Devon bound this week on the blog to chat to Will Bees Bespoke, a maker of luxury personalised accessories from tote bags and pouches to keyrings and notebooks. Using over 500 luxury fabrics and the finest selection of quality vegetable tanned leather, there is plenty of choice to suit everybody and amazingly enough the large totes are still hand embossed using the old fashioned method of hammer and block by Will himself. I caught up with Will recently to find out more about his lovely bags and his fashion passion too…..
Hi! I’m Will. I’m from Bristol originally but came to Salcombe with my parents on holiday as a child and then we moved down here permanently. I’m married with two young children, both adopted. I founded a nautical clothing company called Quba Sails in 1996, which we expanded to 14 shops and a successful online presence. I’m proud of what I achieved there and it gave me the confidence to embark on a new brand – and to take the risk of putting my own name to it!
I used to own a couple of Quba Sails sweatshirts in the late 1990s – I bought them whilst at the London & Southampton Boat Shows. My favourite was a pale blue half zip sweatshirt! So, what inspired the launch of your “new” company, Will Bee’s Bespoke?
I’m always exploring new concepts and this is an idea I’ve had for a while; there just hadn’t been time to look into it properly. I soon realised it was going to be complicated; I found so many wonderful fabrics, it was impossible to choose between them, and I started thinking about how we could accommodate them all. It’s never been tried before on this kind of scale and that excited me. Once I’d decided to offer so much choice, and to give customers such an individual experience, it was a natural progression to add the personalisation element.
Your English made range of accessories encompasses over 500 luxury fabrics and quality vegetable tanned leather. So, when designing products to include in your range, do you go for uniqueness, current trends, previous popular colours/styles, your own personal tastes or bits of all of those?
It’s largely my own personal choices. Over the years I’ve grown to trust my own eye. I do watch trends too, and I’m keen to get feedback from our customers and evolve what we do to meet their demands. Some of the bags we’ve launched this year, for instance, are a direct result of listening to our customers’ comments and doing our best to fulfil their requirements.
You are able to offer an unique bespoke embossing service – for the tote bags they can be hand embossed using the old fashioned method of hammer & block; others can be embossed using your bespoke embossing machine. What do both processes entail?
Most of our embossing is done on a bespoke machine. We’ve selected our preferred font and it’s then machine tooled into brass letters. These are securely mounted on the machine and heated to 120 degrees. The chosen letters are then ‘branded’ onto the leather. The result is very accurate, perfectly spaced. Alternatively, I can hand emboss our totes using the old-fashioned method of a hammer and block. The result is a bit more rustic than the machine embossing – the letters might not be perfectly aligned – but it has its own charm and it’s in keeping with the traditional hands-on craftsmanship. Interestingly, most customers opt for this service for the larger totes.
I love the Emmeline Totes using the Liberty Art Fabric and all the colours of the gorgeous Florence pouches! Which products are the most popular amongst your customers? Any differences between what your visitors to your shop like and those that order online?
I haven’t really observed a different profile between shop and web orders. The smaller items – the Octavia clutches, Florence pouches, notebooks, key rings etc – clearly appeal to the gifting market. It’s premium product at a sensible price, and the personalisation makes them unique. Some customers have come in and snapped up a dozen personalised pouches or notebooks, and there’s an audible sigh of relief as their Christmas shopping list is halved! Others customers will have had their eye on one of our totes or maybe a Beatrix Cross body for a while, or will spend a long time browsing the range, carefully deliberating over which silhouette, print and shade best fits their personal style.It’ll come as no surprise that the Liberty fabrics have enduring appeal with a significant cross-section of our clientele, in store and online. It’s such an iconic British brand, managing to combine contemporary design with timeless quality.
You are based in Salcombe, Devon – do you cater for overseas customers at all?
Obviously for now the vast majority of our clients are UK-based, but we have had a few customers overseas, either because they’ve visited our shop on holiday, or come across our website or social media pages. There’s clearly room to expand here and it’s something I’d like to focus on. I believe there’s a huge market for products that showcase the best of British manufacturing.
If you had the chance, who would you pick (dead or alive) to be the “Face” of Will Bees Bespoke and why?
