Why Anya is the Queen of Handbags
A chance find on a trip to Italy as a teenager inspired Anya Hindmarch to set up her luxury brand. Katrina Israel meets the Thatcher-loving global success story
Ask most men what sunny-side eggs and road signs have in common and they might hazard that you are envisaging a mid-morning break for some workmen. Ask the same question of a fashion-savvy woman and she will say, "Anya Hindmarch". Hindmarch's emoji-inspired accessories have become the happy hit that keeps on giving for the leading UK luxury brand, which is about to celebrate its 30th birthday.
In 1986, Hindmarch was 18 and in Florence to learn Italian, when she fell so hard for a leather drawstring duffel bag that she decided to try and sell it in the UK. Three decades on, her company employs more than 300 staff with 46 stores globally, while her bags sell for up to £12,000 a piece.
Yet the Thatcherite, who was awarded an MBE in 2009 and appointed a UK trade ambassador in 2011, is not one to rest on her laurels. The recent London Fashion Week show of her Spring/Summer 2017 Circulus collection quite literally raised the roof, thanks to some pretty spectacular hydraulics. Now 48, Hindmarch seems determined to continue leading an often staid sector in a merry dance.
"I think it's who I am, honestly," she says of such tongue-in-cheek arm candy as a crisp-packet minaudiere or a cereal box-inspired snakeskin clutch. "Luxury is about life enhancing - things that make you feel better about yourself."
While her snappy slogans and motifs may have initially been passed off as a marketing gimmick, they are now trademarks of her alternative offering. "Fashion is an important industry, but it's not saving lives," Hindmarch says. "It's a beautiful add-on: it should make you happy."
We are sitting at a meeting table in her light-filled office in the former stables of Battersea's old Plough Brewery. Around us are playful memorabilia and props from past collections: fashion flakes boxes line her shelves, while a giant orange pencil from an old window display now moonlights as a lamp. "I love doing things that are everyday in a really beautiful, luxurious way," the designer explains, sipping a cup of tea. "There's something quite comforting about the everyday."
Perhaps as a response to being surrounded by so much exuberance, Hindmarch's own look is low-fuss. She has teamed a crisp white Jil Sander shirt with a boxy navy jacket, which she designed herself, and tailored trousers. Her long blonde hair is pulled back into a low ponytail and her nails are painted classic rouge noir.
"I'd rather dress quite simply, then have joy in these pieces," she says, motioning towards her Vere satchel with a fluffy tennis ball dangling from it. "I like that I can have a really beautiful precious thing, but shove a sticker on it or hang something off it (and) that makes it a bit of a laugh."
Laughter aside, Hindmarch has built a serious British success story through her savvy combination of high-end, hand-crafted leather goods and novelty gateway purchases. Today, she's anxious to point out that the brand has always done tassels - bag charms and changeable straps have recently become a cash cow for the luxury market. "I'm a great believer in high-low," she says of her graphic collections that cover a sweep of price points.
Astoundingly, embossed leather stickers that start at £35 have been an unexpected commercial triumph. Inspired by her 1970s school notebooks ("Those were the emoticons of their day," she says of the way children expressed their personalties) the now cult items, designed in collaboration with Charlotte Stockdale and Katie Lyall's creative consultancy Chaos Fashion, offer "an entry price in the way a lipstick is to a beauty brand". In 2015 sticker sales were reported at £12m. "I've always loved personalisation," Hindmarch says, having introduced a bespoke service in 2009. "That's the ultimate luxury."
The one luxury that currently eludes Hindmarch is time. Over the past month, she has opened a shop-in store at Harvey Nichols in London as well as in Riyadh, Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul, and a standalone boutique in Los Angeles. But she's got a better work-life balance than a few years ago. In May 2011, so she could focus on design, Hindmarch hired as CEO James McArthur, a former boss at Balenciaga and Harrods, and appointed herself chief creative officer and company chair. "There's a point where you actually have to grow up a bit," she says. "It's like you've got this nice piece of real estate, but actually have the possibility of building a bigger property on it."
In 2012, the sovereign Qatari investment fund Mayhoola, which also owns Valentino and Balmain, bought a reported 38.8% stake for around £27m. Then, in 2014, Mayhoola reportedly purchased another 21.2% for £24.2m. Last year, LVMH veteran Helen Wright joined from Karl Lagerfeld, succeeding McArthur. In hindsight should she have made the switch sooner? "Yeah," Hindmarch pauses and then adds, "In a way, I wanted to get it to a certain stage, but creatively it's right that I've gone back to that role."
Hindmarch clearly always had chutzpah. She had only recently left school when she spotted that bag in Florence, then persuaded Harpers & Queen to feature it as a readers' offer. She sold 500 and set up the company with the £7,000 profits. As her friends went off to university, the young entrepreneur set up shop from her (often lonely) kitchen table. After initial success selling to US department stores, she opened her first retail space on Walton Street at 24. Princess Diana became a customer. At 25 she met financier James Seymour, a widower with three young children. They married and added two more to the brood. In 2000 Seymour joined the brand from Jigsaw to oversee things while Hindmarch was having their youngest child, Otto, who is now 13. Seymour remains the company's financial director (entrepreneurship clearly runs in Hindmarch's family: her father established a successful plastics company at 18, and her elder sister, Nicole, founded the Wedding List Company).
Hindmarch is a vociferous Thatcherite (there's a framed letter from her inspiration, congratulating her on her MBE) and has publicly rallied support for the Conservatives. She's also been involved with awareness-raising initiatives such as her eco-friendly, £5 I'm NOT A Plastic Bag! totes and social enterprises like the Stitch in Time scheme, whereby female inmates at Surrey's Bronzefield Prison were contracted to sew protective dust bags.
The coalition government appointed her UK Trade Ambassador in 2011, and her former right-hand woman, Isabel Spearman, went on to become Samantha Cameron's Spad. But while she has never shied away from politics - she made headlines in 2013 with her testimony to the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that "maternity laws will cripple this country" - she is wary of speaking directly about Brexit.
She remains upbeat about exports despite the referendum. "I'm excited about what's going on," she says. "There are challenges around exchange rates, but if your product is good, you'll sell." She is also a trustee of the Royal Academy of Arts and London's new Design Museum. "I think creative interests globally are headquartered here," she says.
This season, her SS17 show's spiralling amphitheatre set and neoprene-coated models pushed her into another fashion league. Afterwards, awestruck editors and FROW regulars ran backstage to get their hands on her new leather-worked sling-backs, emoji fur slides and compartmentalised Stack bag.
Commercial success aside, Hindmarch remains at the heart of the UK fashion community. "I am blessed to have her as a friend, and if you are not yet on BFF terms with Anya the woman, then the next best thing is having one of her highly identifiable pieces from her collection," enthuses Dame Natalie Massenet, chairman of the British Fashion Council and founder of Net-a-Porter. "I have an oversized leather happy-face sticker on my laptop, which goes everywhere with me. And my days are better because of it."
Hindmarch has just been nominated for the 2016 British Fashion Awards' International Accessories Designer, but the next big note in her calendar is her looming anniversary. "Just terrifying!" she says. "That's why I have the word 'scary' framed on my wall; I've learned that to be scared is the same as being excited. You have to challenge yourself to do your best creative work. The moment you feel comfortable, it kind of goes wrong."