HER bags are coveted by everyone from Alexa Chung to Margaret Thatcher, but as Anya Hindmarch opens a new outlet in Scotland, she reveals she’s really an Essex girl at heart
A nya Hindmarch has just threatened to kill me. Not because I’ve taken issue with her Conservative Party fundraising and championing of Thatcherism, slagged off her gal pal Sam Cam, staged a smash and grab at her new outlet in Edinburgh’s Harvey Nichols or had the impertinence to ask whether the world needs yet another handbag. No, the vision of loveliness – all cascades of long blonde hair and perfect orthodontistry – is threatening violence over this week’s London Fashion Week show.
“No, no, I can’t tell you anything about it. Not a word. But it’s the most bizarre, ridiculous, ambitious, humorous and nuts thing we’ve ever done.”
In the world of LFW where the drama, theatrics and ‘nuts things’ are off the scale, this is no mean boast. Can she give us a hint?
“If I did, I’d definitely have to kill you.”
Such is the secrecy that surrounds the showcasing of Hindmarch’s latest collection that not a word of what she has up her Stella McCartney-clad sleeve can be leaked before the event or it’ll be handbags at dawn. High-end accessories are not just arm candy, they’re a serious business and this queen of leather goods, who has 54 shops worldwide and an annual turnover said to be well in excess of £20 million, knows what she’s doing.
A very British success story, the 44-year-old accessories queen is on the Downing Street invite list, a design consultant for British Airways and a trustee of both the Royal Academy and the Design Museum. She has a Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award, two British Fashion Awards, gongs from Glamour and Elle magazines and a letter congratulating her on her MBE from Margaret Thatcher on display at the converted stables in Battersea that is Hindmarch HQ. Her handbags are perennially popular with celebs – witness the £500 tote handed out in the Bafta goodie bags last weekend – and the likes of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie are all fans. The establishment has a hankering for Hindmarch too – Princess Diana was a customer, calling the Hindmarch clutch she used to shield her embonpoint from the paparazzi her “cleavage bag” while the aforementioned Lady Thatcher employed them in her ‘handbaggings’. Oh, and Hindmarch ticked the green box too with her 2007 I’m Not a Plastic Bag £5 reusable cotton carrier that sold out at Sainsbury’s within a matter of hours.
However, the provider of very pukka pokes for the posh and papped has a style-sabotaging secret. She’s an Essex girl, hailing from the English county that gave us tanorexic Towies like Lauren Goodger.
“Yes, I’m an Essex girl,” she says. “It’s much maligned. There are some really beautiful parts of Essex, really lovely.” She pauses. “And some not so.”
Maldon, where Hindmarch was born in 1968, is one of the lovelier parts, and where she came of age in the 1980s. Hindmarch is happy to call herself one of Thatcher’s Children, embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of the age and running with it. From her father, a self-made businessman who built up his own successful plastics firm, she inherited a can-do mentality and from her mother, a Gucci bag for her 16th birthday.
“It was one of her old ones and I remember how great it made me feel. From that moment I was fascinated by leather. I knew what I wanted to do.”
Two years later, when she left school, she hotfooted it to Florence determined to immerse herself in the world of accessories. “It was full of leather factories so my trip was totally vocational. When I wasn’t learning Italian I spent my time looking at all the bags on the markets and I knew I wanted to get under the skin of it. I looked at bag shapes I knew would do well, then found a factory to make up my design. I was very passionate and single minded.”
Plumping for a leather duffle bag, Hindmarch borrowed money to have some made up and returned to London. There she persuaded Harpers & Queen to feature them and sold 500, investing the profit in more bags she had made in London’s East End. By the age of 19 she had established her first shop in Knightsbridge.
“I was lucky. I knew what I wanted to do and it was also an era of lots of business start-ups: Prêt a Manger, Sock Shop, Manolo Blahnik, Philip Treacy, Jimmy Choo. We all started back then. Also, it was helpful having a father who had started a design business. My sister and brother and I all ended up working in design.”
Embodying her philosophy of British, humorous and bespoke, Hindmarch’s bags are designed for women who lead busy lives – the well-heeled, yet style-conscious multi-taskers who can afford to drop a grand on a bag. They embody the Hindmarch work ethic and are about function rather than mere fashion. ‘It bags’ they ain’t; the bow logo is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tiny. There are pouches for iPhones, fobs for keys and internal pockets for change and ‘bits and bobs’. This is a woman with five children ranging from nine to 24 (Hugo, Tia, Bert, Felix, Otto – three she ‘inherited’ when she married James Seymour at 28, and two the couple added to the brood) who has fumbled in a bag while balancing a child on her hip. She’s road-tested them all. So the smart little Bathurst Eye that Alexa Chung is currently clutching in her tiny sparrow-foot fingers also comes with a brightly coloured shoulder strap for the woman who needs her hands free to grab a child.
“I’m my own harshest critic. I’m very demanding, but if it works for me, it works for others. I travel a lot, I’m busy, it’s a busy world,” she says.
