Inspirational Woman: Charlotte Staerck | CEO and Co-Founder, The Handbag Clinic

Charlotte Staerck

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’ve been obsessed with handbags forever. I’m not sure why, I grew up in a tiny village outside of Newcastle, and my mum wasn’t interested at all. I got a Saturday job and would gaze longingly at the designer handbags through the windows. As soon as I could, I bought my first brand-named bag: a cream Luella tote, at 18 – it was quite a moment. Sadly, it soon got covered in dye transfer from my jeans and a colleague told me there was a local company, The Furniture Clinic, that did repairs. She gave me their number, but I lost the piece of paper. If I had gone, it turns out I’d have met my future husband, Ben, two years earlier than I did — at a bar in Newcastle. Ben had built up a business with his father cleaning and restoring furniture and leather household items since 2004 and, by the time I met him, it had grown from a small online family operation to a thriving global business.

At the time, I was on a fast-track career path having risen through local government ranks to be appointed as a Senior Buyer of pharmaceutical and medical equipment for the NHS.  I was fiercely independent and my career was going from strength to strength but my passion was always luxury handbags. As a devout eBayer, I would spend ages browsing the preowned market and buying and selling at the right time so I could covet the latest It bag – something that’s now been coined as circular fashion.

By 2013, I began observing the increasing number of handbags that were being sent to Furniture Clinic for restoration. I also observed the significant value that restoration work added to handbags that may have otherwise been discarded or unsaleable. So, I encouraged Ben to officially incorporate The Handbag Clinic as its own independent luxury handbag offshoot in 2013 – all still operated through our ecommerce platform at the time. The initial idea was to build on the leather restoration business and pivot this into the burgeoning appetite for handbag restoration. At that time, there were local high street cobblers who could perform simple repairs – but nowhere near the level of craftsmanship required for luxury items.

As demand for our business grew, I observed how this directly impacted the resale value, I knew there was a clear gap in the market for combining restoration with buying and selling preowned luxury handbags, enabling clients to fetch the highest possible price for their bags. No one else was doing it on a large scale or as a retail operation at the time. So, we started off with our first store in Newcastle which was a showcase for the business model and housed our selection of the world’s most coveted designer bags, followed by Chelsea and Leeds. It really spiralled from there.

As we’ve expanded geographically with our retail locations or launched new services, we have always invested into heart of our business; the Clinic itself. We started with just two Artisans and now have a team of 40 which includes 13 Artisans along with Restoration Specialists and logistical teams. We have also diversified into restoration for shoes, in response to demand from our customers. We offer everything from simple cobbler services; adding protective soles to extend the life of high fashion pumps to trainer cleaning – since the designer trainer market has exploded in the last few years.

In line with increasing demand, we also launched ‘Authenticate’ as an official service. We provide detailed authentication reports for all brands we stock; from full reports with finite detail and photographic evidence, to a signed certificate or simple evaluation as to whether the bag is real or a replica. It is so important to understand not only how to authenticate key features but the history behind the bag, how they are constructed and how the materials have changed over the years to truly authenticate well, especially given you can get some very carefully constructed fakes.

I was in a fortunate position when starting the buying and selling of our preowned designer handbags as we had a Clinic full of designer items from a wide range of brands spanning the decades. This was constantly replenished with new handbags coming in each week. I used to sit and research these bags all day long and had a team or Artisans on hand, who were experts in the way the bags were constructed. This meant I had a unique opportunity to build experience and knowledge before we even began purchasing bags direct from consumers.

We now have a full team of Buyers who are fully trained in authentication. Any one bag will be checked by at least three different sets of eyes before being placed online and instore. Whilst we have complete faith in each Buyer, it’s super important to have a robust process so that nothing gets missed. This dedication to authenticity is why customers choose The Handbag Clinic to authenticate items they have purchased via other reselling platforms. It’s why we are trusted by leading auction houses to authenticate their full catalogue before the big day and why our resale operation has been so successful.

Because we are the pioneers of handbag restoration, this has led to us working with some of the biggest brands in fashion. With sustainable fashion now firmly in the mainstream, we have seen a huge influx of luxury brands come to us directly to support them with repairs and cleaning services. This is huge progress towards a more collaborative industry.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all!  I was fortunate enough to have a mother who taught me to understand and appreciate that anything worth having, is worth grafting for. She worked super hard to support my brother and I, so we always grew up with strong values and a solid work ethic. We had to earn our own spending money doing chores around the house and I got into the habit of saving up for the things I wanted most. As a teenager I worked in a fashion retail store at the weekend, whilst studying for my GCSE’s. I also worked in the local Council’s waste and recycling department. I then went on to work for the NHS running a buying team that ensured healthcare sites were suitably stocked with pharmaceuticals and surgical supplies, such as artificial joints for knee replacements. But my true passion was always handbags. I’ve had a resale mindset since I was 16 years old – if I wanted something new, I’d sell on something else first. I guess it helped remove the guilt factor! It wasn’t until I met my husband, Ben, that our passions for handbags and restoration collided and I had the vision to set up The Handbag Clinic.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I think the biggest challenge has been encouraging people to wake up to and embrace the idea of sustainable fashion – especially luxury. When I started out in this industry, a decade ago, there was a stigma around second-hand and the preloved handbag market was confined to insiders within the fashion industry – this was still the case five years ago.  So, getting people to shift their mindset and to view restoration and resale as a cool and an exciting part of fashion has been a real journey. I remember living 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 their dream Chanel handbag. The change in conversation, 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 wider world has caught up.

