It’s been a tough year for small businesses. Many have had to adapt fast as lockdowns were introduced, local restrictions came in and consumer demands changed. One of those businesses was royal glovemakers, Cornelia James.
As a brand that’s been making gloves for the Royal Family and customers since the 1940s they’ve had to continuously change with the market and trends. But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is their commitment to creating beautiful gloves using traditional methods.
We spoke to Freddie Lawson, Head of Product at Cornelia James, about how they’ve adapted as a business and the technology that has been helping them during the pandemic.
Tell us a bit about the business – when it was founded, and what you do?
We make gloves and were founded by my grandmother, Cornelia James, in 1946. Cornelia arrived in England as a refugee from Austria in 1939 fleeing the Nazis and was asked by British fashion designer Norman Hartnell to make gloves for the then Princess Elizabeth as a going away outfit after her wedding. This marked the beginning of a long association with the Royal Family, which continues today.
The majority of our business is selling gloves direct-to-consumers via our website across the world – the UK, US and Canada are our biggest markets.
How has the brand had to change and adapt over the years?
As a brand that’s been around since the 1940s – over 70 years – we’ve had to adapt constantly to make sure we’re keeping up with trends in the market. One of the biggest changes was pivoting to become an entirely direct-to-consumer business in 2012 to open up a broader customer base. This meant leaving behind our existing market of boutique retailers, which had become an increasingly complicated business to run.
What is unique about the Cornelia James brand?
We’re proud that almost all of our gloves are still manufactured by our small team at a workshop in East Sussex. Our expert glovemakers each take ownership of making a complete pair of gloves from start to finish. Working in this way means we can be much more agile than some of our competitors who buy-in finished products from abroad. We’re proud to make high quality products and are lucky to have some of the best customers across the world, including famous faces from the Royal Family to Beyonce and Madonna.
How has COVID-19 impacted the business this year and what changes did you need to make?
The first lockdown was very challenging. Many of our team started working from home, which is difficult when you are also a manufacturing business. At the same time we had strong demand for our cotton gloves so had to work out how to improve our output. We pivoted our spring/summer focus away from wedding gloves towards cotton ones. We were able to partner with HeiQ Materials of Zurich and build their breakthrough antimicrobial technology, HeiQ Viroblock, into our cotton.
How has technology helped the business to grow?
Technology has been critical to us this year. Having some of our glovemaking team working remotely made it essential to start tracking all of our inventory down to each individual glove. This would have been nearly impossible without smart technology like Airtable, which allowed us to build a production management system quickly that worked with other tools such as Shopify.
How has technology helped you manage finances?
Xero has been an extremely valuable tool for us throughout COVID-19, especially for the first half of the year when we were doing all our accounting in house. Xero’s close integration with other tools such as Shopify and its simple reconciliation process, gave us a close-to real time view on our profit and loss without generating much administrative overhead. We have since taken on a remote accountant and the transparency of the platform made it extremely easy for us to bring her up to speed on our bookkeeping and accounts.
What lessons would you say the business has learnt from trading through a global pandemic?
Demand can change in quite surprising ways. At the outset of the pandemic, we were worried about our wedding market collapsing and it wasn’t easy to predict the surge in demand for other products like cotton gloves. We want to continue building on the work we’ve done this year to quickly adapt to emerging trends.