Fashion visionaries are actually much more rare than one might imagine. Most of fashion works within the system, respecting its boundaries and working within them. Periodically though, a innovator arrives on the scene, recognizing the landscape, and against all odds redefines the lanes. Such can be said of design ANYA HINDMARCH who broke the runway barrier becoming the first accessory designer to mount a full runway show.
On the eve of London Fashion Week, and her forthcoming show, we chat with Anya about founding her firm at such a young age, knowing her DNA, her forward thinking ads, her brave runway adventures, conservative schools, and what is next.
BY KENNETH RICHARD
Anya, excited about your upcoming collection. Appreciate you carving out the time before the show to chat. Was doing a little reading and surprised to learn you started your firm while quite young. Nineteen?
Yes, 18, actually, I went straight from school. I was lucky in that I came from a family who all had their own businesses, so it didn’t seem unusual to not go the obvious route. In addition to that, I think like a lot of design students and entrepreneurs, of which I am probably both, you tend to be quite impatient in the classroom, you tend to want to just get going.
An alum came to talk at the school about the fashion business, who was managing some fashion brands for Mark McCormack. And I remember thinking I know that’s what I want to do. That, coupled with the fact that I was given one of my mother’s old handbags when I was 16. I remember how it made me feel and just being fascinated with the craftsmanship of leatherwork. It just was a really exciting thing and I think it’s so lucky to know what you want at a young age.
So I essentially left school and went to Florence, which is obviously the home of leather. I just wanted to be there to understand the factories and understand the language and get immersed in it. I quite quickly saw a bag on the streets in the city that I thought would do well in the UK. So I found a factory – which was not easy because I was 18 and inexperienced – with whom I continued to work for many years. We made samples and I brought them back to London and started selling to stores.
It just really quite organically grew from there. It was literally me, designing. And then I started realizing I had to do collections twice a year, and really got some amazing orders like Joseph Ettedgui, he was one of my first big orders, as was Bergdorf Goodman. I remember ringing my mother saying I just got a 30-thousand pound order from Bergdorf Goodman! And wondering how the hell I was actually going to supply.
But, you know, I slowly built up distribution. It was quite organic and I really learned with the craftsmen, which is obviously a really lovely way to learn. I learned to cut patterns, which is an element of engineering. Handbag design is not just design, it’s got to work, it’s got to last, especially when things change and stretch and morph. Then there’s all the hardware as well, which is quite pure engineering in many aspects. I just really love all those sorts of challenges, from the artistic challenge to the engineering challenge to just a total fascination with craftsmanship. Which is still the most exciting part of what I do today.
Did you sell the goods yourself, at the beginning?
I did everything myself. Literally, everything. It was the best business school, in a way. My drawing is competent, but it’s not pretty. So I drew the designs, but I would also make them in 3D, which gives you the form as opposed to just a 2D drawing. If you actually carry it and wear it, it shows you how it works, where it fits with you.
And then I would go to the craftsmen and we would make up samples. I would do the pricing, place the orders, the raw materials, source the hardware, supplies, down to delivery, to packing up boxes and typing invoices. I mean, I literally did every part of the business for many years. And there’s no better training. I can still tape up a box in my office.
Let’s go back to Florence at the age of 18. What can you tell us about that experience?
I went under the rubric of doing a language course for 8 weeks, that was my first sort of reason to be there. But with a very clear view for me that I wanted to be in that world. I knew about it, I suppose, because those days, Gucci was so big and it was based completely out of Florence. And it still is, to some extent, the home of leather, so I suppose that’s how I knew that was the place to be.
What year was this?
1987. And it had Santa Croce, the leather market and tanneries, so it seemed sort of like the center. I did my language course in the mornings, learning useful words such as cinghiale (pig skin), and fattura, which is invoicing, all those sort of things. Then in the afternoons, I just sort of dug around. I really studied all the leatherwear stores, I went to the markets, I literally took the yellow pages and looked up manufacturers. And I started seeing bags that I thought would work and started to explore it. Really as simple as that.
