Natalie Dennis is one of the UK’s fastest growing luxury handbag brand owners, but her success hasn’t all been plain sailing.
The 47-year-old battled extreme dyslexia for all of her childhood, and couldn’t even read the alphabet.
She left her school in Bratton Fleming, Devon with just one GCSE in art and was finally diagnosed at the age of 18.
Against all odds, Natalie became a leading designer available in Harrods, fighting off job offers the likes of Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Burberry and Gucci.
After taking the fashion world by storm and working for the million-pound business, Natalie has reflected on her difficult journey to get there.
She said: ‘It was in primary school 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.’
Natalie spent most of her school life in the bottom set, and left with just one GCSE, an A in art.
She said: ‘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 always alive and she began designing at just three years old.
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.’
With just one GCSE, Natalie found it challenging to get into university and had to spend three years at North Devon College studying for a National Diploma in all different areas of art.
Natalie thrived in her field, going on to study for a Higher National Diploma in Fashion clothing at Maidenhead College, which is now part of Reading University.
At the end of the course, she won first place in a competition by designer Wayne Hemingway, who urged her to apply for the London fashion school 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.
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.’
Natalie went from strength to strength outside of fashion school, she quickly became head of design at Dollargrand and had to repeatedly turn down job offers from world-renowned design brands.
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.’
Natalie first began selling her own homemade handbags at London’s Portobello Market, and within 12 months she was pushing thousands of units a month for big name brands such as Ted Baker, Faith, Country Casuals and Austin Reed.
But despite 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.’
After watching the market trends change within the industry, Natalie saw an opening for smaller, bespoke, unknown brands and took the plunge in 2018, investing 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.’
‘My handbags, based on curves and timelessness, are driven by my love for the outdoors.
‘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.’
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.’