In 2003, a young lawyer living in Madrid discovered her love of handbags and thought about the lack of stylish yet practical ones available. Luckily for all of us she decided to make it her mission to provide women all over the world with handbags that can be both beautiful and practical, and the dream of
creating a global luxury lifestyle company with a reputation for personal service and attention to detail became a reality in 2005. Now, Jackie Cawthra is the CEO and Creative Director of a “London-based luxury fashion house with a private client list which spans the globe and a presence in the world’s most exclusive stores.”
Hala Di-Maio: Your background is Law and yet you entered a career in fashion and set up your own business designing handbags, can you tell us more about the early days of Belen Echandia the brand, and what made you change your career course?
Jackie Cawthra: I have always wanted to start my own business – I am the kind of person who carries around notebooks and fills them with business ideas, so with hindsight a legal career was never going to be for me. I started BE with no idea about the fashion world or about how to run a business, which is probably a good thing because if I had known how hard it would be I might not have done it. I ran BE from an under the stairs office for the first two years! It was a challenge to get people to take us seriously, but we just buckled down and got on with it.
HD: You founded Belen Echandia in 2004, and since then the brand has gone from strength to strength. What is it in your opinion that makes Belen Echandia a success story?
JC: From the very beginning we focused on things that we knew were important to women, but which other fashion companies are only now starting to catch on to: personalized/personable online service, bespoke items, and function as well as form when it comes to design. Our unique selling point has always been our close relationship with our customers and our teamwork approach. We are also very passionate about what we do and I like to think that this shines through and makes a difference.
HD: Fashion doesn’t always conform to practicality, yet when looking at your handbags four words come to mind: luxury, quality, style and practicality. How do you manage to create gorgeous designs without compromising quality and comfort?
JC: We are women ourselves and we always design with the customer in mind. Our bags have always been great for multi-taskers, because I am a huge multi-tasker myself and I need to be able to find things quickly. When designing a bag we don’t just ask “does this look nice”. We ask: “Does this sit on the shoulder properly, can you find your phone easily, does it open
wide enough, does it have enough pockets…”. We think of our customers and work backwards. It’s really not that difficult to design a beautiful bag that is also practical if you have that goal in mind. Also, since I am not a designer by trade, we sometimes do things in unorthodox ways – for example making a bag outright from ideas rather than sketching it technically and this can take more work but result in a better design.
HD: How many collections do you design per year?
JC: We have been designing two collections with a few new styles throughout the year. We’re probably going to change this to creating more collections more regularly.
HD: Are you involved more in the design or in the in the production phase?
JC: I am involved in everything!
HD: Have you ever flirted with the idea of expanding Belen Echandia and maybe introducing a luxury shoe range?
JC: We believe in mastering one area of the business before moving on to the next one. But suffice to say that we have a lot of ideas for the future. For now, a shoe range is not on our agenda but we would certainly consider it.
HD: Many women today have to juggle a career and a family. On a personal note, how did having your first child last year change your outlook on life?
JC: There is nothing like cuddling your newborn baby for a reality check. I still work just as hard but I have to be more organized now. I still think the same things are important: my outlook hasn’t really changed that much, but my priorities have shifted.
HD: You started your handbag business with no background in fashion; did you find the industry intimidating at first?
JC: I still find it intimidating. Or maybe intimidating is the wrong word. I am a very straightforward person, but I like to think I am a kind and respectful person also. There are a lot of egos in the fashion world and not always that much respect for others. I don’t like some of the things that I see go on and whilst they don’t intimidate me as such they don’t always make me feel very comfortable. That’s why I often prefer to work directly with our customers than with stores.
HD: Do you feel more like a designer or a business woman?
JC: Hand on heart I’d have to say a businesswoman because I have 3 other businesses – one with my husband (an electric boat company) and two others I can’t talk about yet because they are so new. But at the same time I am and have always been the designer for BE bags and I love it. I am definitely a creative person at heart!
HD: What new designs are you working on at the moment?
JC: We are currently working on leather cuffs, a “rucksack” design and lots of bags for Autumn 2011.
HD: Do you have a favourite collection or design?
JC: I have different ones for different things. I have a soft spot for our classic bags, like the Love Me and the I’m Beautiful. I use my Surprise Me every day because I carry my son around in a sling and it’s great for just slinging on and running out of the door. My latest love is the London Tote in black snake print. That style is one of our best ever and I just love that super buttery soft black snake print – so luxurious!
HD: What has been the biggest highlight of your career so far?
JC: I can’t think of a specific one because they change all the time. The first highlight was being featured in Vogue and receiving 15,000 hits in two days.
Another was seeing that Kate Middleton – who surely has a lot of bags to select from – was seen out carrying our red Hold Me bag. It was nice to be asked to lend clutches for Girls Aloud for the GQ Awards and for Prince Charles’ 60th birthday for Camilla, Kate and one of the other princesses.
But the small things make me just as happy, like one of our customers sending me a wonderful email about how happy she is with our bags and our service.
HD: What are your plans for the future?
JC: We are just about to re-launch our website and we’re in a big growth phase right now. Belen Echandia Couture will be offered through different channels in the future and our bags will be sold in more stores. Mainly we’re just going to keep doing what we do well and do more of it.
To view Belen Echandia’s fantastic range of luxury handbags visit www.belenechandia.com
Belen Echandia has also launched a new website showcasing the process of designing and producing a custom bag in its Italian Atelier. The site, at www.createyourownhandbag.com will be regularly updated with pictures of bespoke bags in development.