Hey Charlotte! I’ve been completely blown away by your exceptionally inspiring story, but first things first- for those that haven’t heard of you, and your gorgeous bags- can you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello! My name is Charlotte, I’m 21 years old and I run an accessories business (currently handbags) as well as a food, lifestyle and beauty blog under the name Charlotte Elizabeth (taken from my wonderful Grandmother’s forename). I am in recovery from becoming paralysed in June 2014 which followed from undergoing heart surgery in 2012. I suffer from two illnesses which I now know as Postural orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS) and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) – and am in the process of turning my negative into a positive!
At 16 you began your beautiful bag brand, Charlotte Elizabeth, following a heart operation which meant you had to leave school – what inspired you to begin the brand?
I was lucky able to just complete my GCSE’s when I found out that I needed a heart operation to correct an extra pathway in my heart which caused sudden arrhythmias (SVT). After the operation, I found it hard to resume normality both mentally and physically, which meant that more common options of pursuing full-time education were out of the picture. I did try to persist in working in retail roles as well as event management when I had a few months relief from being housebound, but nothing ever felt totally ‘right’ for me nor my underlying health issues. I began to deteriorate just as I had began to establish a career in events and was unable to leave bed due to flu-like symptoms for almost a year prior to paralyses. During this time I thought up a mass of ideas of what I could do to accommodate to my physical health, and one idea was fuelled by the want of a classic everyday handbag which me nor my two older sisters had found yet. It was then that an image flashed in my mind of what my ultimate everyday handbag would be, and that was the beginning of what I now call Charlotte Elizabeth.
Starting a business is a complete challenge as is, but juggling that with a severe disabling illness is something else, and so hugely admirable. How did everything begin, and how did you start learning about the design process?
It all developed very organically. I went to The Prince’s Trust with a bundle of vague ideas of a businesses that I felt I could pursue, but my handbags always stood out a mile above the rest. I spent four days on The Enterprise Course, which teaches you how to start and run a business in all aspects – and this is really where I began to believe that I could create a product from a simple idea. Having no training or education among the field of design or fashion, it was a risk for me to devote my career to something I had no experience in, yet I had a very clear image of what I wanted my debut handbag to be, which was locked at the forefront of my mind throughout the development.
The very first sketch was created a few months on from the course, when I was re-teaching myself how to use my hands after paralysis. Though I couldn’t persist in my idea at the time due to my physical state, I would take any spell of energy into re-working on that initial sketch and eventually that led me onto a fully functioning prototype which I was exceptionally happy with. I think that’s partly what makes The Bloomsbury so special to me, because it was created at rock bottom and it has been with me to guide me out.
What gave you the determination to push your business, and creating your bags through everything?
When I became paralysed I lost everything I knew to be my life within a second. I was left with a body that could physically no longer sit up, stand, hold my own cup, or even lift a finger – and at one point I even lost my smile. Among becoming completely swept of physical ability, I began to loose many memories as well as my own voice – all while trying to convince doctors that something more was going on than what they believed to be “a little bit of anxiety”. There was a point where I hit rock bottom, fuelled by a doctors disbelief in me, that I came very close to ending my life – but due to my physical state I was unable to. From hitting rock bottom, I began to see life as something that I would make the most of, despite the absolute pain and uncertainty of what I was suffering from.
And so I believed in two things – firstly, that I would get a doctor to believe that I was in fact very unwell – and secondly, I would build a business from my bed. I knew that Charlotte Elizabeth was very significant, as through my worst moments I would dream of that final prototype of The Bloomsbury, like it was the light shining at the end of a very dark tunnel. I wanted to be able say to myself that I had followed my dreams despite living through my worst fears – and that in itself leaves me feeling immensely peaceful in a tumultuous time.
I’ve always been interested in how everyday items have evolved due to practicality, fashion and function – particularly in the past 100 years. Handbags, like cars, are still fairly basic in how developed they are in terms of the core design and function, and I suppose I wanted to play on that simplistic element of design, making it classic yet modern.
I was always keen to implement curves into the bag such as the scooped front flap and curved bottom sides. For me, the handle was probably the most important part of the bag to get right, as I wanted my customers to be able to use The Bloomsbury as an experience, where they would be able to hold it by their hand or placed delicately on their arm – something which I feel we are loosing in my generation due to the popularity of a fast paced lifestyle.
Your sheer determination, talent and passion have gotten you to where you are despite the hurdles, which can be immensely disheartening- do you have any advice to girls in a similar position wanting to pursue dream careers?
We all face obstacles in our lives on varying levels, but I believe that there is always a way around everything of which we are challenged with. Being physically or mentally unwell limits you in many ways, but if you have a dream then I would give your absolute all into making it a reality dispute the challenge involved. I have pushed myself more than I ever have to launch Charlotte Elizabeth, which has understandably affected my health at more times than not – and yet I feel that it has given me more purpose than I’ve felt before. Taking that first step will be one of the biggest hurdles you’re ever faced with, but the benefits of pursuing a dream will by far out-do the obstacles involved.
Simply by talking about it openly to those around me. I felt a need to hide the extent of how unwell I was for a good while, as I was terrified that I wouldn’t still be the same ‘Charlotte’ that everyone knew and loved. By simply not worrying about the negative part of what others may think of my disability, but instead using that energy onto raising some vital awareness, I hope that I have helped at least one person in knowing that there is nothing to be ashamed about in being unwell.
PoTS and ME are two devastating diagnosis’s to receive due to how unknown, misunderstood or disbelieved they are, but I am determined to devote my life to improving our awareness of them as well as supporting the advancement of services, treatment and management involved in living with them so that no one will suffer as devastatingly as I did.
You’ve already had an incredible journey and come so, so far- and I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner- what’s next for Charlotte Elizabeth?
The skies the limit! I would love to develop the range of Bloomsbury’s as well as launching some new products that I’m currently working on within the next few months, along with establishing my blog.
When I’m physically more able I want to devote a lot of my time to helping others; from funding incredible charities who are researching into the illnesses that I have, doing motivational speaking across schools, working closely with The Prince’s Trust in supporting Britain’s disadvantaged young people as well as establishing my own program that supports otherwise neglected members of society to rebuild themselves back into the workplace (such as chronic illness sufferers or post-trauma victims).
The Queen (obviously!) – for devoting her life to our country with an unimaginable amount of responsibilities and keeping impeccably dressed while doing so.
J.K Rowling – for producing a world that I could escape to (and still do!), during my darkest moments, all while she was a single mother on benefit. The amount of people who are affected by her going after her dream is simply incredible.
Ella Woodward (of Deliciously Ella) – Ella is an incredible lady who was very unwell with PoTS just a few years ago, yet is now leading a much more fulfilled life and building an empire along the way!