They have that leather-making school there, am I correct? That sort of church? [Scuola del Cuoio in the Santa Croce] Yeah, they do. And I remember going to visit it. But it didn’t seem available to me for whatever reason, I don’t know why, I think I first needed to learn a little bit of Italian. Also, I always knew that my sort of capabilities were more in design and in working with craftsmen, and then on brand and building product, as opposed to actually physically making product myself. I think if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to grow a business that’s meaningful; I knew that that would be too slow, really. So I didn’t pursue so much the making, I pursued the designing and the brand aspect. I was reasonably clear on that, I don’t know why, but I was.
So after that course, you came back in two months ready to go?
I came back with the bag that I saw in the streets that all the Italian girls were wearing; I loved it. I brought it back to the UK thinking I want to explore this and find a factory. So I then went back to find a factory and that’s when I did all the research. I had done quite a bit of research, but I then went back really thinking now I’m going to do this. I went to get samples made and I remember clearly that I wanted to have my name on the product and finding a graphic designer to work on my logo, finding someone who made me my first metal dye – on London Bridge, I’ll never forget that. He was a dye maker who made my first impression of the new logo that I then sent back to Italy to have embossed into the bags. And that’s really where it started.
We love first impressions. So those early years – how long before you hired your first employee?
Too long! Oh, it was hard, very hard. I had quite quick success getting orders. And then started designing more kind of almost collections and selling to stores. I always think, forget university and start your business, because in the three years that you’re in university, you can actually explore and learn a huge amount. I think it took me probably two years before I had a full time employee. I had somebody who came in and helped me with some of the more mundane stuff, or somebody for accounts and so on. But I will never forget the first day when I had my first employee and it was someone to say good morning to. I can’t tell you how I happy I was because it’s really lonely at first. Those first two years were really lonely.
But you just kind of have to not give up and keep the dream.
What did your first employee do?
Well, in those days we weren’t on computers so it was letters, contacting distribution, dealing with suppliers, dealing with invoices and manufacturers, it was just broad brush from soup to nuts, really, from supply, raw materials all the way to delivery, dispatch, and troubleshooting all the things that happened along the way. So it was a right hand, I suppose. And then of course, like with anything, you then start to build up more people, then you put in specialties and departments and here we are, 120 in the head office. But it is exciting to have someone come and work alongside you and I think that a lot of people give up in those early years. It’s so important to keep people going through that stage.
When did you hire your first salesperson?
Literally, I couldn’t tell you with any great degree of clarity, but the first person I hired was a general assistant. Then I moved into an office and hired more people, probably first on the production side because I was quite keen to offload that side first. I myself kept customer facing and design facing and brand facing. Then we probably would have hired a salesperson as the next capability, but I’m not sure myself.
I remember when we opened our first store, which was a first floor store on Walton Street, I hired someone who still works with me to today. I remember thinking I could afford to hire her if she sold one bag on a Saturday. I had to cover all those gaps, it was quite a big first step. And she did. And we’ve worked together for 22 years since then, which is lovely.
It must have been a very large first sale.
[laughs] She was there just on Saturdays. The point was, if she sold one bag on a Saturday, it was worth having her.
And it just grew and grew. I think of all those stages like going from nursery to school to university, there’s all those stepping stones as you grow a business. But it’s a very good, organic way to understand a business, your capabilities, what you’re about. It’s a good discipline, really.
What would you consider your first big break?
I’ll never forget showing at Fashion Week – as a stand, not as a show – and Joseph, who was sort of god in his day, would come by with his sort of entourage and all the entourage were dressed in Prada nylon so you could hear them coming towards you. He would sort of float around and suddenly go, ‘Yes! This is it.’ And would, say, buy 100 or 200, never ask price, and would just leave the black Prada-clad team to come and place the orders.
Those moments were pretty exciting because once you get into one or two of what I kind of call the Golden Circle stores – and Joseph was very much one of those at the time – from that moment, then Bergdorf Goodman ordered and Barneys and so on. We actually had very great distribution early on. We were very early into Isetan and Barneys and all those great stores. I think I had a really innate sense that I had to be in great distribution. You couldn’t go to the little boutiques, you had to be in the good, brand-enhancing distribution. So I worked very hard on that.