Luxury brands were also reticent to get on board with the idea of restoration or resale, but we’ve seen a huge shift in the market in recent years. As early pioneers in the industry – we now have many luxury brands coming to us directly to enhance their circular offering.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I would say my personal biggest achievement is to have transformed the business from a small Clinic, repairing handbags with just two Artisans, to the fully circular, global platform it is today. We have customers who send their bags to our Clinic from all over the world so we can restore them to their former glory. From vintage family heirlooms people want to pass down through generations, to stylists, fashion editors, influencers and celebrities – they come to us to preserve or restore items before selling on, or to sell on gifted items they no longer use for others to enjoy. We repaired Claudia Schiffer’s Chanel handbag just last month…  It all seems pretty surreal for a girl running a business from Northeast England to have built a world-renowned brand.

The progressive strides we’ve made working with the luxury brands themselves has also been a real breakthrough. We work with some of fashion’s biggest luxury brands and they come to us as their trusted go-to aftercare service.

Our growth continues to accelerate too. Following an £800,000 investment last summer, we’ve achieved record growth within the last 12 months with 157% year-on-year growth, an 87% increase in handbag acquisitions, 73% uplift in restorations and over 4 million page views on our ecommerce platform.

Charlotte Staerck

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Put simply, we’re successful because we have developed a unique skill set and we’ve built upon that. We have an incredible team, who are just as passionate about the business as I am – they’ve grown with the business because we’ve created a strong culture that celebrates their work and their achievements.  I see it as a real responsibility and a huge honour developing the people who come and stay to develop their careers within our business. We work hard and have a lot fun along the way too.

I also think the uniqueness of our business model is a key factor. We’re the UK’s only fully circular offering to have ‘Buy, Sell, Restore, Authenticate’ all in one place. A seamless service for our community of conscious luxury connoisseurs and collectors.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I feel passionately that those who have achieved success have a tremendous responsibility to give back and open up the gates to future talent. I think a great example of this is our Operations Manager, Abby. Abby joined the business as a Customer Service Agent eight years ago and I personally worked very closely with her, guiding and mentoring her through each stage of her career journey and giving her the opportunities to calve out her own career path. We also have a number of team members who started with us at an entry level role and are now quickly moving up in the business. When we were a smaller operation, I tried to instil the idea that they could make their own future and path if they believed they had something that added value to the business. Because of that, some of our team felt empowered to create their own unique role, such as our Research and Development Artisan and our Commercial Portfolio Manager. 

I don’t think mentoring is a title you can be given – it’s earned. I treat all of our team members how I would have wished to be treated at their age. I always make time for them, whether it’s a personal or professional issue, as it all feeds into their wellbeing, performance and attitude towards work, which in turn affects the overall success of the business. I also give them consistent feedback and make sure they know the path they’re on and where the opportunities are.  Naturally, there are occasions where you need to deliver some hard truths but you then earn their respect which leads to more of a mentoring relationship.

The work we do is highly skilled, so we recruit many of our team at graduate level from fashion courses. Our Artisan training programme can last up to three years depending on natural skill and ability. During this time, they learn both class room-based modules such as colour theory and leather types. They also then work closely with a Senior Artisan, observing and learning before starting on simple tasks, items and colours and working their way up from there. Some Artisans then develop a specialty such as vachetta releasements, Hermes, exotic or colour changing. We really monitor and nurture our team’s strengths, which is how we ensure our outstanding and immaculate results.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

I think a great number of workplaces and business practices are built around a masculine culture. Because we are a 90% female workforce, we are shaping our working practices to support this. From the way we speak in the office – there is no “hushing” of women’s issues – to the way we support health and wellbeing, or even the way we express our passion for the business. During my early working life, I was often accused of being ‘too emotional’ simply because I would express my passion for what we do or become frustrated. Something that, if a male CEO were to do, would be interpreted as them being firm or a display of strength. I believe that our emotion is our superpower and shouldn’t be suppressed at work. It fosters creativity and it’s how, as a leader, I show empathy towards the team and get the best out of them. This is how I have built a team who truly and wholeheartedly believe in the brand vision and values – who work collaboratively to create something amazing every single day. Women have often been told that the way they approach business is wrong, simply because it’s not the way a man would operate. The best thing we can do, as women in this culture, is to embrace our female superpowers and diverse talents.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I think learning to see failures as a learning opportunity. Part of getting what you want is asking for feedback and acid testing your progress. So, it’s important to learn to love criticism and be prepared to be responsive. That doesn’t mean shifting direction every time someone says something negative, but understanding what is you do well and what needs improving on. It’s a case of getting up, trying again and learning from your mistakes. If you keep going, trust that it will all work out eventually.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

It’s been an incredible year and we are now focussed on our second investment round to drive our continued growth and expansion. We want to build our community and we’re set to launch a unique Loyalty Care Programme harnessing the circular nature of their customer’ journey by maximising the value they receive all year round. We are also launching a repair collection service with a new courier partner, offering free shipping labels, enabling even more customers to have their items repaired with us throughout the whole of Europe.  We’re carrying out further research and development work to create new services and expand our categories in the Clinic, including shoes and metal work.

As we continue to be approached by new luxury brands and major fashion players, we will be looking to cement these brand partnerships in the very bear future.

We’re constantly striving to innovate and we’re creating a bespoke tech solution that will support our fully circular operation and help our customers to be even more sustainable with their luxury items. This technology will also offer a unique solution for our luxury brand partners and their sustainability initiatives. We’re also looking to add AI and microscopic imagery to this software to support our highly skilled authenticators. With this new tech we intend to continue the triple digit growth we have seen over the last year and expand our marketplace. 

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