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Interview: A design for life

Charlotte Staerck has gone from playground provocation to the vanguard of sustainable luxury. Once mocked for taking a handbag to school, she has transformed her passion for style into The Handbag Clinic, which is leading the way on eco-friendlier fashion. The business works internationally with the largest names, repairing, buying and selling goods to ensure their future use. And with a second fundraising drive imminent, it has plans to further expand its presence. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Charlotte to find out more about the company’s origins, its global standing and how it is continuing to help change environmental perceptions.

“I mean, who takes a handbag to school as a seven-year-old!?”

For a moment, Charlotte Staerck is back in the classroom, a smile sweeping across her face.

“I’ve always been very fashion conscious – I would argue with my mum about what I was going to wear to nursery,” she laughs.

“And when I was a little older, my auntie – and godmother – bought me a black velvet bag, which had purple flowers embroidered on the front.

“It would have been from a craft stall, but it had a label inside, which I thought was the be-all and end-all, and I took it to school with me.

“And I got teased for it.

“I remember one day flicking it over my shoulder and shouting, ‘it’s designer!’ before walking off.”

Charlotte’s grin spreads wider as she reminisces her riposte, the vision of her triumphant heel spin as clear today as it was then.

And there’s good reason.

For while her fleet of foot helped her avoid her tormentors, it highlighted something far more seminal.

The seed of fashion and glamour had been sown, and as Charlotte grew, so did the outline of what today stands as The Handbag Clinic.

“As a teenager, I worked at Jane Norman, in the Metrocentre, and opposite the store, right in my eyeline, was House of Fraser,” says Charlotte, who spent her childhood years in the former mining settlements of Rowlands Gill and High Spen.

“As soon as I got my wages, I was straight over there.

“At the time, Mulberry was the highest designer handbag brand you could get, but I couldn’t afford it, so I got a DKNY one instead.

“And after that, I saved up for another, and kept them for a while before selling them on eBay.

“I realised that once I’d sold two, I could get a Mulberry – and things went from there.”

Like all good commercial success stories, Charlotte’s includes a great deal of entrepreneurial nous, as well as an obliging helping of serendipity. 

Before the days of her high-end venture, she worked in Gateshead Council’s waste and recycling department, having begun at the local authority as a reception desk apprentice.

And one day, with her favourite tote in need of attention, she searched for a solution, which would have put her directly on course with her future partner, but for a misplaced piece of paper.

Charlotte says: “The dye off my jeans had transferred to my handbag, so I was looking around to get it repaired.

“My boss at the time said, ‘I’ve seen this company’s van driving around, why don’t you contact them?’

“She gave me their number on a Post-It note, it was the contact details for Furniture Clinic, the company my now husband Ben was running alongside his father.

“But I lost it.”

However, it was, Charlotte admits, like they were meant to be drawn together, like fate had intervened to bind their personal and commercial strands into a combined thread.

For, a couple of years later, their paths did cross during an evening in Newcastle, with Charlotte – rather ironically – carrying on her shoulder the very handbag that was once in need of repair.

By this point, she had swapped the council for the NHS, running a buying team that ensured healthcare sites from Ashington to Carlisle were suitably stocked with pharmaceuticals and surgical supplies, such as artificial joints for knee replacements.

And as she grew closer to Ben, so too did their commercial partnership blossom.

With the Furniture Clinic servicing increasing numbers of totes for Charlotte, the decision was taken to spin The Handbag Clinic out of the family company.

That was nearly a decade ago.

And the pace of its growth has remained unrelenting ever since.

Today, the venture – whose Hobson headquarters straddle County Durham’s northerly border with Gateshead – is recognised globally, with in-store concessions in Fenwick’s Newcastle and Colchester stores matched by a base in Leeds, another on Chelsea’s expensive streets and shops in the equally lavish surrounds of Monaco and the Middle East.

Famed for its expert restoration team, which repairs and rejuvenates 700 bags every month from workspaces in its industrial estate base, the company is also a hub for buying and selling the world’s largest brands, and the trusted provider of authentication to the country’s most eminent auction houses.

It also recently launched an endeavour to sell handbags directly on brands’ behalf, finding homes for goods that may have originally struggled for market traction, been part of an overstocking issue or are in need of repair.

Such is its momentum, The Handbag Clinic chalked up record 130 per cent year-on-year growth across the last 12 months, with an 87 per cent uptick in handbag acquisitions and a near 40 per cent rise in restoration sales, leaving it on track to achieve a £2.8 million turnover target this year.

Even COVID-19 failed to restrain things, with the business turning over £1 million and retaining all staff – while adding new roles – despite the turbulence.

And its growth trajectory is poised to increase yet further.

