October 31, 2023
Natalie Dennis is a luxury accessories brand focussing high-quality designs
She is one of the UK’s fastest growing and most admired luxury handbag brand owners.
But her success is even more remarkable as Natalie Dennis, 47, overcame a crippling disability to become a leading designer available in Harrods, despite turning down job offers from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Burberry and Gucci.
For all her childhood she struggled with extreme dyslexia – being unable to even read the alphabet.
The struggling student, from Bratton Fleming in Devon, left school with just one GCSE in art and was finally diagnosed at the age of 18.
She said: “It was in primary school was when I started to realise I was different.
“I couldn’t read the alphabet and I would get a ruler across my hand. I started to fall behind quite quickly in my learning and couldn’t really make sense of any of it.’
“I knew dyslexia was a thing, but in rural places like that, it just wasn’t something that was even talked about.”
“It was pretty miserable being in the bottom sets for everything, and I ending up leaving school with only one GCSE, which was an A in art.”
“I hope these days there is much more support for young children like me and by the time I got to university, I had a scribe for my exams which helped immensely.”
Despite her academic battles, Natalie’s creative flare was already alive.
She said: ”I started designing handbags at only three or four years old when I would make clothes and little handbags for my Barbie dolls.
“I would go to my friends’ houses who would have lots more toys than me, because we didn’t have much money, and I would play with all their toys and dolls and then come home and recreate them all.
“I would make these little bags out of cardboard, paper, and scraps of fabric. I would also make little mini patterns myself.
“I didn’t realise then, but now looking back, that is where my pattern skills came in to be able to make handbags.”
She explained: “As I only had one GCSE it was proving challenging to get into university, I had to sit at the North Devon College for three years, studying for a National Diploma, all the different areas of art, which looking back was probably a good thing because I got longer than everybody else who went straight onto their university course.
“I went to Maidenhead College, which Is now part of Reading University where I studied for two years for a Higher National Diploma in fashion clothing. I went on to study clothing because there were no other courses that interested me, even though I knew I didn’t want to do clothing.”
“When I finished that course, I won first place in a competition by Wayne Hemingway who owned ‘Red or Dead’, which was massive at the time.”
“Handbags weren’t really a thing at the time, and I pointed out to Wayne that bags were going to be massive. I even produced a range of bags for the competition.”
“Wayne came from a market stall himself and then created a runway sensation. At the end of the project, he said I must continue and he told me to go and apply to Cordwainers.”
It was there that she met fashion designer and lecturer, Darla Jane Gilroy, who managed to help get Natalie’s dyslexia diagnosed properly at the age of 18.
“They put a few students through doing bags, but Cordwainers didn’t really have a proper course, so they let me structure the course how I wanted. I spent two years there, which were the best two years of my life.
“It was at this time I also won a prize from Gina shoes and Hush Puppies, yet my main focus always lied with handbags.
“During my time as a student, I was seeing my work displayed at fashion shows which only furthered my aspirations that one day it would be my own brand on that runway.”
Successfully achieving a 2.1, Natalie surprised her tutors by using an unusual revision technique.
She revealed:” I managed to overcome my dyslexia challenges by being creative. I got people to do stuff for me, I recorded all my lessons and lectures. One of my lecturers knew it was pointless me going to lessons as I couldn’t write to take down notes.
“The night before the exam, I had a whole term of lessons that I didn’t attend. She gave me a recording and I played it through the night. I got up the next day and I got the second highest score ever in the test without attending any of the classes.
“My last college project was for a company called Tula which was one of the largest in Europe for handbags at the time, and I also helped them develop Radley’s first range.
“At the end of the course I was offered a position with Alexander McQueen, which my university turned down.”
After her completing her degree at University, Natalie started at Dollargrand where she soon became head of design for two years. It was during this time she then put her work out to see if other brands would be interested.
She revealed: “I had people like Gucci, Burberry and Mulberry ringing me up daily to ask for an interview, but I turned them all down because one day I wanted to have my own luxury brand, but I knew if I worked for someone else, I would give all my own style away, so I refused.”
“I was also offered a job at Exeter University teaching handbags, but I also turned this down, in pursuit of following my dreams.”
She first started selling her own handbags at London’s Portobello Market selling homemade bags.
“I started cutting up pairs of jeans and leather jackets that my Mum got at car boot sales and started making little bags. Suddenly I was selling hundreds a week.
“Within two or three months, we were stocked in Topshop. Back then it was just about making stuff as cheap as I could. I found that I could just make stuff out of old stuff lying around anyway. We were selling hundreds a week. I think they call it upcycling now.”
But Natalie was always thinking bigger.
She said “I started to think about how I was going to get these bags produced by others than me. I teamed up with somebody I met at university who is from India, Calcutta, and I went out to India – because they didn’t know how to make bags and wallets. So, I sat with a team of about 20 guys and trained them on how to make bag patterns and how to be able to make these bags.
“Within 12 months, we were selling bags at Ted Baker, Faith, Country Casuals, Austin Reed, you name it. I was quickly producing 15,000 units a month for those brands.”
But despite her success and money pouring in Natalie wasn’t fulfilled.
She said “I got fed up with that. Although I was making lots of money, I realised it wasn’t really about design, it was about taking trends, looking at the market, and then feeding into each of those brands.
“I wanted to make timeless designs that people wanted to purchase for the aesthetics and because it makes them feel good, instead of merely keeping up with fast fashion trends.”
“It wasn’t what I wanted to do and the market for bags at that point had grown massively and the big brands were now dominating the handbags.”
After watching the market trends change within the industry, Natalie saw an opening for smaller, bespoke, unknown brands.
She explained: “It was time for me to just sit out and wait for a moment of change. I realised in 2010 that the market started to change as brands were coming in that had never been heard before.”
In 2018, Natalie took the plunge and invested her time into her own brand.
She said:” It was time for me to start thinking about what I was going to do and how I was going to eventually unfold my story, that I where we are now, we started just before lockdown. In 2018 I travelled around the world looking at manufacturing in Portugal, Spain, China, and everywhere. I went to over 100 factories.”
After settling for a factory in Florence, and finally having a team together. Natalie got to work on her new design.
She said:” I worked with a guy who is English, much of my team are around retirement age.
“My handbags, based on curves and timelessness, are driven by my love for the outdoors.
“I take all my inspiration from nature, architecture, and everything around you – which is what the signature curve is based on. My college project was in fact the large signature curve, I did that bag back in the year 1999.
“The bag is based on architecture and designs seen in museums, that stood the test of time and that people aesthetically appreciate. I took all those influences along with nature and blended them together.
“I spent a lot of time by the sea, the waves and patterns on the shore massively influence me. I found 3D structures within nature fascinating. My facilitation with the curve I didn’t know at the time had a name. The Golden Ratio.”
Seven months since the launch her bags are already stocked by MywardrobeHQ, the official Harrods rental partner as well as in Pickett, Fashwire, CultMia, Wolf and Badger and Not Just A label.
But with her international footprint growing fast Natalie, who puts sustainability at the heart of her business, has even bigger plans.
She said:” We are now currently in the middle of designing a prototype which will be recycled leather, and we are going to do a vegan leather to come out in the next six months.”
W: Natalie Dennis