Luxury leather goods create a legacy of their own. There’s something incredibly special about investing in a new handbag or wallet, particularly if you’re shopping in the high-end market. And as we as a nation consciously steer away from the repercussions of ‘fast fashion’, there’s never been a better time to shop smart and invest in something that will truly stand the test of time.
Personally, as I’m sure many of you did, I spent many a lockdown weekend rearranging cupboards and wardrobes, ‘decluttering’ to make space. I was surprised to find that I was storing throw-away fashion pieces from years gone by, many of which definitely did not ‘stand the test of time’.
It led me to think about my future purchases, to move away from quick fixes and really spend some time making my next move.
In the process of my wardrobe overhaul, I was delighted to come across Coupland Leather – a business with quality craftsmanship at its heart. And when I learned that Stuart, the brains behind the brand, was based here in the North East, I jumped at the opportunity to have a chat.
Like many, 28-year-old Stuart Coupland from Norton, has had an unusual couple of years in business. But out of weird situations come wonderful things and these turbulent times have allowed him to turn his passion into a reality.
“I’ve had multiple business ideas bubbling away for some time now,” explains Stuart.
“But I either didn’t pursue them, they didn’t work out, or life just got in the way.
“So it’s definitely something I’ve always wanted to do, but I just needed to find the right business and the right moment.”
The pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone – for business, for our wellbeing, and for our social lives. But for some, it has given them the creative freedom to bring ideas to life. To take the plunge and trust that ‘everything happens for a reason’.
Coupland Leather is a business that Stuart has had in mind for some time now, taking him back to a 2018 summer holiday.
“My girlfriend and I were on holiday in Turkey; during our stay, a handmade watch strap from one of the shops in the hotel caught my eye. I spoke to the guy behind the counter and he told me that it wouldn’t fit my watch, but he went on to explain that he could cut it down and make it work.
“I wasn’t expecting such a service and it got me thinking about ‘the perfect watch strap’ for me. I asked him if he could change the buckle and before you knew it, I’d basically customised this strap for my own watch. I was really impressed.
“I went home, did a bit of YouTube research – as you do – and I collated a list of what I needed to be able to set this up as a business, or at the time, a ‘side hustle’.”
Before long, Stuart had taken the plunge, kitted himself out and started making leather goods. He knew he was passionate about it, but had to test out his skillset.
“I made my first wallet – it was horrendous,” he laughs.
“So I chucked it all in a box and forgot about it for a while. Was it going to be another great idea of mine that never really takes off?
“I had just got a new job as a sales manager for a marketing company. Before that, I worked in IT sales and at the same time, I was a retained fireman in Norton. In my new role I found that I had a lot of spare time as I was no longer on call in the fire service, so on evenings and weekends I decided to pick up the leather thing again.”
What started as a hobby quickly turned into a small business for friends and family. Stuart found himself making watch straps and card holders as gifts for loved ones.
“I was just getting my head around the craft really, but I was really enjoying it and I was determined I was going to make it work,” Stuart says.
“Because I already had a large business network around me, it spread quite fast and I ended up being quite busy. By the end of 2019, I’d sold about 80 products and had Rockliffe Hall as a reseller. Fast forward to early 2020, in January I got called into the office and was told the marketing business was going into liquidation and that we no longer had a job.”
This career setback gave Stuart the space to sit back and really think about how he could put his creativity to the test.
“It gave me the motivation to pick my phone up, ring everyone in my contacts and pitch to them about my leather products. I gave myself 10 days to prove that the concept would work, and in that time, it really started to take off.”
“If I’m going to be totally honest, a lot of it was pity sales, but it was fine because it gave me the confidence to give it a go. Six weeks later, we were put into a national lockdown and everything went out of the window.”
Or at least, it could have gone that way. Determined to give Coupland Leather the chance it deserved, Stuart continued to lean on the people around him and put his all into spreading the word and crafting more luxurious leather products.
“Bizarrely, in 2020 – amidst a global pandemic – we had about 670% growth on 2019, almost seven times the turnover from the previous year. It was nuts,” explains Stuart.
“So far this year, we’re almost halfway to hitting last year’s turnover. It’s really starting to get going and it’s a very exciting time. I just had an Italian leather magazine through the door this morning and we are featured in it – it was a bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment I’ve got to be honest.”
And as Stuart’s business continues to pick up momentum, he continues to launch new products and form partnerships with well-loved businesses across the region, the country and beyond.
“At the moment, we’re stocked at Rockliffe Hall, Alnwick Garden, Master Debonair, Owen Scott Bespoke Tailoring in Huddersfield – and then we’ve got a couple of other tailors interested in Leeds and in London, so we’re definitely spreading our wings.
