SHE’S the woman who inspired a modest leather goods company to become a global success story, but Emma Hill isn’t done with mulberry yet.
Emma Hill has “tonnes and tonnes and tonnes” of handbags. She has so many handbags that she keeps them in a storage unit. In her flat, she has a “wall of shoes”, a series of bespoke cubby holes designed to house her extensive collection.
She calls her bags by their given names – Maisie, Alexa, Clemmie – and assigns them personalities. Her latest obsession is Willow; chic, haughty, playful.
“Ooh, come to mama,” she says jokingly as she gives Willow a squeeze. We’re sitting in a very stylish room in the very stylish London headquarters of Mulberry, and we’re surrounded by handbags of myriad personalities; girlish Lily; grown-up Cecily; laid-back Daria.
At the centre of them, at the centre of the Mulberry empire is Willow-toting creative director Emma Hill, a whirlwind of a personality (though today she’s got a stonker of a cold and apologises repeatedly for not being in better fettle.)
Despite the sniffles, she’s a chatterbox, with a great, deep cackle, and a tendency towards streams of consciousness: “nobody abroad understands Carry On films. They just don’t. We’re all ‘ding dong!’ you know? We found out that ding dong actually means something quite different in certain parts of the world...”
We meet on bonfire night and she’s excited that it’s the first night of the year she’s deemed it cold enough to wear the big, fuzzy goat hair gilet she got from the AW12 collection. Right now though she’s pure school run (she has one son, Hudson, six) in a frayed denim mini, black tights and a blue slogan T-shirt, her only concession to glam a pair of ankle boots with a four-inch heel. Oh, and a few thousand pounds’ worth of ostrich leather slung in the crook of her arm.
Hill, 43, is the woman who turned a modest English leather goods company into an international super-brand. When she took the job in 2008 Mulberry’s shares were 111p. Now, despite a 25 per cent slump after a profit warning at the end of October thanks to a wobble in the Asia market, they stand at 1040p.
She has achieved a balance that so many luxury brands strive for but so few manage, one that marries commercial success with high-fashion credentials. For women who will save to buy one designer handbag in a lifetime, the chances are they’ll pick one from Mulberry, a choice which makes the brand ultra-ubiquitous but no less popular with women who can afford to buy a new designer bag every season.
When I hand my own Mulberry Piccadilly weekend bag (I’m very much in the former category – I wiped out my savings on it after a tipsy lunch) in to the luggage storage office at King’s Cross station ahead of this interview, the man behind the desk immediately, gleefully, clocks the brand and tells me his girlfriend already has one and his sister wants one for Christmas.
Such stories are nothing new to Hill. “The other day I was on Marylebone High Street having a coffee and it was just an endless parade of Mulberry bags,” she says with an it-still-amazes-me shake of the head.
It’s just possible that within a couple of seasons those same women will be wearing Mulberry head-to-toe. Hill’s background is in ready-to-wear and she had designs on clothing from the moment she joined the company.
It took a few seasons for it to pick up, but now the Mulberry catwalk show takes top billing at London Fashion Week, and the stores are following suit. On 3 December, the Edinburgh outlet will relaunch in a new, much larger unit on Multrees Walk, with an extra floor devoted entirely to ladieswear. A new store concept will focus on luxury and craftsmanship and it’s the first Mulberry store in the UK to take this approach. Expect luxe, floaty maxi-dresses with a distinctly Seventies vibe, leather shirts in warm biscuit hues, crisp Italian tailoring and trippy prints.
Every second woman on Marylebone High Street might be carrying a Mulberry bag, but so too are most of fashion’s A-list from Alexa Chung and Claudia Schiffer to Emma Watson and Kate Moss. The latter has a Willow, the flagship bag from the Spring/Summer 2013 collection (yes, we’re there already) in £18,000 worth of black alligator.
With a front pocket that can be zipped off and used as a clutch, investing in a Willow means getting two bags for the price of one. It’s a BOGOF bag, if you will, and who can resist a Mulberry double whammy? Not Kate Moss, who’s been pictured all over London with hers: “She just carries it everywhere and, bless, her she’s zipping that thing on and off. I think she really likes the practical side of it.”
“Practical” might not be the word that springs to mind when talking about £18,000 worth of bag, but a Mulberry is designed to be knocked around, which is perhaps part of the appeal. It’s not created to be toted from chauffeured car to Knightsbridge hotspot but rather as an everyday companion, with all the battle scars and smears of lip gloss that come with the job. “Love-worn” is the term Hill uses.
“I’ve got a friend who’s got one of our messenger bags in oak leather. I gave it to him a year and half ago and I saw it the other day and it’s unrecognisable. It’s almost black. Its a vision. It’s beautiful. It’s the ultimate compliment.”