Having secured £800,000 a year ago through the North East Venture Fund – the cash pot supported by the European Regional Development Fund and managed by investment house Mercia – Charlotte reveals The Handbag Clinic is embarking on a second fundraising drive.

Its first tranche allowed the business to recruit ex-Claire’s Accessories boss Beatrice LaFon as chair and welcome founder Ian Griffiths as digital strategy consultant and former END financial controller Sarah-Jane Veitch as financial director, with further roles filled across product management and development.

Their arrival has helped nearly double staff numbers to close to 50 and, with such foundations in place, Charlotte says the firm is ready to move to another level.

She says: “We’ve taken a whole new turn.

“We’re really pushing through the targets we set ourselves and making the most of the initial investment.

“The first round allowed us to build a base infrastructure, and now we’ve got that, it’s time to go above and beyond and grow further.

“We have plans for geographical expansion in the UK, and are looking to grow the North East team too.”

Sitting in the company’s base, its office walls appropriately whitewashed as the site goes through its own rejuvenation, Charlotte sits back in her chair, the colourful adventures of the last ten years flashing through her mind.

She says: “I’m a girl from the North East – I don’t have all the connections and I didn’t go to school with such-and-such’s uncle.

“My path isn’t what you’d normally see for someone running a fashion business.

“Some people do fashion degrees, but I learnt a lot of my skills from the council and NHS.

“I’m very comfortable working with customers, clients and finding solutions to complex situations thanks to my time at the council, where I had to deal with issues like stolen bins, and I’ve got great purchasing and supply experience from my NHS days, which I’ve been able to build on.”

A look at The Handbag Clinic’s order book attests Charlotte’s acumen, its pages brimming with work from international fashion houses and celebrities, right down to those needing help following a domestic catastrophe.

She says: “Barring three of the 20-plus key handbag brands you could name, we work with all of them.

“And that speaks volumes for what we do.

“We work on hundreds of bags every month, from repairing a £40,000-plus Hermès bag to shortening a shoulder strap.

“I remember us once helping a lady who’d found one of her mum’s handbags.

“It was unbranded, but she just wanted it to look great again.

“When we’d repaired it, she rang us in tears; she was so happy to have a part of her mum with her once again.

“Our clinic is like a treasure trove of stories like that – from the naughty puppy that’s chewed a tote to restoring a Chanel bag after its owner’s daughter has drawn Cinderella on it – we cover everything.”

“Celebrities come to us – everyone from reality television stars to your top models,” says Charlotte, who reveals the business has also worked on shoes, leather jackets, backgammon boards and even sword cases.

She adds: “The big fashion brands have all approached us over time, including one very well-known name that came to us after seeing our YouTube channel.

“I created it during the pandemic, to show customers what happens to their bag when they send it to us.

“I shared a video of a Chanel restoration, and it went crazy.

“This client saw the video and was so impressed that it told the other brands in its group they should work with us.

“We train store staff for a lot of brands and work with their aftercare teams to assess and fix items.

“We’re the preferred partner for customer recommendations for some brands, and we provide support around manufacturing issues – if 50 zips need fixing on 50 handbags, for example, we will do that.

“We work closely too with the auction houses, providing pre-sale cleaning and repair services for Christies, and authenticating bags for Bonhams and Chiswick.”

And with such an impressive contacts list, and the impending impact of its second round of financial support, Charlotte says The Handbag Clinic will remain a fixture at the vanguard of sustainable fashion.

She attributes a portion of the company’s environmental focus to her time in local government, which she says “opened her eyes” to the necessity of watershed change.

And she says she is proud to have made a significant impression on the fashion industry’s green agenda and certainly that of its clientele, who haven’t always been so universally understanding of the sector’s impact on the environment.

She says: “We were definitely ahead of the curve on sustainability, and we still are.

“All the cloths we use in the clinic to apply products to handbags are old linens and towels from hotels.

“We’ve adapted our building with things like solar panels, and we’re looking at fully sustainable packaging too – everything we do is circular.”

Charlotte adds: “I remember living in a flat in Chelsea a few years ago, and walking past big townhouses that had Chanel handbags slung at the side of the road.

“There was nothing wrong with them – I couldn’t believe what people were willing to throw away.

“I also remember going to networking events and being asked, ‘why would you want to buy an old bag?’

“People thought it was bizarre.

“But the tables have completely turned, and people are now asking if we can fix something they’ve found in a wardrobe, or help find them a Chanel handbag.

“The change in conversations, even from just three or four years ago, has been so dramatic.

“We’ve been talking about this for a decade, and it’s great the world has caught up.”
Words by Steven Hugill
Photography by Christopher Owens

November 3, 2022

  • Business & Economy

Created by North East Times