Founder and creative director of Isabella Queen, Isabelle Ugochukwu, on how she launched her luxury British handbag brand, life after Brexit, and what her top tips are for others launching a similar business
Isabelle, can you firstly give our readers a brief overview of Isabella Queen and the accessories your brand creates?
Isabella Queen is a British-based luxury brand offering quality leather accessories handcrafted in London. We create elegant structures with stylish flair comprising clean, classic and structured shapes, well-designed colour contrast and our chic signature satin London skyline lining. We are firm advocates of the quality blend of the European raw materials that we use and of exceptional British craftsmanship.
Who does Isabella Queen design for? Can you tell us about the kind of women who wears Isabella Queen?
The ladies who wear our bags are style conscious and independent, particular about elegance, and like a well-designed and exclusive look. They like the brand because it represents uniqueness, sophistication and grace. We offer the ability for customers to customise their own bags with a choice of colours and linings. This service means we are able to cater a broad range of customers. We have ‘young queens’, ‘established queens’, ‘eclectic queens’, ‘classic queens’ and a whole lot of variety in-between.
Please tell us about how you started the brand and how long it had been in the making before your 2015 launch?
The dream was born in my mind after more than ten years of frustration when it came to buying a handbag, no matter how much I was prepared to spend. I feel that a handbag is an extension of you and you can tell a lady by her handbag. I could not find a strong feminine leather accessories brand in which beauty and elegance met ethical sourcing and quality craftsmanship, proud British heritage and exclusivity.
I had never thought of myself as a designer or business owner, but after a decade of discontent my brother, having listened to my handbag woes the entire time, urged me to do something about it.
I enrolled at the London College of Fashion on a few modular short courses covering everything from how to start a leather accessories business to leather accessories making. I walked into the LCF not knowing how or where to begin and three and a half years later launched the brand.
Did you have any help with launching the business?
I owe everything to the noteworthy mentors who have helped me, such as Paul Alger at the UK Fashion & Textiles Association and Alison Lewy at Fashion Angel. Paul told me to focus my business on the International market and Alison gave me some brutal but honest advice about the linings in my bags. She really helped to fill in the gaps that I hadn’t thought about.
I am a big believer in giving back, so already I am mentoring two young female (lingerie and apparel) designers. I believe that the generation of ‘Made in Britain’ designers coming up behind me need me to share my story with them because there is too much that is never said between “it all started from humble beginnings” to “and now we’re in Selfridges”!
“there is too much that is never said between “it all started from humble beginnings” to “and now we’re in Selfridges!”
You are very proud to make your accessories in the UK, can you tell our readers about the benefits you have found by manufacturing here in Britain?
I am super proud that we make our accessories not just in the UK, but right here in the city of London. For me, it is not just the ability to use it as a powerful and unique selling point; it is deeply personal.
When I came to the UK aged ten, London was the first place my feet landed and I remarked even then as I was taken to primary school, that London had a million different faces, backgrounds, nationalities and influences – the multiculturalism fuelling the creativity that makes this great city so dynamic. We soon moved up north where I grew up prior to spending six years living in Scotland.
There’s something about London – it welcomes you, embraces you and never leaves you. So that is how as an adult, I came full circle, back to this city that I love so much. I am very proud that it is the home of our brand.
We could have chosen to manufacture anywhere in the world, but the passion for being part of the movement re-establishing the manufacture of luxury goods in the UK and the benefits of manufacturing here informed our decision to be part of this great elite. I can hop on the tube at any time and be in either factory in 45 minutes, meaning I can keep a close eye on things and decrease the risks of challenges often posed by language or geographical barriers when manufacturing abroad.
Travel costs are low as I do not constantly have to travel far to go and see what is going on, enabling me to invest into our relationship with our manufacturers by popping in for a cup of tea and a chat as well as for business. Manufacturing is a go all year round and across the globe ‘Made in Britain’ is rightly synonymous with unparalleled quality. And by far the most important of all the benefits – the integrity of the supply chain is fully transparent and accountable.
And what challenges have you found by making here?
Realistically you cannot ignore the challenges of making in the UK either. The high cost of manufacture is something we are happy to endorse as it means we can guarantee that all of our workers are paid above the living wage but the decreased availability of skilled resources is a challenge.
However, if your brand is remarkable and the presentation impressive it does open up doors enabling you to best deal with the challenges and benefits that come with British manufacturing.
“I can hop on the tube at any time and be in either factory in 45 minutes”
You actively campaigned to remain in the EU in the referendum, even meeting David Cameron on his campaign trail. How do you feel the decision to exit will affect your business and other businesses like yours?
I was invited to No.10 Downing Street, and warmly welcomed by Daniel Korski (Special Policy Adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron) and Anna Soubry (Minister of State for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise) with whom I discussed ways of better working together to champion the growth of business and enterprise in the UK.
I had a great time sharing my thoughts with them and was thrilled to subsequently receive an invitation from the Prime Minister to join him on the EU Referendum Remain campaign bus. After a campaign hard fought, I was naturally disappointed with the outcome of the vote.
Our leather comes from Italy and we export our goods out of the UK so we will be impacted by Brexit. Like all other SME owners benefiting from key relationships across the EU, I am keen to avoid any potentially negative impacts of this decision for the business.
As it stands currently the price of importing has gone up, as have the returns from exporting due to the current status of the financial markets so in the short-to-medium term it’s looking like a net effect.
At Isabella Queen we are keeping an ear to the ground, looking forward, hoping for the best outcome of the negotiations between the government and Brussels and planning effectively so that as a business we can continue to thrive.
Trying to look forward with a positive view, what steps do you believe British-made brands can now take to make the best of the situation?
British businesses need to ask themselves how they are going to deal with currency fluctuations, international human resources, importing and exporting, and their supply chain management post Brexit.
I do think Brexit offers the potential to maximise what is now the heightened exclusivity of ‘Made in Britain’. I think there could be a real positive effect for our ‘homemade’ products for those businesses that respond to the current political climate with strong product positioning, savvy marketing and innovative solutions to cross-border trade challenges.
“I do think Brexit offers the potential to maximise what is now the heightened exclusivity of Made in Britain“
This month alone you have completed your SS17 photo shoot, become a member of Make it British and joined David Cameron on his campaign bus! What is next for Isabella Queen?
Trade fair season looms close. We’ll be at Pure London in July, at Premiere Classe Paris Market Week at the beginning of September, and back again in Paris for Fashion Week at Vendôme. So right now it’s all hands on deck preparing for those shows and getting our AW16 orders ready to go.
Then after that, the calendar continues. Prep for AW17, fulfilment of SS17 orders, AW17 shows etc. Next year our key focus will be on growing the brand’s international stockist base in the Far East, Middle East and the US through our presence at key international events and fashion weeks, in addition to our continued commitment to invest in our industry relationships right here at home.
Finally, what tips would you give other businesses starting out in a similar field?
My tips for launching a successful business would be as follows:
Make sure that your product really stands out
Find industry specific mentors
Make sure that you have really planned the first three years well
Don’t waste your money on PR – do it yourself
Attend events and carry/wear your product when you’re there
Be clear where you’re getting your funding from as launching a business properly does not come cheap.