To say that Mulberry has come a long way in four years would be an understatement. Their runway show takes place in Claridge’s and ties with Burberry as the biggest, starriest show at LFW. “When we first moved to Claridge’s, we didn’t have enough money for lighting so it was literally some Mulbs [her pet name for the members of her team] on the chandelier switches. That was only two years ago so it’s been sheer bloody-mindedness, tenacity, an amazing team and the belief that we could do it, that there was room for another luxury brand.”
The vast, gilded Kensington offices where we meet and where the company relocated to last year are testament to that: “When I first arrived at our old office I was like ‘we’re not staying here’ and they said ‘well you’d better sell a bit more then.’ I said ‘alright, deal.’” She mimes rolling up her sleeves.
Is there a woman in British fashion, I wonder, who embodies the roll-up-your-cashmere-sleeves ethos more than Emma Hill?
The daughter of two Welsh teachers who encouraged “a massive work ethic and a massive push to just make the best of yourself” she was always very creative. “Thank God because I certainly wasn’t scientific. My report card said ‘it would behove Emma to realise that biology is not an art class’ because I used to spend the whole time doing these beautifully intricate drawings of whatever part of the body we were studying.”
Her upbringing was “very Seventies, very brown bread and granola” and creativity was strongly encouraged. Her parents would drop her off at the Natural History Museum with a pad and some crayons to sketch dinosaurs, while the family had a kiln at the bottom of the garden for pottery.
Her late father would happily pay for anything related to education but anything else had to be financed with a part-time job “stacking beans” at the local Co-op. “Until the day he died” he thought that her Chanel bag cost £200 (try £2,000, Mr Hill) and he was horrified at the idea. She pulls a strict face: “Emma that’s a lot of money!”
She made her own clothes and changed her look every six months, but her references were more high street than high fashion, something she is grateful for: “It was great because there wasn’t that longing. It was quite nice, quite a naïve way to grow up. I didn’t crave things that I couldn’t afford because I didn’t know about them.”
The irony isn’t lost on her. Her son is so surrounded by fashion that he’ll often ask her what she thinks of his “look”. He recently wrote his list to Santa and she was struck by how aware of brands he is. At the tender age of six, he can spot a Mulberry at 50 paces.
“He always points them out: ‘look Mummy a Mulberry!’ And if someone’s got a fake, he knows. He’s been around the brand a lot I guess. He’ll name and shame girls in Westfield [shopping centre] He’ll be like ‘Mummy, there’s a Mulberry... oh, no, it’s not a Mulberry...’” She cringes, head in hands.
She’s all too familiar with brands herself. A “leather geek” who is “obsessed by brand”, she spent 15 years working in New York, first for Liz Claiborne then Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs, where she created the Stella, a best-selling multi-pocketed bag.
While pregnant with Hudson she followed her photographer boyfriend to London, but they split a few months before the baby was due and her world was turned upside down. She freelanced at Chloe to make ends meet and a year later Mulberry knocked on her door.
“I spent so long in America that when I moved back to London they found me quite scary because I was quite New York-y about it. I got there and I was like ‘come on then! We can make this amazing!’” She slaps her hands together. “I was a bit Willy Wonka about it and thought that if you don’t dream big then you’re never going to be big.”
She quickly upped the heritage credentials of the 40-year-old brand, while giving it a healthy dose of quirky pop culture and a dash of good ol’ British eccentricity. She created bags which spawned waiting lists of thousands (look up “covet” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of the Alexa satchel) and had celebrities clamouring to carry them.
Today, she designs for herself as much as anyone: “I just want to make gorgeous things that girls want to wear. I’m very lucky. If I want something I’m like ‘let’s design this!’ It’s like everyone’s dream. What do I want to wear this week?”
“I’ve always been a believer that if you make gorgeous things people will want them,” she adds simply. “Because nobody really needs anything. Not really. So it has to be gorgeous enough that you have to want it. It is a lot of money to spend, particularly in times of recession. So if someone’s going to part with their hard-earned cash, it’s going to be for something amazing.”
Yet another polite sniffle suggests it’s time to wrap things up and let her get back home for some chicken soup. Actually, she says excitedly, she’s going home to take delivery of a life-sized reindeer, a full seven weeks before Santa’s due.
“Since I moved to London I’ve always gone back to New York for Christmas, so I’ve got a little bit over-excited,” she says sheepishly. “Someone just called up from home and was like ‘erm something’s just arrived’ and I was like ‘oh God, is it the reindeer?” The crazy thing is that you would think that I lived in this enormous house. But I don’t. At all. But it’s going to be amazing on Christmas Day. Think of the photo opportunities! Hudson on the reindeer, my friends on the reindeer, me on the reindeer...”
If you’re struggling to find the perfect Christmas present for the woman who has everything, for the woman whose house is already stuffed to the rafters with shoes and handbags, take note; a life-sized reindeer will go down well. As for the rest of us? We’ll take Mulberry handbags please, Santa.
• The new Mulberry Edinburgh store opens on 3 December at 7 Multrees Walk. Visit www.mulberry.com for details.