Belfast Telegraph

Meet Bangor woman Leeanne Hundleby creating Meghan Markle's favourite handbags

Mother-of-four Leeanne Hundleby, who started the Strathberry bag company with her husband Guy, talks to Linda Stewart about her Co Down childhood and the inspirations behind their designs

Meghan Markle wearing Stratheberry (Photo by Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Meghan Markle wearing Stratheberry (Photo by Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Meghan Markle wearing Strathberry (Photo by Andrew Milligan - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Allegro Mini in maple, £455
Allegro midi in vanilla, £575
Crescent shoulder bag in Alice blue and vanilla, £575
Nano tote in navy, £355
Meghan Markle (Photo by Chris Jackson/Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

As a child, Leeanne Hundleby's interest in fashion was spurred by the wonderful work of her dressmaker grandmother. Years later, with a successful career in human resources under her belt, a holiday in Spain with her husband Guy revived Leeanne's passion for fashion.

Now life has come full circle, with the pair creating the hugely successful Strathberry handbag brand, their wares gracing the arms of celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Margot Robbie and even the Duchess of Sussex.

"I have always had a love for fashion," says Leeanne (47), a Bangor-born mum-of-four.

"My grandmother and her sister were dressmakers. They made the most beautiful Sunday outfits for me as a child and then more modern styles for me as a teenager.

"They would use the most exquisite fabrics and add details with pearls and interesting buttons and collars.

"I used to love the way they followed a pattern from start to finish. Like a jigsaw, it would slowly start to piece together.

"When my great aunt died recently, we found a bridesmaid dress she had made me at the age of six. We passed it on to my daughter, who now loves to dress up in it.

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Success story: Leeanne Hundleby with husband and business partner Guy
Success story: Leeanne Hundleby with husband and business partner Guy

"It is simply wonderful to see and brings back so many memories."

Leeanne now lives in Edinburgh with Guy (47) and their children, whose ages range from six to 14, but she grew up in Bangor, where her parents ran a newsagent's shop and where many of her family still live.

"They were great role models - they shared responsibilities and worked long hours together," she says.

"The shop was open 7am to 7pm. As we got older, my brother and I worked there too."

Her childhood was "great fun and very active".

"I was lucky to grow up in a beautiful seaside town, where I was able to spend so much of my time outdoors. My grandparents lived close by and we would go to their smallholding and have a fabulous time exploring and climbing trees," Leeanne says.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne - Pool/Getty Images)
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne - Pool/Getty Images)

"Like all children, I imagined a lot of different career paths. I don't recall having a burning desire to be anything in particular. Even when I finished at school, I was not sure what career path to pursue.

"I'm glad I felt the freedom to find out what I really loved - and that led us to Strathberry."

Leeanne was a student at Glenlola Collegiate School in Bangor and loved it: "We had great fun both inside and outside of school. Sport was a big part of the school timetable, which suited me well."

After leaving Glenlola, she studied at Strathclyde University and enjoyed her time in Glasgow - "a great university city with lots going on". She settled back in the city and took a job with Scottish Telecom after a period of time out spent travelling.

"I worked in HR right until I set up Strathberry with Guy," Leeanne says. "My work life before Strathberry was very corporate - Scottish Telecom, Scottish Power and, finally, The Royal Bank of Scotland being my main employers.

"The dress code, the office culture and organisational values and expectations all feel very different to life at Strathberry."

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Meghan Markle is seen during a walkabout on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle on February 13, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by James Glossop - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 13: Meghan Markle is seen during a walkabout on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle on February 13, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by James Glossop - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The couple met, fittingly enough, at a wedding in Northern Ireland.

"I was a friend of the bride and he was a friend of the groom - fate," she says, laughing.

Among the things she and Guy share are a passion for handcrafted leather goods, a strong interest in design and a respect for beauty and skill.

A trip to Spain gave them the inspiration to set up their own handbag brand.