“People who wear our brand don’t want to wear high heels on the beach and bags with initials everywhere; they aspire to beautiful things. They don’t want every fashion. They’re not leopardskin, ‘ta-da!’ types. They’re not wasteful and are more intelligent and are coming from a true design perspective, something that has a soul, something that works,” she says.
“Handbags are so much more than something to carry your things in. It’s the craftsmanship, the leather, the materials. It’s quite tribal. It’s what they mean, the unspoken thoughts and impulses sparked by advertising, images and what our friends wear.”
Then there’s the humour, which is important to Hindmarch, who refuses to take the high-octane hissy fit world of fashion too seriously. “It’s very important to keep things fun. If you lose the sense of fun you lose something from life. It’s important when you’re motivating teams to make things fun. We laugh all day. Life is too short and there are huge pressures but you can always have a good laugh,” she says.
Her humour finds expression in the bespoke element of her bags and she hopes customers will follow suit by having their own initials or messages embossed on a strap or under a flap. Her own Bathurst bag was a gift from her husband and has “something rather rude” written inside. She giggles, but won’t say what. “It’s fun to pimp your bag. When you make something that’s personalised it gives it more value to you. I gave my son a wallet with compartments labelled ‘to save’ and ‘to drink’. He will hand that wallet down to his grandchildren,” she says,
Well he will if he doesn’t leave it in a student bar, since he’s studying Chinese and Italian at Edinburgh University. That’s another reason besides her Scottish launch for the designer to be heading north. “I’ve not been there as much as I would like. I can’t wait to take him out to dinner and spend more time in Edinburgh. I was meant to go this weekend, but what with fashion week, it’s so frantic in every direction. I have too many children,” she laughs.
Hindmarch may inhabit a world of fashion and says she’s delighted when her bags appear in Vogue or on the red carpet but she becomes much more animated talking about the craftsmen and women whose skills go into making the bags. It’s the artisans working away in their East End workshop or Florentine factory, who spend hours on the fine-detailed work her bags entail, such as the soft calf leather signature tassels for last year’s Pomp and Pleasure collection that take six hours each to make, who hold her attention.
“It’s always lovely when people wear the bags, but I’m not overly fascinated by celebs. I’m interested in craftsmen, people who can make beautiful things. I’m obsessed by finding them, especially in trades that are dying out. For example, I watched the man who does some of our enamel in the East End of London engrave a base plate then pour on the enamel and pop every single bubble. It’s when you find people who still do things like that that I get really excited.”
Warm and funny, she talks at a rate of knots and laughs often, but steer her towards topics she doesn’t want to discuss and she politely but firmly demurs. Less of a handbagging, more of a snapping shut of a smart evening clutch. There are places she just won’t go. Her younger children for one – “I don’t like to talk about them. It’s not really fair”.
Samantha Cameron is another. “She’s a great woman, brilliant. We are both very involved in the British Fashion Council. She’s a good friend. But it’s not really fair for me to talk about her. I’d just rather talk about me. About my shop in Harvey Nichols and how excited I am to be in Scotland. It’s all about the handbags,” she insists, and she good-naturedly yet firmly steers the conversation back to the bags. The lady’s not for turning.
She’s happy to talk about Margaret Thatcher, however – the woman who inspired her to open her first shop, and who, in her years in the public eye, was never seen without a smart bag. Indeed, one of them is a bespoke Ebury given to her by Hindmarch, embossed with the words, “From someone you inspired.”
“I always think she is a fascinating woman. And she made the word handbag into a verb. It’s always interesting to see what she thinks and wears.”
She and the former prime minister share a belief that you should follow your instincts and stick to your guns, rather than court popularity. When Thatcher assumed leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, she declared, “I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician” to describe her philosophy of sticking to her own values.
Hindmarch echoes this when she says, “I think you have to do things with conviction. Work hard and enjoy it. I believe you can do anything if you try hard enough. I do what I do because I believe in it because it works.”
Conviction means sticking to the core designs and shapes she knows work, and ringing the changes each season with a variation in colour or detail. Last year’s Pomp and Pleasure collection might be all Georgian-inspired with a tassel that could have been swiped from Buckingham Palace when she got her MBE and images of Gainsborough’s ladies, but the shapes are Hindmarch classics.
“It’s important to have a design DNA so people know what you’re about. You can play with variations, but need to have that thread of consistency.
“Women like that and they dress for themselves more than anything else. If you wear the right outfit it can make you feel strong, brave, give out a signal about who you are and how you feel. ‘If you want to know my mood,’ I say to my husband, ‘look at my handbag’.”
Does James, her husband, who joined the company in 2000 as finance director, get it right then? “I don’t think he does at all, no,” she roars.
And with that she’s off again to continue work on her fashion week spectacle. “Of course, it could all go very badly wrong, be a terrible disaster,” she says lightly.
Somehow, it seems unlikely.