Almost 75 years ago, an Austrian refugee called Cornelia James set up a business to make and sell gloves in Britain. Building on what she had learned at the College of Art in Vienna, she stitched each pair from the coloured leather she had packed into the one suitcase she’d taken, when she fled the city. Today, Cornelia James gloves are esteemed and sold all over the world.
“When it comes to starting and running a business, the main thing is to be adaptable,” says Cornelia’s son-in-law, Andrew Lawson, managing director. “You must have a plan but the plan must allow for flexibility and change. It’s also important to have a sympathetic bank behind you and a passion for what you’re doing. If your heart’s not in it, you’re never going to hack it.”
The Cornelia James glove making business has banked with Starling since 2019. Here, we share the story of how the business began and how it adapted to become the brand it is now.
From refugee to entrepreneur
“Cornelia was a real force of nature,” says Andrew, 69. “She was born in Vienna and her family was Jewish, which meant that she had to leave smartly in 1939. She spent the war years organising craft therapy for injured servicemen and set up her business in 1946. When she started, gloves were more of a commodity than the luxury they are now. Almost everybody would put on a pair of gloves to go outside, even to buy a pint of milk.”
For post-war Britain, Cornelia James’ gloves were the perfect accessory. Rationing had restricted what people could find or afford but many were eager to brighten their outfits with a splash of colour; coloured leather gloves fitted the bill.
“She was very artistic but she could also spot a business opportunity,” he says. “Throughout the fifties, she had a thriving business.”
Fit for royalty
Just one year into running her business, Cornelia caught the attention of designer Norman Hartnell. When he was invited to design the wedding gown and pre-honeymoon ‘going away’ dress for Princess Elizabeth, he turned to Cornelia to provide the gloves to complete her outfit.
In 1978, Cornelia was granted a Royal Warrant, a mark of excellence and testimony to the designer’s long-standing relationship with the royal household. Princess Anne, Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge have all been known to wear Cornelia James gloves.