In 1980 Jane Hopkinson started designing and making leather handbags in her living room while her baby daughter Leah napped. Today, Jane and Leah are running a growing international brand together – and even designing bags for Hollywood movies.
Tell us about your pre-children career Jane
Jane: I trained to teach art and worked doing remedial work and art therapy. I later retrained in theatre design and worked making props at Glyndebourne and the English National Opera.
What inspired you to start a business in 1980?
Jane: From an early age I’d always loved making things. But it was my love of leather that inspired the beginning of the business. It was all made possible when Leah was born – luckily she was a good baby, which gave me time to explore my ideas from my workspace in our living room.
How big a part did being a mum play in your decision to start the business?
Jane: It was never a decision, more a passion and determination to make it work. The business evolved around having children, and I would work evenings and weekends, sharing the care with my husband. I kept the business small during this time, but since the children have flown the nest, it’s become very different.
Leah joined in 2007, bringing with her the invaluable experience of working with Lulu Guinness and Phase 2 accessories, including design and marketing skills. The business has evolved gradually since, growing from strength to strength year on year.
How did you manage the business around your family?
Jane: The workshop was at home which enabled me to work around my children, and I would work evenings and at times when the children were sleeping or away. There was a lot of juggling but my husband Jerry and I (he became involved in the business after our son was born) would make stock during the week and sell it at London’s Covent Garden at the weekends.
It was a simple strategy that worked – at the time the business started (in the 1980s) it was very hard to get unusual designs with fantastic colour combinations at affordable prices. Some of our customers still have their original designs from when we first started!
What do you love most about running the business Leah?
Leah: I love creating new designs, sourcing new leather – especially going to Linapelle (the leather fair in Italy in Bologna), which is like being a small child in a sweetie shop! I also get excited seeing our much-valued customers enjoy using our bags. And helping customers choose the right bag for them is incredibly satisfying.
What have been the high points of the business?
Leah: Our high points have been selling at inspirational shows like the Chelsea Craft Fair and Made London, our designs being sold in Japan, and being commissioned for the film Golden Compass staring Nicole Kidman. In the early days we were also commissioned to design a bag for Pineapple Dance Studios.
On a personal level, I really enjoy seeing designs go from pen to paper right through to the finished product, and matching the bag to the customer.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and how did you overcome them?
Leah: The main challenge of the business is keeping up with demand and the growth of the business. At the moment we’re at our capacity with how much we can make year on year. The future plan is to get a sister line in place which will hopefully alleviate the pressure of the making and broaden the brand nationally.
How big a role model has your mum been for you as a career woman?
Leah: My mum has been a huge inspiration. I always wanted to learn through my own channels, but also to bring another dimension to the business. I love my mum’s determination and work ethos. She never gives up and believes there will always be a solution to every problem. She is a very hard working lady and have huge admiration for how she started and how far the business has come – of course with a little help from me!
What experience have you brought from your own career?
Leah: Since joining the business in 2007 my role has been to develop the brand and give it a stronger identity. I always new that the way for the business to develop was to embrace e-commerce. This was one of my first tasks and I have continued to manage it ever since.
In addition to this I advise on the designs, manage all the photography (product and lifestyle) for the website, email campaigns and all promotional material for the business. I also manage the sales and deal with customer enquiries online in the showroom and at shows.
Do you have children of your own yet?
Leah: No, not yet, and I’m sure it will change me when I do. The dynamics of the business may have to change, but I’m sure that I’ll be able to juggle working and being a mum as so many others are able to do it.
What’s your vision for the business?
Leah: My vision for the business is to build a stronger identity online and to have my own line, maybe a sister line added onto the business that I manage and control. With my training in printed textiles and my previous experience in printed silk garments, my love of print and colour would have to feature.
What advice do you have for other aspiring businesswomen?
Leah: My advice would be to go for it. Have a passion and the ability to work hard. Make sure that there is a strong strategic plan in place to make it happen – the competition is vast out there now and you need to know the market before taking the plunge.
You can find out more about Jane Hopkinson’s hand made leather bags and browse their current collection on their website.