A royal biographical drama starring Dame Judi Dench, a star-studded Abba musical sequel and a children’s blockbuster about a marmalade-obsessed bear from Peru: what’s the missing link? All three A-lister films have featured props supplied by Fife-based Scaramanga.
From authentic Indian boxes, tins and leather journals in Victoria & Abdul, to blue-glass metal lanterns in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and antique brass padlocks in Paddington 2, the vintage and leather goods specialist has seen its products help to create an authentic backdrop for many a Hollywood star in recent years. Yet the online retailer, which has a warehouse and store in Cupar for customers to browse its range of bags and furniture, traces its beginnings to a leather satchel from the Indian desert. From a few mementos in a suitcase, it has since snowballed into a lifestyle business turning over £675,000 per year.
Founder and MD Carl Morenikeji started Scaramanga after coming across a number of vintage items, including a handmade leather shoulder bag, while travelling during a year out from an internet services role at BT. He says: “As I was travelling I just picked up little things that I liked and one of those was an old satchel that I’d bought in a bazaar near Jaisalmer, a little town at the edge of the desert in India, not far from the border with Pakistan.”
The plan for Scaramanga grew out of the interest that people showed in the items Morenikeji brought home to the UK, although he did not act on this until several years later. Faced with the prospect of commuting to work each day after a move from Edinburgh to Fife in 2006, he decided the time was right to push ahead with his business idea.
“We’d moved to rural Fife to enjoy the countryside and have a better lifestyle and I didn’t really want to go back to spending most of my time in the city. I thought the business was a goer so I took a few thousand pounds in savings out of the bank and booked a ticket to India and just visited the places that I’d visited as a tourist. I didn’t really know where to go to buy these products in bigger quantities, but you negotiate and you haggle with people and I just brought back what I could fit in my suitcase,” he says.
Morenikeji set up a website to sell the 12 satchels, some hand-bound leather journals and a couple of trinket boxes. He also tried to sell locally to shops in Fife and the Lothians. It took around four months to sell the first bag, but the business grew steadily and organically from there.
“It was probably about six months before I’d even sold half of that stock of the bags so it wasn’t quick to start with,” he says. “It was literally the case that I’d sell ten, then I’d buy 20 more; once I’d sold those, I’d buy 40. It just grew in that way. It was a real balance of trying to not oversell but to be confident that there was enough demand that I could place a bigger order.”
Morenikeji’s role at BT, managing services for e-customers as part of team of “internet evangelists”, had given him an insight into how e-commerce would affect business and retail as the internet evolved from its infancy. The firm’s subsequent success with props buyers seems fitting, as Scaramanga takes its name from James Bond’s nemesis portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Man With The Golden Gun. Morenikeji settled on the title because he wanted something recognisable and – crucially in the internet search-led world of today – something customers could spell.
“I’ve still got scribbles from the early days when I was thinking about what name I could give the business,” he says. “I thought we were going to be selling some old pieces of furniture but the bags are made new. I grew up in the 70s and I remembered the James Bond films and the name of one villain just stuck in my mind. And that was Scaramanga. It has that kind of retro feel from the 70s, it’s very memorable, easy to spell. I had others – but I won’t say what they are because now they just sound absolutely ludicrous!”
Scaramanga, which designs all of its own bags in Cupar, has grown to become a distinctive lifestyle brand, diversifying its offering to include luggage, furniture and leather accessories by adopting trends that complemented its existing ranges. The company plans to expand to include soft furnishings to accompany its furniture offering, and leather travel accessories for electronics, such as laptop bags. The move into film sets was not part of the initial business plan.
Morenikeji says: “We had a props buyer come to us who was working with Tim Burton on Dark Shadows. She called to ask if we had some 18th century travel trunks to be used in quite a key scene in the film.” As it happens, Morenikeji did not, but he did describe some suitable substitutes and later made the sale. The same buyer returned for business on subsequent films, and the work marched on from there.
“Because props buyers move around from film to film and work with different directors and different production units, I think when they do find someone they like they don’t necessarily keep it a secret. Within a handful of years, we were being contacted by props buyers maybe once or twice a month. It’s really exciting. Even though sometimes they’re only spending £20 with us and it’s a three-year gap between when they’ve ordered it and when the film comes out.”
The firm’s client list features some of the highest-profile films released in recent years, including locks for Bilbo’s house in The Hobbit, and more than 100 medieval-looking pieces for Disney’s Maleficent. But the secrecy surrounding a studio’s work means that there are times when Morenikeji is not privy to which films his goods will appear in, and when.
“Disney is one company that just doesn’t give anything away, but we’ve got some stuff coming up for them. We’ve managed to find out what one film is, but with one or two others they haven’t told us.” Nevertheless, Morenikeji is keeping quiet about the former, just to be safe.
As demand for Scaramanga’s products gathered momentum, Morenikeji has had to navigate the teething problems that came with scaling up, shifting supply from sole traders to larger suppliers, who were still flexible enough for what he needed.
“It was really hard because I didn’t know where to turn,” he says. “I’d gone from buying from a small town in the middle of the desert that I knew really well to having to go to Calcutta, thousands of miles away, a city I’d never visited before, but one that is renowned for its leather tanneries and skilled leather workers. So if I was going to go anywhere, it was there.”
Scaramanga, which employs 11 staff directly at Cupar, commissions all of its bags from a company in Calcutta which was established during the Second World War to make leather ammunition pouches and carrier belts for the British army in India. Morenikeji has no plans to move operations away from Fife but is hoping to launch an additional branch in London in future, possibly as part of a tie-up with another business.
“We do have a lot of our customers and props buyers in London, so in the future we may well set up a satellite office in London. I would feel more confident partnering with a business that’s complementary to ours to open up a shop; whether that’s a coffee shop, or another eating environment, where we can still sell our furniture and bags but there’s something else on offer to make it more of a leisure activity.”
It will continue to be a challenging environment for those businesses that operate just in stores, he says, but joining forces for a bricks and mortar venture, while still offering online orders, can drastically reduce costs and immediately broaden a target audience. The physical presence of a store is important, says Morenikeji, as shoppers should be able to see and touch what they are buying.
“I think customers still do like – particularly with old or vintage furniture – to feel it. Quite often it’s the only way of having a really good look at a piece of furniture which has real character – to get your hands on it, open up the drawers, give it a tap, really have a good look.
“So, I still see a place for shops, just maybe not in the most expensive part of the high street.”