Anya Hindmarch may be one of the biggest names in fashion, but the designer still has her feet firm firmly on the ground. In this 2017 profile, she explained how her handbag designs are underscored with a very British sense of humour.
Award-winning designer, government advisor, CBE, UK trade ambassador, trustee of the Royal Academy and Design Museum, Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year, mother of five – the many accomplishments of Anya Hindmarch are largely unrivalled in the fashion world. Her bags have been worn by everyone from the Princess of Wales and Margaret Thatcher to Kate Moss and Gigi Hadid. The entrepreneurial spirit which saw her, aged 18, persuade Harpers & Queen magazine to feature a bag she had designed, and open her first store on Walton Street in Chelsea at just 19, still drives her today, as she celebrates three decades in an industry where longevity is perhaps the biggest achievement of all.
In person Hindmarch, 49, is open, friendly and, with her understated, casually elegant style, far less intimidating than many fashion stalwarts. She is fresh from another headline-grabbing show at London Fashion Week, the finale of which saw a disco ball rising from a house built in the middle of the catwalk in her homage to suburbia. Perhaps surprisingly for a handbag designer, Hindmarch’s show is always keenly awaited and attracts a stellar front row. She was, as she points out, “the first accessories designer to hold a runway show for handbags. It allows our customers to see what we’ve been thinking about for the past six months. It’s a little nuts but means we can bring the collection to life in a creative way.” The challenge of focussing on a relatively small accessory in a vast show space has resulted in spectacular, surprising sets, images from which subsequently flood Instagram. Hindmarch also creates a small ready-to-wear range, usually based on coats, to act as a foil to the bags. “We’ve had everything from models floating in the air – inspired by our ‘featherweight’ Ebury bag – through to a 100-piece male voice choir singing Pilgrim’s Chorus by Richard Wagner,” she explains. “For this autumn’s collection we had a huge, architectural mountainscape that took models and the audience on a journey through old Norse folklore.”
One of the earliest shows involved a mechanical, Heath Robinson-style contraption to display the bags. Finally, a curtain opened to reveal that the whole thing was driven by Hindmarch, pedalling vigorously on a bicycle, creating laughter as well as admiring applause. Humour is a key part of a business that, despite making more than £35 million in annual sales and boasts an expanding global store empire that currently stands at 45, never takes itself too seriously. “I think being British helps in that,” she says. “Humour is one of the things I love most about England. Humour, personalisation and craftsmanship are what we are most known for and sit at the heart of everything we do. Laughter is our lifeblood at our HQ, which I think comes through in the product. Laughter and cake,” she adds with a smile.
This attitude is apparent in many of Hindmarch’s iconic designs. Who else could have made a tote emblazoned with a Kellogg’s logo chic? Her Autumn/Winter 2014 collection did just that, turning everyday British household brands – John Lewis, Daz detergent and Rich Tea biscuits among them – into high fashion. The Autumn/Winter 2017 collection features cartoon eyes on everything from backpacks to wallets. Then there’s her leather sticker collection, created with super-stylist Charlotte Stockdale of Chaos, featuring fried eggs, smiley faces, alphabet letters and phrases like LOL and Ugh, with which customers can personalise the plain business totes she does so well. Prices start from just £45 and they have proved so popular that at the last official count (in 2015) they had netted some £15 million in revenue.
Perhaps the most famous design of them all is the handcrafted clutch bag modelled on a Walker’s crisp bag, which became an A-list favourite and achieved an unexpected notoriety when it got caught up in that elevator fight between Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, and Jay-Z. “Worth fighting for,” quipped Hindmarch at the time, putting that humour on display again. “Everything and anything inspires me,” she says today. “One collection was inspired by a toy I discovered in Narita airport in Tokyo. People inspire me, architecture, travel – and chocolate. I’m a big believer in feeding your brain. It is amazing how ideas bank and come to fruition later.”
