How stars of The Only Way Is Essex helped turn Claire Barratt's bags into must-have accessories
When Hull mum Claire Barratt started designing her own bags she could never have imagined they would soon be spotted on the arms of countless celebrities. She tells Laura Greendale about her whirlwind success.
It was one tweet that changed Claire Barratt's life. Logging on to her computer one morning, only a few weeks after she started using social networking site Twitter, the 32-year-old from Kingswood found a message from The Only Way Is Essex (Towie) star Chloe Sims.
"I didn't have a clue who she was," laughs Claire, whose personalised ClaireaBella jute bags have become a celebrity must-have item.
"When I saw she had 30,000 followers, I realised she must be well known.
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"I texted my friends and asked if they knew who she was."
Chloe had contacted Claire to ask if she could make personalised ClaireaBella bags for her and co-star Sam Faiers.
The quirky, cute bags feature a caricature of their owner, complete with wide eyes, a big chest and lovely long eyelashes – complete with their name on.
Claire was happy to oblige, but little did she realise that Chloe and Sam would be responsible for making ClaireaBella an overnight sensation.
"On April 27 last year, Chloe texted me in the morning saying: 'Babe, go out and buy a Daily Star'," said Claire.
"And there was one of my bags featured in their co-star Amy Childs' column.
"All the girls from The Only Way Is Essex had my bags and had been tweeting about how much they loved them and uploading lots of pictures.
"Last summer, they were pictured everywhere with them – even on their holidays in Marbella, Las Vegas and Dubai."
As Towie fever has swept the nation, fans of the show have wanted to emulate their image.
Sales of false eyelashes, fake tan and even the famous vajazzles have soared – and Claire's bags were no exception.
What started out as a one-off attempt to create an unusual bag for Claire's personal use has turned into an impressive business venture.
"It all started when I went to get my nails done," said Claire, who lives with her husband, Jon. The couple have five children between them – Tom, 13, Bailey, 8, Ellie, 8, Amelia, 6, and Charlotte, 6.
"I was sitting in the salon when I spotted a children's canvas bag with sheep on. I didn't think too much of it, but it stuck in my mind.
"Then, in October 2010, I thought about drawing a caricature on a canvas bag. In the kids' playroom, we have a pencil caricature drawing on the wall from mine and Jon's first date, which was in Paris. I liked my eyes on the picture, so took inspiration from that.
"Jon and I had married in the August, so we didn't have much money at that time. I literally had £30 in the bank and used it to buy a few little pots of paint and some jute bags."
Apart from making a few scrapbooks as a child, Claire had no experience, but was quite pleased with the result.
Jon was impressed and suggested she make some more to sell, but Claire laughed it off.
"A friend I used to work with, Susie, is brutally honest, so I thought I would show her to see what she thought," said Claire.
"She loved them and dragged me to the canteen to show the staff there, that's where I got my first two orders."
Through word-of-mouth via family and friends, the orders started to roll in. People would simply put forward details such as their eye colour, hairstyle and colour, and their name.
Claire was delighted with the response and the money she was getting from selling the bags at £15 a time was even better, as it meant she could save up for a family holiday.
"I bought a breakable money box and put any money I made from the bags in there," said Claire, who started promoting the bags on Facebook.
"In January last year, Jon and I booked week's holiday in Greece in August. We just put down the deposit, as I still wasn't sure how the bags would be received."
In the February, Jon set up a website for ClaireaBella and in early March, Claire started tweeting about the bags, directing her followers to the new website.
With fantastic feedback and a steady flow of orders coming through from women in their late teens to mid-40s Claire was happy with her little venture.
However, when the bags caught the attention of Chloe Sims and the Towie crew and were thrust into the media glare, demand went crazy.
"It just snowballed," said Claire. "My Twitter followers went up and I was getting so many requests. One day, I got 50 orders. Jon found me curled up at the bottom of the stairs in tears. I was panicking that I couldn't get them all done."
In June, Jon got in touch with personalised gift company ToxicFox to inquire about producing hoodies and T-shirts, as jute bags couldn't be printed on.
The company agreed to start doing them and later, it branched out to mugs, printed canvas bags, lunchboxes, phone cases and candles.
Just a few months ago, Claire teamed up with ToxicFox to train a team of artists to carry out her designs and launch a "classics" range on the jute bags, so she can cope with demand.
It has been less than a year since Chloe Sims first tweeted about ClaireaBella and now, Claire's bags can be seen on the arms of all sorts of celebrities – from Desperate Scousewives and Coronation Street stars to comedian Russell Kane and model Katie Price.
"We're even getting orders from reality TV stars in the US," says Claire, who has just finished packaging up a bag for Towie's Lauren Goodger.
"Our mobile phone pouches have been released and iPad, laptop cases, hard phone cases and personalised cards are to be launched soon, so we are really busy."
For Claire, the past year has been a whirlwind of emotions. She has found herself enjoying glasses of champagne, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous at Essex Polo, but there have been times when she has just sat and sobbed due to the sheer pressure.
When times get hard, she just thinks of her children and the little money box she bought to spur her on.
"My eldest son's dad passed away when Tom was just eight months old – I was only 20 and he was 24," said Claire.
"We always strived to give Tom the best upbringing. I found myself going from being a full-time mum with a baby, to a single mum looking for a job to provide for him.
"We were living in a one-bedroom council flat when Tom's dad died and I thought to myself that no matter what, I would build a better life for him.
"Through ClaireaBella, I can now afford to take the children out for tea when I like and pay for their hobbies.
"Jon and the children are incredibly proud of me and what I have achieved, which is what matters most to me."