You’re spinning a lot of plates at first. You think that you’re going to be designing and that’s your job, but actually, you might only be spending about 20% of your time designing when you start, because it can take half a day just to change the toner and the cartridge in the photocopier because you have no team, so it’s hard.
But I was always absolutely passionate about three things. The first being craftsmanship, that’s my number one and I always think there’s not nearly enough applause for craftsmen. There’s too much talk of celebrity and not enough talk of craftsmen. And I have always loved humor, this element of humor and British irony in design. For me, fashion is not saving lives. The element of making me smile is really important. And the other thing that I’ve always really loved is an element of personalization. There was always an element of personalization in that first little store that I opened. So those three things have been quite key to me and I stay quite true to those elements.
You had a very keen sense of business awareness and branding at a very young age. How do you think you developed that sense?
Truthfully, I’m not sure. The business was something that I was surrounded by in my family. Plus it was a very entrepreneurial time in the UK because there was a lot of privatization going on, there were a lot of little businesses starting up, it was the Thatcher years, she was like, get out there, start a business. So there was a momentum, a lot of businesses started then. That was exciting and inspiring.
In terms of brand, I’ve always just been fascinated by it. My mother had great taste and she’d always dress up very beautifully, but when I was growing up, there weren’t brands to buy in quite the same way. You’d have a black handbag, you’d have a brown handbag, you’d have an evening handbag. And then suddenly brands such as Gucci or Vuitton started relaunching. I think it was quite formative for me to see how those two examples of old, established brands worked on the branding, took elements like the logo and put it on something quite simple – the power that had. I’ve always just been very interested in it. Going through some of my old schoolbooks, I have found essays that I wrote on branding, on cars, I was just fascinated by it. I don’t know where it comes from, but it was always just a natural interest for me, really.
Well, it has served you quite well.
It’s been quite lovely, I agree.
So you did a booth at the fashion tents, at the events?
Yes, at Fashion Week.
So how did you move from a booth outside the runways to being on the runway?
So, in the intervening years, the business grew and grew and grew. We got much more grown up, we had stores all around the world and it was all really exciting and great and profitable and growing in Japan and Singapore and LA. All the while, I was running the business and also doing the creative in the business. Yet my heart lies in the creative, that’s where I started. But I grew the business, we were approached by all the groups over the years, I wanted to stay owning the company and so I sort of hung on and hung on.
But there was a point where I felt I wanted to get back 150% just to the product. Because when you’re actually negotiating contracts in Asia, you’re so busy with that. And I saw how the product was getting one degree away from where I wanted it to be, how it might be interpreted slightly differently in Japan as to how it was interpreted in LA, and I just wanted to focus all my attention on that. So I decided to make a big change, which was to hire a CEO and to move myself to the creative role completely. I remain Chairman am still very involved in the strategic side of the business. But to actually just wake up and go to my studio, that is really what I love.
The first thing I did was a pictorial timeline of everything I’d done, from the first handbag all the way through to current day, all the projects, all the mad things we have done over the years. That’s really made me just reexamine the DNA of the brand, which, nicely, was exactly the same when I started as what it is now. It’s those three things: craftsmanship, humor and personalization, which fascinated me then and still fascinate me now.
So I really worked on the collections, I worked really hard on what am I trying to say with this next collection. And I really love working being completely immersed in an idea, I’m an obsessive and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. But mostly, in design, it’s a good thing because I become obsessed by ideas so I get very deep into my research and into the technical research, but also the history behind the ideas and so on.
When I did my first collection with this change of me being completely in the creative role again, I wanted to put my head above the parapet in a funny way, to signal the reenergizing of the brand. And I just felt very naturally that a show was the right thing to do. The show was a really frightening thing to do. But what I’ve learned over the years is the word fear is exactly the same as the word excitement and you kind of need to be scared, I think, a bit, to do good work, which is really tough. It’s tough being a designer because you are pretty much scared the whole time. It’s not a comfortable place to be. But that’s what drives you, it’s that fear that sort of drives you on.
