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Fashion

Meghan Markle’s handbags: Strathberry co-founder on rise of Scottish brand since Duchess of Sussex first wore one of its totes

On a recent visit to Hong Kong, Leeanne Hundleby talks about the ‘madness’ that followed Meghan Markle wearing one of her handbags and why being worn by a royal does not guarantee survival

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 6:59pm

There are moments in every designer’s career that they never forget. For Strathberry co-founder Leeanne Hundleby, it wasn’t just the day Meghan Markle was spotted carrying one of her handbags – it was a phone call she received later.

“Admittedly that was the world’s craziest day ever, but the aftermath was madness,” says the Scottish mother of four with a laugh. “One day we had a call from our painter to let us know that some girls had tracked down where we lived and were standing outside the front door looking to buy handbags. It was surreal.”

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Life has changed considerably since Hundleby founded Strathberry with her husband Guy. The Edinburgh-based couple launched the label in 2013 after discovering a group of leather artisans in the mountains of Spain. Inspired to share their craft, they headed home and came up with the idea of a handbag line that showcased the quality leathers at an affordable price.

“I had no fashion background whatsoever but I liked bags myself and felt that I had a good idea of what other women wanted. I always knew we didn’t want to hit the Chanel price point, because it’s so hard to be accepted. Instead it was about creating a bag my friends would buy that was pretty and sophisticated but made from gorgeous leather and beautifully presented,” Hundleby says.

“The modern woman wants a lot of choice when it comes to their bags and their wardrobe, and tend to mix and match expensive with less expensive. There was a sweet spot in the market.”

Things got off to a rocky start. Although the brand launched with many of the same styles that are now bestsellers, the market proved tough. It wasn’t until they initiated a Kickstarter campaign that things took a turn for the better.

After a groundbreaking round of funding – “we were the biggest funded UK fashion brand ever on Kickstarter,” Hundleby says – customers started sharing pictures with their friends on social media. Soon the Hundlebys were getting orders via email, allowing them to build the business steadily both online and offline.

Leeanne then made a decision that would catapult the brand to media stardom.

“We knew the importance of influencers and KOLs [key opinion leaders] so we started reaching out to people such as stylists. When you don’t have a background in this aspect of the business, it’s extra tough because you can’t pay anyone. You just hope they love the bag enough to wear it.”

Hundleby didn’t hear anything back from anyone for months. She’d almost forgotten about the whole thing when she received a call telling her that Markle had carried their Midi tote on her first royal engagement after becoming engaged to Prince Harry. Soon everyone was on the phone asking for more, including high-profile retailers and reporters wanting to know more about the under-the-radar Scottish brand that no one had ever heard of.

“I have never met with [Markle], but of course I would love to design a bag just for her,” Hundleby says. “I have offered, but nothing yet, so I just write a thank-you note every time she carries something. I haven’t thought about what it would look like but it would match her style, which is sophisticated and chic.”

Fame has brought some challenges. Wary of being pigeonholed, Hundleby has initiated a series of collaborations with celebrities from around the world such as Korean skateboarder Ko Hyojoo. Exclusives, including a recent capsule collection with Lane Crawford – which includes the popular Nano tote in a range of exclusive colours such as orange and other bright shades – have also been beneficial.

“I started reading about other brands who were in a similar type of position but still shut down even after [Kate Middleton] wore them several times. As we have become more exposed, there’s pressure to create more volume and get the bags quicker, but we just won’t do it. We can’t, especially with our type of quality. It takes around 20 hours to make each bag and that can’t change,” Hundleby says.

For now, she is taking it one step at a time. Top of her to-do list is developing new styles – the range is currently limited to just three or four families of items and customers have been requesting something new – including a slouchy shoulder bag that will launch in the autumn.

Embellishments and new fabrics have also been key – the upcoming spring-summer collection, for example, includes tweed, a nod to the brand’s Scottish heritage. And while Hundleby has not been tempted to launch shoes yet, she does have a passion for jewellery and is looking into cashmere as another tribute to Scottish heritage.

“We always like to test the water first. That’s the beauty of being small and independent – we can take our time and really create styles we love. Hopefully one day Scotland will be recognised as a place for great fashion thanks to our efforts. Can you imagine if we ended up on a tourist map next to Edinburgh Castle? Then we really would have made it.”

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