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.