I felt that by having a show, you gather 700 people and you can present a real 360° of what’s been going through your head in a more immersive way. From the product, to the way you present, on all the touch points, we go very deep into our shows, we have all the music specially written and we try to work on things that really haven’t been done before, in many cases. So it was a very clear, kind of exciting, terrifying idea.
I did meet with quite some resistance. I think people sort of thought well, what happens, can you keep this up every 6 months? It’s a fortune. Will it work? Can you pull it off? All those sorts of questions I had thought long and hard about. But I just sensed that I should do it, really. And, so, we did.
Our first show was probably more “charming” than sophisticated because we worked with a guy who does all the Harry Potter animatronics. So we didn’t have models but we used animatronics to deliver the bags on conveyor belts through these amazing animatronics delivery systems. It was like this enormous machine that the bags were travelling along and coming out of, it was sort of like Santa’s grotto. And in the very end – I don’t know why I did this but I did – at the very end, at the top of the machine, with all these bits of machines gurgling away, the curtains pulled back and I was on a bicycle peddling, as if I were powering the machine.
It was literally horrifying. I remember thinking this is the end of my career. What am I doing? What was I thinking? I was talking to Michael Howells at the time and he was saying, you gotta do it, you gotta do it. And I said, Michael, you will just literally kill my career. But, you know, it’s sometimes by doing those silly-brave things that can indicate a change.
From then on, we have worked really passionately on the shows and the collections. We try very hard not only to do something quite lovely and surprising and different in our shows, but then also to take the creativity of that work to the customer. It’s one thing to do it for a limited audience in London, but actually, there’s a whole world out there, and you have to make that experience to share with your customers directly. So it’s a sort of source point of the creativity for the season, and from there, in my head, I see there’s the campaign, there’s the in-store activation, there’s all the communication, there’s all the content that you produce, it all stems from that creative. And that’s sort of neat and tidy and fascinating for me; it makes sense. So we tend to work in that way in our delivery of collections.
On the subject of campaigns and content, what are your marketing philosophies?
Well, I think several things. I think the market is changing massively. I have thought for a while that there’s going to be a complete bust up of the fashion week schedules at some point and it’s starting to happen.
I think that the way buyers are travelling to so many cities for months on end is old-fashioned, honestly, and hugely costly and time-consuming. There has to be a better way. I think we have to start – and not be scared of saying that we must start – from a business perspective as well. There are two sides to what we do in as far as the creativity and then there’s the business. If the business doesn’t work, then it won’t sustain itself. I think we should think differently.
Of course we also have this amazing digital access, which is super exciting. For me, one of the reasons why I felt innately that a show was the right way to go – again, so often as designers, you can’t think through why but you have a gut feeling. You can see that content is an absolute requirement; our businesses are hugely thirsty for content because we need to communicate. And you look at how we all get our information now, it’s digital, it’s fast and it’s frequent. So it’s no good, necessarily, doing just a beautiful curated campaign that you bring out. We need to be sending out 3, 4 things a day. That’s why a show is wonderful for us – because it delivers so much content. I think that’s one aspect.
I think that there’s so many ways of connecting to your customer. I think that it’s always really important to think differently. For me, when we launched the collection which was inspired by what we call the counterculture, the graphics of everyday items, the supermarket collection we did, and we did this bag which has Tony the Tiger, Frosties and then we took the product, we actually made boxes of cereal and sold them through very special retailers, the kind of Golden Circle retailers. That’s another way of reaching your customer in a way that’s the antithesis of luxury, in a funny way. I think that high/low access is quite appealing, actually. I think that there are definitely different ways to reach a mass audience. It’s what I love doing – I think it’s really key to think differently and not just to think in the old distribution channels or the old way of doing things.
It’s starting to change with Burberry now. I think we all have to think a bit differently. I think that fashion week itself per se is an amazing generator of content, but should it just be an industry thing? Should we all be having our shows just before the product comes into the store? Should we change the schedule?
