"It felt like I’d always been the spectator. It dawned on me that I wanted to be the one taking part; the one driving something forward.” Mary Jardine, founder of handbag startup Jardine of London, was approaching her fiftieth birthday when she decided she was going to set up her own business.
Jardine of London isn’t her first venture. Between having her two children, she ran a successful modelling agency, feeding those she scouted through to big players. “In the end, it started getting to me how thin these girls had to be. I had one who went up to a size 10, and I was told she’d need to go. I just thought, if that was my daughter, I really wouldn’t be very happy.” After having her second boy, Jardine decided to call it a day, spending the next few years raising her children and helping her husband, serial entrepreneur John Jardine, on various ventures.
“I suppose it’s now in my blood. My 25 year-old son is also an entrepreneur [he runs electric car charging firm EO Charging]. It probably sounds tedious, but all we talk about at mealtimes is business – it’s always ‘what’s the next big thing?’. It had to rub off!”
It was two years ago (Jardine is now 52) that she started brainstorming a design for a handbag. “Do you remember your old music case? A battered leather thing with a metal bar that holds the handle in place? Despite its appearance, I would feel very proud carrying that along, and years later, I found myself wondering if I could create something sleek from that.” Jardine found a “local lady who’s actually a saddlemaker” in Norfolk (she’s based in Suffolk) who mocked up her prototype. “It was quite crude, but I looked at it and knew it could be something beautiful.”
The first run of 60 bags came shortly after that, and the second run of 100 was done by the end of 2015, made by a fifth generation firm in London. “It was important to me that my bags were made in England. So many big brands will say ‘Made in England’, but they’re actually put together elsewhere with finishing touches done here. Besides, it’s so much easier to go and check production quality if your factory isn’t on the other side of the world.”
Jardine has two bags: the City and the Queen. The latter, and the name of the company, bring her to an endearing anecdote: “I was looking into my name to see if there was any history there which I could incorporate into the brand. I quickly happened on the Jardine Star – the brooch given to the Queen in 1981 by Lady Jardine. It’s obviously one of her favourites because she wears it a lot – her Diamond Jubilee and ninetieth birthday. I thought, ‘that’s perfect’, and took the shape of the brooch and embossed it on my bags.”
The subtlety of Jardine’s branding is very deliberate. “I always wanted my bags to be understated. The market is saturated by very branded handbags, but I don’t think people are going to always want that. I got on the Tube the other day and there were four women in a row with Mulberry Bayswater bags – you don’t want to spend that kind of money and end up so obviously one of many.”
Jardine’s strategy has been to carefully place her bags in front of the right people, and to start local. As such, Jardine of London can be found in the newly refurbished Fenwick store in Colchester. “It’s such an incredible feeling seeing Aspinal of London, Vivienne Westwood and then me!” She’s also partnered with the Guard’s Polo Club, sponsoring their Ladies Charity Breast Cancer Haven day this month. “So far, orders have been coming in organically. What’s been most amazing is the number I’ve had from the States. A woman in North Carolina ordered a bag recently and I asked her how on earth she’d heard of me. It transpired that, through a couple of articles, I’d topped Google in her handbag search – obviously I was very chuffed.”
International expansion isn’t something Jardine’s going to sit back and let happen. “I genuinely believe the brand has huge international potential, and am looking at the Japanese and Chinese markets as a starting point. People like the British story – we could go to Dubai, Indonesia. I’ll establish myself in London first, then start exporting.”
To do this, Jardine wants to find a partner. “I am currently the 100 per cent shareholder of the business, and I’ve self-funded to date. But I would like to think that I could find a partner who can assist me in making Jardine of London a global brand.”
For any would-be co-founder, enthusiasm for the brand will have to be strong. “I know it’ll be hard to find someone who’s as passionate about the business as me, and who’s prepared to get their hands dirty, but they must be out there.” Jardine’s day-to-day reminds you that starting a business is no mean feat – even if you relish it. “I work seven days a week, but I don’t mind because I enjoy what I’m doing so much.” During production periods, Jardine is up at 6am, sorting emails before leaving at half nine for the factory. “I’ll meet with my manufacturers and look at colours and leathers. Then I’ll be back to the office for 4pm, and it’s more emails.” Once a run is done, she focuses solely on the sales side.
In time, Jardine plans to increase her range, adding new bag designs and other products, like leather pochettes and products for men. “The style always needs to be there, whatever the product. But initially, it’s very important that I get known for one design.” Jardine compares her large bag (which costs £695) with Mulberry’s £900 Bayswater. “I want it to sit fairly strongly alongside that as another option for people. It was deliberate to price slightly under it – because plenty of people would like a Mulberry but feel like it stretched them just that bit too far.”
Jardine says that international interest in her products has increased since Brexit. “I must admit I was pretty upset after the vote, but if you’re a business, you just get on with it. And now, I’m actually feeling rather optimistic. I think we’ve got a real opportunity – it’s just how much we all make of it.”