“80% of our business comes from outside of Teesside, so we’re very much a national business. I have sold into Australia and America too, which is great.”
Coupland Leather’s reach is far and wide, but its heart is firmly rooted in Teesside.
“I’m Teesside through and through,” Stuart smiles.
“The Tees Valley business community is incredibly strong, and I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now if it wasn’t for the people surrounding me – from friends and family, to business networks.
“Everybody is more than happy to support and help each other, which is really special when it comes to setting up a new business. We’ve all been navigating through tough times together, but being able to lean on one another has been so incredibly inspiring and uplifting.”
Stuart is a familiar face within the Tees Valley business community, and with that, he’s a big supporter of local charities. Coupland Leather does everything it can to give back to those in need, and to those who have supported him along the way.
“I started going to Business Network International (BNI) meetings when I was 18. When I first attended there was a lady called Diane, who was in the BNI for Butterwick Hospice. From a very early stage, I was always attending corporate events and supporting Butterwick in any way I could. I would see people getting certificates for the support they gave, and I always thought, ‘I want one of them’.
“So when we set up Coupland Leather, I got in touch with Butterwick and came on as a corporate supporter. I also support MAIN, which is a Middlesbrough-based autism charity. It’s great to give back, and to be able to do it in partnership with organisations close to my heart, is just wonderful.”
Coupland Leather’s North East homage goes beyond the charity and corporate worlds. It’s a heritage business, and it’s history is found within Stuart’s own family.
“The Coupland crest was actually designed by my grandad – it’s been hung up in his house for around 45 years. I was having a cup of tea with him one day and I saw the crest as I was leaving, so I asked him if he would mind if I used it in my logo. In January I had a conversation with him and showed him some of my newspaper clippings. I told him that over 500 people were walking around with our family crest in their pocket, and he welled up, bless him – he was over the moon with it.
“Beyond that, we’ve named all of the wallets after family members, so it’s very personal to me and my loved ones, as wellas the customers.
“When things are busy, like in the run up to Christmas when we produced around 150 products between October and December, I brought my mum on as temporary staff. She loves to get involved, so does my partner Meg, a photographer and real creative genius, who helps with my imagery, branding and marketing.”
So, Stuart’s ‘lightbulb’ moment came during a holiday in Turkey, and business has somewhat boomed ever since, with a few hurdles and challenges thrown in between.
“Last year was all about the product itself – trying things out and getting the quality right. I had done all of my research into the world of leather. We use vegetable tan leather, this is what you find on things like a saddle or a chesterfield sofa. It’s 60-70 years old and it’s a ‘looks better than it did when you first bought it’ kind of leather.
“I buy that in the plain, uncovered version, then I dye it to the acquired specification. It’s a very traditional, natural way of doing it, and the leather is much more hard-wearing.
“We launched our very first handbag in December. Our first sale was with a lady who got in touch to say she was looking at Gucci handbags but came across Coupland Leather and decided to put her trust in us.
“I thought, ‘Wow, someone has chosen me over a major brand’ – my head got a bit bigger, I couldn’t believe it! I know that when somebody buys from the likes of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Mulberry, they get the full, luxury experience. So it got me thinking, ‘How can I make the Coupland Leather experience better?’
“And so that is what this year has been about. We’ve invested in some really nice boxes. When you buy a handbag, it comes in a black box with the Coupland Leather crest on the top of it. You open it up and your name is engraved inside. It’s all very personalised, with a care sheet inside and the certificate of authenticity featuring a wax stamp of our crest. It’s the whole experience.
“These big brands have huge budgets – I don’t have that, but my unique selling point is making it as personal as possible and giving people the luxury of choosing exactly what they want when it comes to the leather and the design.
“With a recent bag, I’ve actually included the customer’s signature. I lazer engraved a digital image onto the inside pocket, so in a sense, they’ve signed their own handbag. How cool is that?”
Stuart’s business has come at a great time for savvy shoppers who have an eye for design, sustainability and timeless luxuries. Shoppers are constantly on the lookout for something new and unique. Something they can invest in, go on a personalised journey through the manufacturing process, get to know the brains behind the business and really put their trust in the quality every step of the way.
It’s something you can find joy in purchasing, share with loved ones and pass on to future generations. It’s the direction many independent businesses are following, but it’s not easy to get it right.
The beauty of Coupland Leather is in its local, family heritage – and as it’s our job to champion the North East and all it has to offer, we’re incredibly proud to say we’ve got another jewel in the crown.
A carefully-considered craftsman with his heart in Teesside.