The fact is that in the early days, I remember thinking why on earth is anybody allowing people to show pictures of their collections when it then gives everyone 6 months to copy everything? It was such a bizarre moment. And Tom Ford tried to take it back by closing the access. But you can’t change it. You don’t change progress. And now it’s instantaneous on Instagram. So should the shows be moved to happen 10 minutes before the product launches in stores? You could go back to the show being for the public and the buying and the private viewing for the industry 6 months in advance. There is all sorts of thinking that I think we should bottom out but we need to carve out a new critical path that allows time for creativity which is key (plus a transitioning period.) In my role on the board of the BFC we are doing a lot of work on this right now as you can imagine.
There will come a point where the buyers will just go, enough, we cannot be buying men’s here and women’s here in four different cities. It’s just so cost intensive and time intensive. I think there are all sorts of things that will bubble up and it’s all stuff that we’ll all talking about here in London. For me, that’s just really exciting, I just love change. I love the idea that you can look at things differently and I think fashion is about change, fashion is about not being scared to do something that doesn’t always feel comfortable. We must be brave. If you’re not brave, then you stand still, really. If you’re not brave, you’re ordinary, pretty much.
What of the nascents? Those who don’t have the retail distribution and the shows are designed to onboard trade.
Say you’re Sarah from Colette and you’re buying for the store there. Often, you’ve probably already bought that product by the time you come to the show anyway, because the timetable dictates in terms of lead time.
Secondly, actually, what you want to do is to have the buzz of the Instagram fanfare – which is almost more important than the magazines, really, if we’re honest about it now – happening just as it’s available to buy. You can argue that what we’re all doing – which is to have a small selection available and then everyone goes quiet on it – makes no sense, people can almost get bored of it by the time it comes into the stores since there’s been so much communication already. The huge fanfare should happen when it is available to buy; it’s much less frustrating for the customer. Everybody can plan to and it the best that is possible. I think there’s a lot to think about because it’s not just as simple as that. But I think you can’t really have the shows open to the public, to Instagram, and yet keep the timing on a trade timeline.
So let’s chat about other marketing and the great David James and DJA. How did you come to meet David?
We were researching and talking to people we knew in the industry. Looking for someone who understands where we’re coming from and would look at designing in a different way. Of the people that we met, David is just brilliant, and his team, they’re just brilliant. And they really enjoy the humor, judging from their portfolio and the amazing work that they do, I think they like the humor of what we do because it’s sort of different. We started working with them to build on a still life. We thought we can’t afford the best top models, we can’t compete there so let’s work on still life in an artful, curated way, but with a sort of humor on it that wasn’t just funny funny haha. Because that could become a little bit insipid.
Actually, the idea of having this rather beautiful still life came from working with Judy Hetter, who does some of the most exquisite lighting, and her brother, who builds amazing, still life creations that are beautiful things or a moment in time. We’ve done that for a number of seasons and that’s been very successful for us, including all the animations that we’ve worked on using that beautiful content.
However, we felt it was important after a while to change it up a bit, so for the first time we’re actually going to have a model. We are working on that because we feel like we’re in the next stage and it’s time to animate and it’s amazing how you can convey a point of view and an attitude when you have someone in the picture.
Change is good. Your storytelling capabilities are just so powerful and the propping is genius.
Thank you! It’s been an amazing piece of teamwork because they are really clever. We keep it artful because ultimately, for me, humor, which is so fundamental to what we do, only works if it is the most exquisite craftsmanship. We literally work with the best factories who make bags for the most amazing people; it’s absolutely beautiful work. Which then, I think, works. I thought of the campaign in the same way in as far as you can have that humor if you have that exquisite lighting and that storytelling and the rather artful propping. That was our intention so I’m glad you feel that way, thank you!
Looking forward to the evolution. The sticker project was pretty exciting, and you partnered up with somebody else we just interviewed recently, Charlotte Stockdale. Can you tell us about how that came about?
I went to a really strict school – we had nuns and uniforms and everything. We had nothing that was not generic in terms of our possessions. So for someone like me, who is a creative, it was quite frustrating. The only way that I could really make something my own, was to sticker things up. And, as I said, I’m a bit of an obsessive, so everything was stickered. It was really fun, you could really animate things with stickers; that was something I loved doing.
