Inspired designs on new look classics

Words by:
Barbara Young
Featured in:
April 2021

Barbara Young meets the creative husband and wife team behind Priestleys, a stylish new range of luxury handmade leather accessories.
Launched almost exactly a year ago, Priestleys has already established itself as an iconic fashion brand specialising in producing unique handcrafted designs featuring classic leather accessories for both men and women with a modern twist, and a special emphasis on sustainability.

James and Karen Priestley, who moved to Lincolnshire from Hampshire with their baby daughter Eleanor in 2019, pride themselves on responsibly sourcing and using full grain vegetable tanned leather, which is dyed with natural tannins such as bark and traditional processes.

“Our customers tend to be looking for something a little bit special with that bespoke or personalised touch, or a special gift for someone that will last a lifetime,” explains Karen, who has an extensive background in fashion having worked both as a manager in a college Creative Industries department, as well as currently working as a university lecturer.

“We opt for traditional techniques and hand-stitch every product as not only does this make them very strong, we also think it adds sophistication and beauty.

“Vegetable tanned leather is a popular choice for leatherwork, as people are starting to move away from fast fashion and invest in pieces for life. By creating our own repeat patterns, and debossing them to the surface of the leather, we believe we’re designing and making customised, bespoke products that stand out and offer something a little more special.”

Karen points out that the leather they source offers the longevity needed for products to last for generations and has many great properties; it can be cleaned, repaired and is compostable organic waste at the end of its life.

“We source from UK and European tanneries, which are audited against their environmental approach to the production of leather. All of our packaging – boxes, ribbon and tissue paper – is made from recycled materials and is 100% recyclable.”

Karen, who has a small collection of treasured accessories herself, admits she has been “obsessed” with shoes and handbags since childhood.

“I don’t think it’s an unhealthy obsession, but James may disagree! I try to invest in something that will last and which I know I’ll use a lot, so tend to save up and treat myself as a reward if I have worked hard for something. There’s something so reliable and dependable about a handbag, it can make an outfit, and is always there whenever you need it.”

This is the couple’s first venture of working together and both bring different skills and experience which complement each other.

“Designing and making handbags has been my dream job for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t really have the confidence to do it before,” says Karen. “I fell in love with teaching and worked my way up as a college lecturer to founding and running a fashion course.

“When I had my daughter, I went back to work but something just didn’t feel right as I wanted more time with her. I realised that perhaps it wasn’t confidence I needed, rather that I just needed to get on and work hard for her.

“James was in very much the same mindset, he was a submariner in the Royal Navy so was away a lot. When we had Eleanor, we wanted more time as a family. We knew that between us we had some good skills and were excited about what we could achieve working together.

“My background in fashion has given me the key theories and principles of design, and taught me a lot about how we design for others. More recently working as a university lecturer has meant that I’m immersed in all things fashion, surrounded by people who are incredibly supportive and who love fashion and are as passionate about design as I am.”

The couple admit the decision to move away from the life they knew in the south was a hard one to make, but looking back they are delighted they took that leap of faith.

“We really wanted a slower pace of life and more time as a family and our move has facilitated this and allowed us the opportunity to set up and establish our business. Luckily, James grew up in Lincolnshire and has a big family, so Eleanor has lots of other children to grow up with, which is wonderful.

“Lincolnshire is one of the most beautiful places, with a real sense of community and very family orientated with so much to do, I love it.”

Karen says that while working together has allowed the couple to realise their dream, it has also presented challenges, especially in launching a business during a pandemic.

“When James was a submariner he was away a lot, we lived very independently. Going from that to living and working together and adding in lockdown have made things feel a bit surreal at times. James and I are complete opposites and we seldom agree on anything. I am a typical creative, with lots of ideas and tend to run at about 100mph.

“I run most aspects of the business such as marketing, PR, designing the products and the repeat patterns, while James is a skilled engineer so has a methodical approach and brings my creative ideas to life.”

Karen says she and James waited 10 years for the “perfect time” to launch and despite having to navigate the stormy seas of coronavirus, they have no regrets.

“In all honesty we did think about waiting until things got better, but questioned when that might be, and after waiting such a long time, we thought we’ll just have to work harder to get things off the ground. Actually, it’s been great for us as we’ve been able to take things much slower, had more time to develop our skills, as well as more time to reflect and develop products which is something that we’ll continue with.”

Inspiration and support
Like many parents, Karen and James say they have been inspired by their daughter Eleanor who is now nearly three – and after whom they have named their latest collection, Signature Eleanor.

“We value what is important to us and I think that as parents you want your children to follow their dreams, yet so few of us do, so that’s what prompted us to re-evaluate things,” explains Karen. “We also loved the idea of making things that we could pass on to Eleanor for when she grows up. This has made us examine our use of materials and consider what provides longevity.”

Another challenge has been juggling day jobs while setting up the business from home where they have a small office for designing and running the business, while products are made on the family’s dining table.

“James works full-time as an engineering consultant and spends some evenings and weekends drawing up pattern templates to help with the product development and making of the products,” says Karen.

“I’m still working as a university lecturer, so the remaining time is split between Priestleys and looking after Eleanor.

“I think any working parents learn how to balance and juggle commitments. When I first began to plan our business, I knew that much of the time I would be working and looking after Eleanor, so I wrote out a big list of all the things we could do together that she would think were fun. So if I’m designing, Eleanor is also drawing or painting and when I need to spend time creating mood boards, Eleanor will be collaging. She also loves to help with photographing products using her own wooden camera.”

Karen and James pay tribute to the support received from family and friends.

“Setting up a brand designing and making accessories has been something that I’ve wanted to do for such a long time, so it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone,” says Karen. “My dad set up a window fitting business when he was about the same age as me, while my mum has been the one to really push us on with it. We are so grateful for everyone’s support as it can all be quite daunting at times.”

Bespoke designs
Priestleys offers a wide range of bespoke options which allows customers to choose colours of outer leathers, linings, threads, and pattern, with all products personalised to make them even more individual.

The Signature Eleanor range includes slimline, lightweight purses and clutch bags, while the men’s designs feature on wallets and cardholders, with other accessories such as a weekend holdall, glasses cases and watch straps in the pipeline. Karen and James are also excited to be working on an exclusive range of branded products for Navy service personnel, with some of the proceeds going to the Royal Navy Charity.

Each Priestleys design can take weeks to perfect and can take anything from two to 30 hours to make. The couple believe customers are increasingly replacing throwaway fashion with long-lasting accessories.

“There is a huge shift in the way we consume; it was already emerging but I think the coronavirus accelerated this,” says Karen. “More people want to shop small or shop local, as well as wanting to shop more sustainably. They are willing to invest more in products that they know will be reliable and they will use a lot, which is great to see.”

Looking ahead, Karen and James say they are looking to grow their brand and are keen to recruit and teach the mix of traditional and modern skills to others.

“I think the real ambition would be to have a shop with a workshop in the Bailgate, so people could see our products being made, but we have a lot of work ahead before we can make that a reality.

“At the moment we are online only, but we would love to create or sell collections to boutique stores looking to stock something more artisan and unique.”

As a successful business start-up in tough times, Karen has the following advice for those looking to set up their own fashion brand.

“My advice would be to really know your customer and take your time with your product development. I also think that you have to really love the process and see the journey as more important than the end destination. It’s a lot of late nights and early mornings, so you have to ensure that what you’re doing motivates you.”

For more information visit or follow them on social media @priestleys_uk

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