a heinous price. Our parents were right. We should have taken better care of our things.

I do think it is nice that craft and care and solid materials can make a comeback through having a decent retail channel over the internet.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:06 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

What kills me is that I've made things like this before. About 20 years ago, I was heavy into leather working. Mostly stuff for myself like holsters, knife sheaths and one really well made hat (all of which I still have and still work perfectly).

But I got out of it, because I got into other things like making mid '90s web pages and the like. I didn't have time for such analog things as leather! There were digital creations to make!

Now, two decades later, none of those web pages are up, but my hat and holsters are all still totally usable.

I made a satchel. Smaller than the ones showed here, but similar for a friend. I don't know if they still use it, but based on some other things I made out of that same leather stock, there isn't any reason to believe that it would have failed. All the paintball gear I built from the same material went through much worse than typical daily wear, and it all still looks like it could be fielded at a moment's notice.

Their patterns are beautiful, but uncomplicated, frankly, the best kind; timeless, strong, and easy to fix. In my best days, I could knock one of these out in maybe 12 to 15 hours if I was sewing by hand (another problem, I never learned to stitch leather with a machine, so everything is hand sewn.)

I can't speak for their quality because I've never handled one, but looking at the photos, I'd guess that one of these would probably last for decades, and if it didn't, patching and/or fixing it would be an easy enough task.

I admire them for taking an old craftsmanship idea and making it work in a disposable world. Good for them, I hope they make a fortune doing what they're doing.
posted by quin at 11:15 PM on December 22, 2014 [9 favorites]

two decades later, none of those web pages are up

That's what appeals to me so much as well. I am a collector of old things that I can use: pens, bicycles, cast iron pans, tailored menswear, whatever. Well made things of the right materials can live and live for decades. I think I could probably count lines of code I wrote that are still in production use on my digits.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:40 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm crazy in love with the purple one with yellow straps. Yummy.

I had one of these when I was in early elementary school - it was red, white and blue plaid. It wasn't leather, just fabric, probably over cardboard, but I remember feeling important when I packed my school papers in it and headed off to school.

Fun to see them back again and I love the workmanship and the story behind them, not to mention the gorgeous colors.
posted by aryma at 1:47 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

They've been doing really well. When I was a student I ran across their first shop but dismissed it as a local business, they were not quite so well focused then, I think I got them to fix the strap on another leather bag rather than buy a new one. but this year I saw they had a store in Covent Garden - textbook example of how good branding and promotion can grow a business I would say.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:47 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I ordered the Red limited edition music bag before I even got to the bottom of the post. Ya'll know I have a problem with bags.... Why do you guys tempt me so????
posted by pearlybob at 5:32 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Years ago there was a small quirky ad in the New Yorker for a "Danish boys school book bag" or something like that. It was a truly great bag, sturdy, opened up to carry as many books that would be possible for a person to carry. I left it for just a couple minutes (with papers, passports and money) in the trunk of a car in South America... thunk!!?! Miss that bag, have never found another source.
posted by sammyo at 5:48 AM on December 23, 2014

sammyo: like this?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:04 AM on December 23, 2014

Oh god, I would so love one of these if they weren't made of leather. They're gorgeous!
posted by Kitteh at 6:18 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am trying to figure out with the manufacturer of her bags that "betrayed" her in the 2014 article is the same manufacturer that she loved in 2011. The 2014 one is interesting for the IP issues (her manufacturer was her designs and selling on the side.)

Also, I love bags, how, how could you do this to me? Right now, I am looking for a person to do a bag for me per my design. Sigh.
posted by jadepearl at 6:19 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

oh no this post

I have a brown satchel from the Leather Satchel Company, and I love it so. I use it for work (I keep my makeup/toiletries in a separate, smaller pouch), and it doubles as a camera bag whenever I'm out taking pictures. I get a ton of compliments, and it's been going strong for three years now. I was thinking of getting a red briefcase satchel to accompany my current one, and this post is not helping! It's like the universe is telling me to get another one.
posted by supermassive at 6:45 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think it was the original manufacturer, jadepearl. From the 2011 article:
… there was a leather working company looking for more work and they didn't know how to make satchels. So I sent them to my first manufacturer, showed them how to make the bags, had a list of the machinery, and they were the ones who turned.
A local article describes the situation with LRS/Zatchels. Sounds like there was some cabbage going on; LRS may have used some of CSC's leather stock. The oldest story in the rag trade. But proving that Deane's designs were original when the first ones were as-boughts from the original manufacturer? Hmm.

To be really authentic, these satchels need some pencil shavings embedded in the internal seams, and the ghost of a Cresta Bear “It's Frothy, Man!” sticker from 1976 on the front. That sticker, at 7, I thought was the coolest thing ever for the entire half day I was able to hide it from my mum …
posted by scruss at 7:06 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some cabbage going on?
posted by bq at 7:26 AM on December 23, 2014

cabbage: verb, theft of clients' material by garment cutters.

The article I linked to mentioned "unlawful use, retention and conversion by the defendants or one or more of them of various goods and chattels, including in particular various stocks of leather".
posted by scruss at 7:45 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's Cockney: sausage and cabbage - unlawful grabbage
posted by Flashman at 8:04 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Getting old is weird in all sorts of ways, but living long enough to see the merry-go-round of fashion/hipness complete a few revolutions is equal parts entertaining and discombobulating. I, and about 90% of my classmates toted a version of this bag to school throughout my primary school years (brown leather, of course--there were no colour options). Indestructible, practical, they were also essentially invisible--they were just the default "schoolbag" that you tossed your books, folders and lunch into day after day after day (they were also a pretty good deterrant against bullies: start whirling that thing around your head by the shoulder strap and cultivate an "I'm just crazy enough to do it!" look and you really don't seem worth the trouble).

Had anyone told us that forty years later people would pay luxury-brand money for almost identical bags...I don't think it would have been remotely imaginable.
posted by yoink at 9:25 AM on December 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I got a book bag from this guy based in the UK. http://www.htleather.co.uk/ He does some vaguely satchel-type stuff too. Well worth a look, and he'll customise stuff for you. NB he's mostly interested in making really great leather items so he can come off a bit short but he's a proper pro nevertheless.HT Leather
posted by aesop at 10:24 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Had anyone told us that forty years later people would pay luxury-brand money for almost identical bags...I don't think it would have been remotely imaginable.

To be fair, that was in the Late Mesozoic when mammals first appeared, so "luxury" wasn't really a thing yet.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:13 PM on December 23, 2014

Re: the straps you have to buckle and unbuckle to gain access to your satchel: I have a satchel with magnetic "fake buckle" straps (however, the buckles actually work, and are adjustable, which is a nice feature), and a satchel with real buckles you have to do and undo every damn time you need something.

I've taken the buckle version out and about on my travels 10-20 times now, and I have to say, I (perversely, perhaps) really enjoy using the buckles. It's like they're making you work a bit more just to get into your bag. Or maybe I just really like using buckles. I don't understand it but I find it quite fun.

However, there are magnetic versions available at all three satchel manufacturers linked in my fpp, so if you're at all hesitant I would just go ahead and get the magnetics for ease of use.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:06 PM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Now, two decades later, none of those web pages are up,

That's hand-stitching for you.
posted by dhartung at 5:35 PM on December 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, Julie Deane is among the list of 2015 OBE recipients; here's a link to the New Year's Honours list 2015 (and pdf document - 124 pages, 600KB).

Description next to her name on the list: "Co-owner and Founder, The Cambridge Satchel Company. For services to Entrepreneurship."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 6:30 AM on December 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

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