I was actually working with this amazing technician who works on leather and has this incredible combination of debossing and embossing and doing incredible 3D work. It’s quite technical and expensive. We started playing with these ideas. At one point, I had a piece of this technique that was cut out, and I looked and thought, wow, that looks like a leather version of a schoolgirl sticker! You know when you just sort of know when something’s really exciting? Plus, I’ve always been fascinated by labeling things, having to run a business and be organized and being dyslexic. I would always label things; that was my way of managing and organizing. I’ve always loved it – for example, I did a washbag collection with labels for where you put your brushes or makeup, it’s literally a go-to when you’re travelling. So I was thinking about doing this store that is almost a kind of label store, like a sticker store. And I suddenly had this idea of the leather stickers.
When I went back to the creative role, I called Charlotte and said I loved her style, it’s very close to mine. I think we find the same sad things really funny and she has that sense and that real Britishness and that playfulness. So Charlotte’s been working with us over the years. She would come and just be fresh eyes. So when I had this idea, I called her up and said listen, wouldn’t it be quite fun to do a project together, I know you would love this. And we had a lot of fun doing it! We have worked through a few of the collections now. It’s great working with her. I think we do more laughing and drinking than we do design, but I think that can be quite productive.
So what’s next for you and what are you looking forward to?
Well, it’s a really exciting moment. When I went back to the creative role, we hired a CEO, we took an investment and the Qataris (who own Valentino) invested in us. They have been amazing partners because they’re very long-term, strategic and they are determined that we do this properly. It’s quite hard when you’re a founder and a self-financed entrepreneur to really invest in a brand, quite hard to literally not focus on profit but focus on putting in every system that the business needs to grow from where we are now to the next stage. That has enabled me to think about what is the right thing, to stay in my studio, to hire top international talent. We’re growing fast. It’s exciting.
For me, product-wise, it’s all about what other things to put into the mix. Because I think rather than sort of launch lines, I quite like the idea of doing some outerwear, but almost as accessories, sort of if we’re doing shoes, accessories, not a whole line, necessarily. So it’s all quite animated when you walk into the stores and fun when you walk in as a buyer. I’m working really a lot on different products, new products, and just also keep producing the content that is driving this growth, the shows and the advertising, all the bits that I work on. I enjoy really looking closely at all the incredible skins and all the things that we work on from an engineering point of view.
My CEO, Helen Wright (who was at Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld), is a lovely woman and an amazing operator. We’re just having a lot of approaches from franchise partners in new territories and we’re opening quite a few new stores. So she’s in the process of finding and fitting out, we’re opening in the Middle East, Singapore, another one in New York, relocating LA, Hong Kong; we’re really adding a lot of stores.
So there’s that happening simultaneously, although it doesn’t touch me as much. Then there’s the… oh, there’s just so much going on right now! We’ve literally looked at every system in the business, we’ve put in SAP, we have new EPOS systems, we have new CRM systems, we’ve got new warehousing systems, we’ve structured the way that we work on our product development teams, looking at our branding, at every touch point, including how we serve the coffee in the shops. We’re sweeping into every corner for this next stage. There’s just an awful lot going on, it’s just very exciting, it’s very busy.
[laughs] Yeah. Please? I’m a great believer, actually, in taking breaks. I find my brain is one of those – I’m sure it’s true for all creatives – the more I see, the more I do, the more I travel, the more I subconsciously fill it, all that is information that resurfaces somewhere later. If you go and see things, you absorb it. And I have a great visual memory so it’s very useful to me. I travel a lot for work – every time we open a new store or I have a meeting with craftsmen and so on – I’m sort of all over the place. But I also believe in traveling.
It’s just amazing what you learn and see and how subconsciously that influences you. I work very, very hard, of course, and I have quite a busy home life as well, but I’m a great believer in taking breaks and I encourage my team to do the same.
Well, let’s give you a break so you can get ready for that show.
It’s so nice to chat to you and good luck!
Thanks, Anya, and have a great show.