From bags to riches: Anya Hindmarch on mad shows, maternity leave and Madison Avenue

Her luxury brand started life as a one-woman show, run from a kitchen table – now the 45-year-old mother of five is one of the UK’s most successful designers

Sat, Oct 12, 2013, 00:00

David Cameron describes her as “awe inspiring”, Tommy Hilfiger thinks she’s an “incredible” designer, and Jo Malone says, “She’s the woman I would like to be, and I think lots of women would say that.” Anya Hindmarch is the creative power behind one of the UK’s most successful international handbag brands. The 45-year-old is also a mother of five, holds an OBE, is a UK trade ambassador and has won multiple awards and recognitions.

Ahead of her third visit to Ireland next week, to speak at Look the Business, in Dublin, we meet at Hindmarch’s headquarters, in Battersea. In a converted stable that was, in another life, part of an old brewery called the Plough, her spacious atelier is accessed by a narrow staircase, its walls lined with effusive letters and photographs from family, friends and fans. Alongside a handwritten note from her youngest son, Otto, asking the tooth fairy for £10 are ones from the Prince of Wales, Cate Blanchett, Martha Stewart, Elle McPherson and Manolo Blahnik, to name but a few. There’s no doubting her popularity, or the success of a business she built from scratch over the past 25 years and which now has annual sales of £45m.

Hindmarch’s latest collection, which was shown last month at Westminster, in a purpose-built planetarium, during London Fashion Week used an imaginative seven-minute aerial display with acrobats to showcase her new super lightweight bags. The Out of This World event – and she is planning more – “is a wonderful snapshot of what we are about in terms of brand communication, energy and ideas,” she says. “It builds a [marketing] tool kit that is there for the season.”

She brings out an oversize grey Ebury (one of her best-selling models) with a vibrant yellow lining, explaining that the new process involves bonding high-tech polyurethane with leather to make the bag lighter.

So what does it weigh? Surprisingly, for someone who describes herself as a “total detail freak”, she laughs, admitting she doesn’t know. But a heavy bag “ruins a beautiful jacket”, she says, and lightness is a real luxury. Details matter: if something about a bag is annoying, like a sharp handle, she says, “You don’t think why, but you don’t use it.”

HINDMARCH HAS BEEN in the news recently for controversial opinions about maternity leave. She told MPs that “suffocating” laws and “overregulation” could force employers to hire men over women. She currently employs 50 women in her headquarters, and two years ago 13 of them had babies. What sort of regulations she would prefer? Women wanting to have children and be at home is important, she says, and that their welfare should be promoted as much as possible. “But it is [about] not being too PC about it. [Regulations] can go too far,” she says.

“I could go on about this for hours,” but she puts her head down and further discussion of the subject is politely brought to an end. Although friendly, engaging and warm, there is steel in Hindmarch’s eyes.

Last year a Qatari investment group bought a 38 per cent stake in ASHS, the holding company behind the Anya Hindmarch brand, in a deal that brought its value to £70 million. Hindmarch remained chairwoman and chief creative officer of the company, and in September she opened a flagship store on Madison Avenue, in New York – “a huge investment, a terrifying amount of money” – designed by Ilse Crawford, the London-based interior and product designer and founder of Elle Decoration. “I like working with strong women like Ilse, and as our customers are mainly female, I wanted it to have that warmth and welcome. Today we had 116 through the doors,” she says with pride, adding that at the end of November she will open in Harrods with the same shopfit.

The Madison Avenue store houses both her ready-to-wear collections and her bespoke line. Her latest evening bags, in the shape of crisp packets in cast metal, were met with delight at the recent London show, while her signature tassels – some oversized and in bright colours – continue to adorn her clutches, totes and handbags. The bespoke service chimes with her love of gifts with a special meaning, personalising wallets, diaries or bags with initials, quotes or dedications.

HINDMARCH INHERITED the same entrepreneurial spirit as her father, who left school at 16 to set up on his own. The brand that now has 58 boutiques around the world started as a one-woman show, run from a kitchen table in a shared flat. That was 1987, and Hindmarch was just 19 years old. When she hit the headlines in 2007 with the £5 “I’m not a Plastic Bag” canvas tote for Sainsburys, 80,000 people queued to buy one. She remembers taking one of her sons to Tokyo and watched as 8,000 buyers waited patiently in line around the block for the bag that later launched endless copies.

But the real breakthrough for Hindmarch had come years earlier, opening her first store on Walton Street, in 1993, “when I could only afford the first floor. But you got to meet your customers for the first time – before that it was buyers.”

These days she travels a lot; after Dublin she takes in New York, Tokyo, Malaysia and then a conference on luxury in Singapore. “We are taking our business to the next level by investing in all systems, and it’s like when your house has everything working including the wifi and it’s automatic. Our new website has all the flexibility you need. I want to tell the story more clearly – I want people to learn about the craftsmanship and the functionality. With social media I want people to pin images up and share them with their friends.”

Her husband, James Seymour, a widower with three children whom she married at 25 works with her in the business as finance director and the company’s chief executive, James McArthur, formerly of Gucci and Harrods, is guiding the restructuring, allowing Hindmarch to concentrate on the creative side.

“I am a bit obsessive about things and there is a lot of research [in designing collections]. Things have to be beautiful – that is the starting point – but they have to work. Travel inspires me a lot, and I try to make time to go to museums and exhibitions – what you see banks up unconsciously, and I draw a lot. I can stand in a passport queue and have five ideas.

“I like things that make me smile. I hate glitzy parties and prefer a small kitchen supper with a few people. You find the confidence of who you are rather than who you should be. I manage because it is about loving what you do. It is about being organised and a good communicator,” she says. She’s a great talker.

Hindmarch’s role as a UK trade ambassador “is really shouting for Britain and the creative industries and helping young businesses to grow. Fashion is a very serious, demanding business. It is fantastically important industry and one of the biggest employers of women and minorities in the UK. London is a great city, and what we call British fashion is really an international group of people we should support.”

She lives in Belgravia, and her children range in age from eleven to 24. Her eldest three “are incredibly clever” – one is a lawyer, one is in Bain management consulting and the other is learning Mandarin in Beijing. Her two youngest boys are at boarding school “and don’t like sport and are quite dyslexic like me”.

Hindmarch, a gifted soprano, loves music – “it’s something that makes me really happy” – citing I was Glad by Parry (sung at the royal wedding) as one of her favourite choral pieces. Recently, her staff gave her a present of a series of singing lessons at the Royal College of Music.

Known as a great party giver, she has said she doesn’t like not being liked. “I really like the people I work with, and if you love people they will love you. You can waste good energy in a negative way. I like to work in a nice atmosphere and I am enormously proud of that here. You get more from people if you are nice to them.”

When it comes to fashion, she supports her friends. “So I wear Stella [McCartney], Marni, Erdem and Peter Pilotto – I like buying things I can keep and wear again.”

To cope with the demands of work and family, she has developed a strict regime. “I walk three or four times a week with friends at 7.30 in the morning for about an hour. I do about 7km over the river and around the park. Otherwise, wine is the answer,” she says. “ I like to look and feel good because that’s about confidence and you project that confidence. It is a subtle form of communication and it’s an amazing and quite sophisticated game if you know how to play it.”

As for the future, Hindmarch wants to maintain the ethos of the brand, its traditional references, humour and craftsmanship, “and not doing fashion for the sake of it. I hate waste and seeing too much beautiful craft going out of fashion. I would hope that we can grow in visibility, that we will have more places to show what we do.

“Luxury is about things that are special and for me I want to carry on doing mad shows and mad projects. I still get a total kick out of wrapping a bag and giving it to a customer.”