Why Anya Hindmarch is Britain’s number one bag lady
Today is the first day of London fashion week. But for many of those working in the fashion industry, as well as thousands of female customers, the twice-yearly celebration of British fashion won’t reach its climax until Tuesday, when one of the most anticipated shows of the season will take place – the one by handbag designer Anya Hindmarch.
As many women know, the handbag isn’t just a fashion accessory to carry your essential items – it can also be a shield, a weapon or something to dance around. In his play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde even created a character discovered as a baby in a handbag. So it’s a cultural colossus – and big business. And right now there’s no doubt that Anya Hindmarch is Britain’s number one bag lady.
The Anya Hindmarch brand now has 54 stores in seven countries around the world – and celebrity fans including the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Moss and Angelina Jolie. I went to meet the designer in her studio in south London to ask why she chose the handbag as the right form for the expression of her creative ideas.
“I love handbags,” she told me without hesitation. “There’s like a straightjacket. It’s got to work, it’s got to close, you’ve got to hold it, there’s a whole load of rules which are quite specific. And I like working within those rules. Also for me it’s the thing that’s the most mood-altering. When I wear a great bag it makes me feel the best.”
Hindmarch still has clear memories of her very first handbag – the one that inspired her to pursue a career in fashion. ”I was 16 when I had my first leather handbag and I remember it made me feel really great. And it was that feeling, that first handbag, that made me want to design handbags. Then I knew exactly what I wanted to do from that age onwards, and that’s so lucky because you can go straight for it.”
‘It has to be about history’
Scattered around her studio are press cuttings, photographs and maps, all of which have provided inspiration for her designs. But there’s one thing that inspires her above all else.
“For me it has to be about history,” she told me. “I’m mad about architecture – so, for example, taking some of these beautiful deco references and making them into lovely shapes that are then like handbags that are like cigarette boxes actually. This one’s got an old map of London. So it’s taking the history of London and the architecture.
“But also, for me, I think things have to make you smile. I love this upholstered tassle made out of leather which takes a whole day to make. It’s a really beautiful and clever thing to make actually, really complicated. And there’s this lovely old cartoon. So it’s just things that make you smile, things that kind of make life slightly better.”
As you might expect, Hindmarch begins each design with a sketch, before going on to create a paper model, a sample and a prototype. But then most of her manufacturing happens abroad – despite the fact that she serves as one of David Cameron‘s UK business ambassadors. British fashion was recently estimated to contribute £21bn a year to the economy, but only a small fraction of manufacturing is done here.
“It would be wonderful to think that you could manufacture everything in the UK, and it’s always been my dream slightly,” Hindmarch told me. “We do, and always have done, a tiny bit of manufacturing here. It’s hard though, really, to scale it; the handbag industry rather died in the 50s so there’s not the supporting trades and the infrastructure.
“Also I think that because of our minimum working wage, it makes it difficult to compete. It’s quite expensive to manufacture in the UK. There are also some brilliant craftsmen but few and far between – most of them, sadly, have moved out of the industry. But I think, frankly, as long as we’re invoicing from here, if the design is done from here, the businesses are based here, then we should be less hung up on that.”
Customers clearly aren’t hung up on it. Throughout the economic slump, the Anya Hindmarch brand has grown – despite a price tag of up to £2,000 per bag. I couldn’t resist asking how she felt about the fact that the majority of British women can’t afford to buy her bags. Does the elitism of her product bother her at all?
“No,” she replied, “because I think it’s each to their own. What my company does is, it actually also employs people, and we’ve got hundreds of people we employ and lots of shops over the world. So it’s a nice thing and it’s not hurting anyone. And it’s up to people what they want to spend their hard-earned money on. That’s life, isn’t it?
“So it’s absolutely fine, I don’t have a problem with it at all… I think that anyway beautiful things inspire all sorts of other things. You can go off and have fun making something and it just inspires generally. Elitism is OK too, I think.”
Anya Hindmarch will show her latest collection at London fashion week on Tuesday, although she wouldn’t give me any hints as to what we can expect. Of course, the general public aren’t invited to the show. But her designs are usually copied and end up on the high street within months – for those who can’t quite afford an original.
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