Jovanka Novkovic Davies had the sort of job most women dream of. A job at the most famous department store in the world, in charge of some of the most luxurious and lusted-after products money can buy.
Yes, prepare to feel jealous ladies, Jovanka was Luxury Accessories and Handbag Collections Buyer for Harrods. Swoon.
However, the entrepreneur gave it all up three years ago to start her own business with husband Michael.
It was a huge risk, but one that paid off.
Their products are now sold in 11 countries around the globe in prestigious stores including Colette in Paris and Liberty, Browns and, of course, Harrods in London. They have featured in the pages of Vogue and Elle Decoration and the ink is drying on several other contracts with big-name retailers that will soon be announced.
And what makes it all the more special for the couple is that their Leather Love range is inspired by the history and heritage of Ironbridge, where they tied the knot on April 20, 2001.
The products – polishes and sprays that protect and nourish all things leather – are based on the designs and patterns found at Jackfield Tile Museum and the trinkets, toiletries and pill boxes at Blists Hill Victorian Town.
Born and raised in Telford, Jovanka studied at Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology before heading off for a fine art printmaking degree in Bradford. She then worked as a fashion buyer for House of Fraser before moving on to Harrods.
Meanwhile, Birmingham boy Michael lived in Edgbaston and Kings Norton before studying at Redditch School of Art and Design and then Kingston University. His career as a brand designer saw him work for The Body Shop, Fitch Design and Stuff International.
But with two such established and successful careers, what made them take the plunge and go it alone?
“We always had a dream to have our own collection and design something,” says Jovanka. “As our lives progressed and our careers progressed we wanted to do something different and on our own.
“I had worked in the fashion industry for 16 years and it really was time for something different so I made the decision to leave Harrods and work on something for myself. I was quite headstrong about it even though none of this had started at the time I left. But I wanted time out to make my next move and I never really doubted anything.
“Working within the industries we did we saw so many different products and we wanted to do something like that for ourselves. I started designing handbags at first and when I was in tannery looking at leather I came across this protective cream and that led to developing this.”
Michael, aged 43, picks up the story: “It was when we were in Italy and had got soaked in a rainstorm and Jovanka’s bag was drenched and went all hard. When we saw that cream in action it was a real lightbulb moment and we knew we could develop and fine-tune it.”
With an idea now firmly in place, it was time to develop the brand and packaging, which is where the beauty and history of Shropshire came in.
“We were always going back home to the Midlands and Ironbridge was one of our favourite places to visit,” says Jovanka, 43. “I’d been there loads on school trips as a child and it’s also the place where we got married, at the Valley Hotel. It’s a very special place for us and was ultimately the inspiration for our products.”
“We used to go to Blists Hill a lot because we love the old fish and chip shop there,” chuckles Michael. “Those battered chips in dripping had us coming back all the time!
“We love the old-school shops there: the style of the apothecary, the old dentist’s chair. They are part shop/part torture chamber and so inspiring.
“I also like that Victorian principle of really looking after your things. It’s more than just ‘make do and mend’ and it’s the exact opposite of today’s throwaway culture. The striking style and that approach was perfect for us and everything started to come together. The rest is history.”
The turnaround on the range has been impressive. Jovanka left Harrods in 2010 but the products were in the shops last year, when Michael also came on board full time.
But what’s it like being both husband and wife and business partners?
“It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it might be,” laughs Jovanka. “We have a lot in common and balance each other out. He has his strengths and I have mine. The only area we are really different in is interior designer, and even that’s not that different now.
“But we get on very well, which is remarkable seeing as it is just the two of us and we’re involved in every single thing. I thought there would have been more problems but it’s gone very well.”
“Jovanka is a Godsend,” adds Michael with a smile. “And hopefully she feels the same way about me.”
Don’t worry, she nods.
The couple, who now live in Kingston upon Thames, met on a night out clubbing in London in 1996 and clicked straight away.
“It was so nice to meet a girl from the West Midlands and who shared so many of the same interests as me. We had so much in common, we had both been to art and design school and we started courting pretty much straight away. It’s amazing how all of this has turned out.”
As Leather Love goes from strength to strength, more products are planned in the future for furniture, clothes and even yachts. Increasing distribution is the current priority and the pair have just introduced a shopping section on their website. They are also in talks with a number of other retailers across the globe, with a major UK store stocking the goods from next month. The details for that one have to stay under wraps for now though. Jovanka also has plans to release her own line of handbags in the future.
“We want to be the first stop people go to for leather care,” explains Michael. “We want to be a household name like Fairy Liquid. We’re both so determined to make this work and things have gone very well so far.”
“It’s wonderful as well that I still see so many of my former colleagues from the fashion world,” adds Jovanka. “I’m just on the other side of the table now, which is brilliant. I love it as it’s really familiar and easy.
“But what’s got us into shops like Harrods and Liberty is the fact that the packaging is so striking and that is down to our trips to Ironbridge Gorge Museum.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to the county that I still consider home.”
“I think a lot of this is meant to be,” he says. “I remember when I was younger, my mum and I took a coach trip to Ironbridge for a bit of local history. However, we never made it to the bridge and ended up having a picnic in a field nearby instead.
“I remember my mum saying ‘don’t tell your dad we didn’t see the bridge’ on the way back home.
“It’s funny, looking back now, that I went looking for that famous bridge all those years ago but ended up finding a new business and, above all, my wife.”
By Elizabeth Joyce
* Photos taken at Telford’s Hadley Park House Hotel by kind permission of the management