I struggle to align our brand with any one face. When we opened our doors for the first time in the summer of 2014, it quickly became clear that a much wider range of customers were attracted to our products than I had initially envisaged, from teenagers upwards. That said, Yasmin Le Bon pretty much ticks all the boxes. Her beauty is timeless – it’s hard to believe she’s turned 50. She’s been at the top of her game for so long and yet has remained happily married to a high-profile popstar for almost 30 years, neither of them going off the rails like so many in the limelight do. They’re a successful yet down-to earth couple. It would be a dream to have her as the face of my brand – although I would naturally hope to appeal to her teenage daughters too! I also like our brand to showcase our core values, such as being a truly British brand. When it came to naming our bags, we decided to pay tribute to some of the most pioneering ladies in British history. Our Emmeline Tote is named after suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, our Octavia Clutch after social reformer Octavia Hill, our Florence Pouch is in honour of Florence Nightingale, and so on. Interestingly, it was one of our younger customers who remarked that it was “Great to see things dedicated to people who fully deserve recognition rather than a ‘girl of the moment’ bag!”
Looking ahead to 2016, are there any future plans to expand your range of products at all?
I fully intend to continue developing new product ranges to fill the gaps in the market that our customers have expressed an interest in. We launched a key ring bar earlier this year, and in the summer introduced notebooks and men’s accessories. We’re exploring more full leather ranges too. I want us to continue to get better and better at what we do, while staying true to our roots and core values.
Have you always wanted to be in the fashion industry? What do you enjoy most about what you do?
When I was about 19 I travelled to Biarritz, France in an old Land Rover to sketch surfers. I came up with a “Vive La Mer” logo, found a local printer and got him to mock up a T-shirt with the logo. I was going to order 200 to sell and fund my trip. I called my Mum to tell her and she told me I was mad so I never did it. I still regret that now! It’s the creative aspect I enjoy the most; coming up with an idea, developing it and watching it turn into something three dimensional. It’s so exciting when a sample ends up just the way I envisioned it.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
For work I wear a white T-shirt, skinny jeans and lace-up brogue boots. Off duty I usually wear a graphic T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. We live by the sea in South Devon, so I normally wear a little sand between my toes too.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites? (Apart from your own!)
Double RL has to be right up there. The flagship shop in Mayfair is one-of-a-kind; a thing of beauty. The look and feel combines vintage Americana with the heritage of turn-of-the-century London. It has to be seen to be understood. I’ve heard it’s Ralph Lauren’s little baby, not necessarily the most commercial, but truest to his heart.
Mister Freedom, a vintage clothing shop in L.A. is another favourite. It’s true vintage, not vintage-inspired; the real deal. The exquisite taste extends right down to the details like the swing tags. A visit there feels like a trip back in time. And I have to mention Liberty and their truly unique flagship store in Marlborough Street. They are so innovative and they do some great collaborations. Every time I go to London, and I check out what’s going on at the big stores, I’m always drawn back to Liberty. There’s a timeless beauty to that building, and it succeeds in being intimate even on a vast scale. There’s nothing quite like it.
Ooh yes, I love the Liberty Store too! An “Aladdin’s Cave of Loveliness”. What’s next on your clothes/shoe wish list?
A new slub yarn white long-sleeve top with breast pockets to wear at work. So simple and yet so hard to find the right one!
Boots or Shoes?
Boots. I find boots more versatile, harder wearing, particularly where we live – they don’t let the sand in! – and they just look cooler in my view. I bought a pair of vintage Sorel boots from The Vintage Showroom in Ladbroke Grove. It’s owned by a guy called Doug and you have to ring for an appointment. It’s a treasure trove. I love this particular pair; I’ve worn them to death and they’re still going strong. My wife got me replacement wool liners last Christmas – best present she’s ever given me!
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc so that readers can find out more about Will Bees Bespoke
Fantastic talking to you Will and I think your bags and fabric pouches are totally gorgeous – and mirror the quality that I experienced when I wrapped myself in my favourite Quba Sails sweatshirt! As I said earlier, I echo your love of that iconic London store, Liberty, too. The Northampton Shoe Museum is another place I love to browse around & lose myself in! Dear readers, have you got a favourite iconic store or place to go to browse for ages? Do tell!
All photos published with kind permission from Will Bees Bespoke.