Natalie Keeler meets Jem + Bea’s founders Dominique Hughes and Rebecca Da Silva Lima to talk friendship, fashion and finding a work-life balance
They say you should never mix business with pleasure, but for Dominique Hughes and Rebecca Da Silva Lima, founders of hugely successful luxury accessories brand Jem + Bea, it’s proved to be a winning combination.
The two women have been friends for almost 20 years after meeting at secondary school, but even after two decades, two wildly different careers and a combined five children, it seems little in their relationship has changed.
“We spend a lot of time together,” Dominique smiles. “And the good part is that we have to travel a lot together to trade fairs and for research, and we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. I think it also helps that we have the same joie de vivre about us.”
“But we both have our own working style, as we’ve each come from different industries,” adds Rebecca.
“I can see how people compare having a business together to being married, as it takes work and pragmatism to stay on the right path. I even call Dom my ‘work wife’!”
The friends launched Jem + Bea back in 2015, when – after both becoming parents – they noticed a gap in the market for changing bags that were stylish as well as practical.
“I’d had the idea for some years,” explains Dominique. “When the opportunity came my way to fund a very small start-up, I spoke to Rebecca about helping me design pieces. After a few meetings, she put in some capital and we became business partners.”
They set about creating the now revolutionary Jemima: the ultimate luxury leather changing bag that became the centrepiece of their first collection.
“It was the first design I drew and we’re really proud of it,” says Rebecca. “We made several prototypes to ensure it was what we and other mothers would want. It now comes in three colours which are all very popular, but the black seems to be the perennial favourite.”
Since then, Jem + Bea has added denim backpacks, bowling bags, sports-chic carriers and durable lightweight totes to their now expansive repertoire, fulfilling all the needs of a customer base they clearly know inside out.
“With five children (Rebecca has two daughters, and Dominique has two daughters and a son), and having been through several parent products between us, I would say we’re well equipped to know what is required from a changing bag,” explains Dominique.
“Our products are designed for use beyond baby years, so I use my changing mat pocket for my laptop and the nappy pocket for make-up. I’ve never had such an organised bag!”
And what about the design process? Are there ever times they don’t see eye-to-eye?
“We naturally have the odd disagreement,” says Rebecca. “But we know that to make the business work it’s okay to have differing opinions: we have different tastes, too.”
“It leads to a healthy debate about what may or may not work. In the end, we find a balance and make sure the product ticks all the boxes.”
With previous experience at Anya Hindmarch, Burberry and All Saints, as well as Mulberry, where she worked as an accessories designer for almost four years, Rebecca certainly knows all there is to know about creating stylish bags.
However, with almost total autonomy over the creative side of the business, Jem + Bea has certainly proved to be a very different challenge.
“It’s still as fun and creative as when I was working for bigger brands,” says Rebecca. “But these days I can be even more spontaneous. Inspiration comes from all over, and we often go to Paris to get ideas for new materials and colours. It’s a lot more flexible creatively.”
Being in charge of your own working day offers its own kind of flexibility, too – as Dominique, previously a lawyer, knows only too well.
“I have three children under the age of eight and I’m a single mother. So, another reason to start up a business was that I couldn’t do what I was doing before. The long hours made it hard for me to be there for my children, who are the most important thing.”
She now works on growing the business and managing relationships with its stockists, the likes of which include John Lewis, Selfridges and Alex and Alexa.
“We have great relationships with all our stockists, which is so important for a small business,” says Dominique.
“It’s important to take our time, and we find that a call rather than an email is the best way to iron out negotiations. We work closely with all of them ahead of a new season, too, and always listen to any advice they can give from their side.”
It was securing deals with such large retailers that saw the brand’s popularity skyrocket, earning them celebrity fans such as Chloe Delevingne, Cat Deeley, Kim Sears, and One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, who bought his partner a Jemima after their son’s birth.
The last three years have certainly been quite a whirlwind for the pair – not to mention the fact Rebecca has also since had another child, Margot, who is now 19 months – but they’re still clearly loving every minute.
“We’ve learned so much – in fact, just about everything to do with running a business!” says Dominique. “It’s been a real learning curve, from getting to grips with wholesale and retail costings and logistics to PR and marketing.”
Do they ever have time for themselves? “When it’s your own business, it’s difficult to stop work seeping into family life. It’s full-on, but we’ve instigated a ‘no phones in bed’ rule that stops us working all hours,” adds Rebecca.
“It’s also important to keep your social life going so life doesn’t just become a loop of school runs and work. Dom and I spend time at each other’s houses rather than getting babysitters and meeting out. And I take time out for me when I can – but as any parent knows that this isn’t as easy as it sounds!”
So what’s next? The founders seem content to keep business ticking along at a steady pace.
“We’re both still working from home – perhaps we’ll get a dedicated studio if we employ more staff, but at the moment I’m not sure we’d make enough use of it, as we work so flexibly,” says Dominique.
“In terms of products, we’re launching five new bags this autumn, including our range of backpacks, which we hope customers will love. We’re also working on lots of exciting releases for 2019. Watch this space!”
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