A permanent source of inspiration has always been bespoke work. “It started with a trunk my husband has that was made for his grandfather,” she explains. “It is wider than usual because he had particularly large feet and his luggage had to accommodate his shoes. Hence that old trunk has a story, and every time we show it to someone the story gets told. More than anything else, this sense of a personal connection means luxury to me. That’s what led to our Bespoke business, where everything is dedicated to personalisation. Every item comes with the name of the person it was made for embossed into the leather, and customers can request pictures printed in silk inlaid into drawers, and messages written in their own handwriting stamped inside. Even the boxes the items are packaged in have the customer’s name rather than mine. We have a store in London devoted to it, and Bespoke floors in London, Tokyo, New York and LA flagships plus a Bespoke outpost in Bergdorf Goodman, which is a huge honour. It’s all about the person the pieces are made for. Our craftsmen’s on-site workshop helps to reconnect our customer with how things are made, creating something to treasure and pass down.”
The latest in the Bespoke range is Build a Bag, which launched earlier this year. The concept entails assembling the elements of a simple tote from a vast array of skins and colours. “People don’t want to be the same as everyone else,” Hindmarch says. “My friend would always add a charm tied on a ribbon to her father’s wristwatch. It makes it yours and turns a beautiful and seriously made piece into something light-hearted. I like this irreverent approach combined with absolute quality – the two attributes deliver more than the sum of their parts. With Build a Bag in store there is the bonus of instant gratification – you choose your base, pick handles, straps and charms, then take it home, which adds to the fun, I think.”
Craftsmanship is the touchstone of the business and the aspect of which Hindmarch is perhaps most proud. “I am obsessed with craftsmanship, it is part of our DNA,” she asserts. “The craftsmen are my heroes – I won’t compromise on quality so we work wherever they are, and with only the finest materials. Leathers are made especially for us in the world’s best tanneries, while exotic skins are hand-dyed in wonderful colours to fit our collections. Our bespoke Maud clutch is made entirely to order in England, from the satin embroidery to the crystal clasps. It’s a very beautiful thing.” Some items have a mix of sources, including British innovation. That crisp bag for instance, “is literally inspired by my love of giving everyday items a crafted, luxury treatment,” she explains. “We had the crisp packet 3D-scanned by a company in Sheffield, the first in the UK to start this process – they work mainly with the automotive industry. They use up to a hundred cameras on tripods to take 360-degree photos of the object at the same time. Then we cast the scanned models and worked with an amazing second-generation minaudière maker in Florence, who are masters of this craft. It is completely asymmetrical, very complicated and took many goes to get right – a real labour of love. But it is a perfect little clutch and actually a piece of art, really modern yet also a forever classic.”
Throughout her career, Hindmarch has shown an unnerving knack for capturing customers’ imaginations at the right moment. The £5 “I’m not a plastic bag” canvas shoppers in 2007 – for which customers queued around the block – anticipated the recyclable bag movement in a gently humorous, rather than preachy, way. Her “Be a Bag” initiative in 2001 printed customers’ own photographs on totes, foreshadowing the massive current demand for personalisation and even perhaps the selfie. What might be next? Hindmarch may seem unstoppable but every designer has to look to the future. When I ask if she has spotted any young British talent who might follow in her footsteps, her diplomacy kicks in. “I’m a huge supporter of British fashion,” she says. “Our cultural diversity and rich heritage are powerful influences, making British fashion innovative and unique. London Fashion Week sits confidently next to other fashion capitals and its creativity is something we can be truly proud of as Brits.”
Anya’s London Glossary
Best coffee: London Cabmen’s Shelters
London Cabmen’s Shelters are wonderful tiny green wooden huts that have been around since 1875 to serve tea to cabbies. Only 13 remain – there’s one near my Bespoke store on Pont Street. You order through a hatch.
Top shops: Lassco, V&A museum
Lassco has the most incredible range of curiosities. I have bought all sorts there, from reclaimed floorboards to taps. I love the V&A museum shop for children’s gifts and adore the historic men’s shops in St. James’s. lassco.co.uk, vam.ac.uk, stjameslondon.co.uk
Favourite restaurant: Petersham Nurseries, Brunswick House
Petersham Nurseries or Lassco’s restaurant, Brunswick House, which serves incredible locally sourced food. petershamnurseries.com, lassco.co.uk
Most loved museum or gallery: Design Museum, RoyalAcademy
The new Design Museum or the Royal Academy. I visit both as much as I can. designmuseum.org, royalacademy.org.uk
Ideal night out: Curzon Mayfair
The cinema feels like a real treat. My favourite is the Curzon Mayfair, the bonus being you can bring your glass of wine into the theatre with you. curzoncinemas.com
Images: Tom Jamieson/brands’ own.
A version of this feature was published in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Glossary.