"On our travels with the children, we were exploring the artisanal leather regions of Spain and were inspired by the generations of craftsmanship and skills in working with leather," Leeanne says.

"We really wanted to create a Scottish-based brand that had an international outlook, so we established Strathberry when we eventually returned to the UK.

Meghan Markle (Photo by Jeremy Selwyn - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Meghan Markle (Photo by Jeremy Selwyn - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

"Guy finished his job and worked full-time on the brand right from the start.

"I worked part-time elsewhere and supported the business in my spare time.

"We started by building paper model versions of the now iconic Strathberry shapes and ran the business out of the studio attached to our house for nearly two years. It was the largest - and the coldest - room in the house."

Wonderland bag, restocking soon at strathberry.com
Wonderland bag, restocking soon at strathberry.com

Their attention to detail paid dividends, catapulting the brand from a home-run business founded in 2011 to what is fast-becoming a household name.

This was in part thanks to a surge of interest in December 2017 after the then Meghan Markle was snapped carrying one of the bags during her first official public appearance with fiance Prince Harry.

Leeanne explains what attracts their loyal customers to the brand.

Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing Strathberry (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing Strathberry (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

"Our bags are timeless yet contemporary and are designed and handcrafted to the highest standards," she says. "We only use leathers from the best European tanneries and really focus on attention to detail and expert craftsmanship.

"We simply don't cut corners, ever, and we offer high-quality products that can be cherished year after year at affordable prices."

As the brand has gone from strength to strength, the team has focused on increasing brand awareness globally while still maintaining the same level of attention to detail, expert craftsmanship and innovative design.

"We have also been very lucky to have the support of influential women who have carried our designs and championed the brand," Leeanne says.

"We also have an amazing team that works passionately - from design to wholesale - to help the business grow.

"It has been such an exciting journey. We now have two retail points in London - a boutique in Burlington Arcade, which opened last November, and a concept store on Mount Street, which opened last month - where customers can experience our collections first-hand and have a taste of Strathberry."

Among the trendsetting stars who have sported Strathberry bags in public are the Duchess of Sussex, singer Lady Gaga, Game of Thrones actress Rose Leslie, Margot Robbie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Sarah Michelle Gellar.

"Just recently, Coco Rocha carried one of our MC Nanos in New York. We were simply delighted to see her and she looked so beautiful," Leeanne says.

The most surreal moments, she adds, came when the Duchess of Sussex carried their designs on engagements in Nottingham, Edinburgh and Belfast.

"The day she carried our Strathberry Midi Tote in Nottingham, I was at a meeting in the office when I received a message from one of my colleagues. The phones started ringing constantly and didn't stop for days," Leeanne says.

The business is now looking to expand into more locations across the globe. It currently employs 30 people at its Edinburgh headquarters, with smaller teams working in Spain, London and China.

"Guy and I are also still very much involved in the design process - something we have had a real passion for since the beginning," Leeanne says.

"Our design team, based in Edinburgh, is constantly exploring exciting new shapes and fabrications and considering alternative materials and techniques.

"We have so many new styles in development and the product range has really grown over the years. We have now introduced softer and less structured shapes and are working on a selection of small leather goods.

"We will also launch our first limited-edition cashmere line this September. We couldn't be more excited."

Leeanne says the key to working together as a couple is that she and Guy complement each other so well in terms of their skillsets and preferences, leading to greater creativity and passion about the company.

"Ultimately, we have the same work ethic and goals," she adds.

But she admits that family life can sometimes become hectic: "We work hard on trying to maintain a good work life balance and are really focused on having quality time with the children.

"They are all still very young and I can honestly say they have shown little interest in the business for now.

"The kids are happiest when we are all together, watching movies and eating popcorn."

What's her advice for young entrepreneurs from Northern Ireland who are interested in going into a similar line of work?

"Build on what goes well for the business," Leeanne says. "Don't fixate on what you get wrong. Be prepared to change direction. In this day and age, businesses need to be agile and quickly adapt to new situations and opportunities."

See the full range at www.strathberry.com

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