Mary Jardine founded her luxury British handbag brand Jardine of London in 2014. Two years later her bags can be found online and in one of the newly refurbished Fenwick stores. Here she tells us her story, and shares advice for anyone else hoping to get their own business idea off the ground…
How did you get started?
I founded Jardine of London as I was approaching my 50th birthday in 2014. I have two grown up children and although I have had my own business in the past and over the years assisted my husband with his, I felt I needed a new challenge in my life, as though I no longer wished to be a spectator in life but wanted to take part.
After much research into the luxury accessory/handbag market, I did feel there was a small gap.
It’s true that luxury handbag brands have saturated the market; I have always admired designer handbags from afar, but never enjoyed the overly loud branding that most of them appear to have.
I wanted to create a 'designer' brand but without the obvious branding on the outside of the bag. To this end, my bags now have just a beautiful blind-embossed Jardine Star on the outside of the lid. Once you open the bag you are greeted with an array of Jardine stars printed on the pale grey lining, along with the 'Jardine of London' name in gold, engraved into a leather tag.
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How did you fund yourself?
I self-funded the business from the start. I did look into various grants, government incentives, bank loans, crowd-funding platforms etc.
I found that the problem with those is there can be so many hoops you have to jump through to acquire anything at all. You are then answerable to other people – at a time when you are testing the water with a new idea.
Personally, at that time I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I felt that if I funded it myself, I could do the business in my own time. The mistakes I would be guaranteed to make, I would only have myself to blame.
I would like to think that I am now in the position of having got the business off the ground, I could look for outside investment/equity partners and really feel confident that I have something very positive to offer.
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What were your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenges were finding someone to make the bags. The luxury leather industry in the UK can at times be a bit of a closed shop. It is a very small industry and most people know everyone else. So when an outsider comes along, they can be somewhat suspicious which is understandable.
After a couple of false starts, I have now managed to find a wonderful heritage factory in England who employ highly skilled craftspeople and produce high quality products as a result.
Other challenges were actually getting the brand name Jardine of London out there. It’s all very well having a nice website, but how do you get people to find it?
I finally had to learn all about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). I was delighted a couple of weeks ago to hear from a lady who ordered a bag in the USA; she had googled English Luxury Leather Designer Handbags – and Jardine of London came up on the first Google page just underneath long established British brand Smythson. So I must be doing something right!
Another part of getting the brand name known is trying to achieve as much press coverage as possible. I did try doing this myself at first but now I’m lucky enough to have someone to help me do this for me – which is very beneficial indeed.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of how far I have come in a relatively short space of time. When I first started, it seemed like the impossible dream to have my bags in a major retailer such as Fenwick. And yet, as from August this year, the newly refurbished £30m Fenwick store in Colchester is stocking part of my collection in their exclusive 'Handbag Courtyard' area. Other brands sitting alongside mine are the likes of Aspinal of London, Vivienne Westwood and Mulberry.
I am also obviously very proud of the actual handbags themselves! And I’m very much looking forward to being able introduce other items to the range, including a small clutch bag, a pochette, a leather Jardine Star key-ring and even a gentleman bag. Watch this space!
What surprised you?
I suppose the thing that most surprised me was myself! I have always been a follower – never a leader. Always happy to stay in the background and not put my head above the parapet. This project/business will not allow that. The business is me and I am the one who has to wave the flag for Jardine of London!
This includes doing many interviews, either by telephone or even radio. Also, being able to present – something I always avoided if I possibly could! But what I have learnt is if you know your subject really well, the rest all falls into place. Also, with practice everything becomes second nature and you end up wondering why you were worried in the first place!
Did you learn any new skills?
Referring back to the previous question, the ability to give an interview is probably the main one new skill I learnt.
Also, I confess to having to go on a couple of social media courses to get up to speed with that world. I really had no knowledge of this at all when I started. My youngest son had to set up a Facebook account for me! That is how technology challenged I was when it came to computers etc. Two years on, I feel much more confident in this world but it changes all the time. Just as you get used to how it works, the goal posts move and you have to learn something new very quickly.
I have also attended many workshops including ones relating to Exporting – these are essential if Jardine of London is going to become an international brand. I wouldn't describe it as a 'skill' as such, but the knowledge you soak-up is absolutely essential.
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What resources did you find most useful?
The most useful resource I have found was getting in touch with my local UKTI representative. They have been absolutely brilliant, advising me along the way, sending me on workshops to help me with my digital marketing and keeping me in the loop with export opportunities.
Another association that really helped is the organisation Make It British. There is a nominal fee but once you have joined, they provide you with so much information with regards to manufacturing in the UK.
Depending what business sector you are in, it’s always worth joining associations that support your industry. This will often include subsidising trade shows, or getting help with the legal side of your business.
Also, the UK government offers help with trademarking and IPO (initial public offering, the first sale of stock by a company to the public) – all vital things when setting up a business.
One final one which for the fashion industry is the UKFT association - this is also a subscription membership but worth every penny.
What was the best piece of advice you received?
The best piece of advice I received when I first started was ‘do your research’! Then when you have done some research, do some more. It is so easy to go headlong into an idea, ignoring the negatives about the business you are entering.
Not that I am saying you should give up the minute you find out it could be difficult. If I had done that, I wouldn't be here now. You do have to be incredibly passionate about what you do. If you don't believe in your business, no one else will.
You also, need to do the numbers (the boring bit), to make sure you are actually going to make some money. If you cannot achieve any sales you have fallen at the first hurdle.
Listen to feedback. Once you have those first few sales, you need to find out what it is your customers like about your product(s). For me, if they are saying ‘please can you introduce a smaller bag?’ then I’ll do it. Hence, the small cross-body Jardine of London bag was introduced.
Another very important piece of advice is to make sure you have a good story to go with your brand. Very few successful brands manage to make it without a good story. Part of the Jardine of London story is to do with the inspiration of the Jardine Star which is incorporated into our brand name.
When researching the name of my business I came across the Jardine Star, a beautiful diamond brooch, and one of the Queen's favourites. It has eight points and a diamond is placed on a knife-wire between each point. The Queen was bequeathed this brooch in 1981 by Lady Jardine who was married to a Scottish baronet. She wore it on her 90th Birthday and her pageant Diamond Jubilee River Thames trip in 2012.
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What do you wish you'd known before you started?
I wish I’d had more experience in social media - this is so critical these days to get a business off the ground. I did slightly ignore it to start with as I thought it might go away – well, how wrong I was!
I also wish I had more experience in the leather industry, but this all came in time. Your knowledge grows thick and fast as you progress along your journey. Sadly, you just cannot buy experience – you have to just get out there and do it!
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What advice would you give others?
The one piece of advice I would give someone considering following a similar path to me is to think about where your sales are going to come from. Who is your target market? Who is that person? You need to establish that first. Once you have found that out then you build on this. You find out where that person eats, where do they shop, where do they go to the gym, where do they go on holiday.
Then you can build up an idea of where you need to get your own products seen. Who you want your brand to be associated with. Who would you want to be an ambassador for your brand. If you choose the wrong person in the first instance, it could lead you down a dead-end road. It can be irreparable as your brand is connected to the wrong image from the start.
If I am allowed to give one other piece of advice it would be: always surround yourself with positive people – the negative ones can drain you dry. They make you doubt yourself and your capabilities.
If you are truly passionate about your idea, you have done the research, established a target market, got the product right, then the world is your oyster. Sock it to them and achieve your dream!
Admire Jardine of London's beautiful bags for yourself on her website, jardineoflondon.co.uk