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Interview with Fashion and Accessories Designer Anya Hindmarch

Aired December 13, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It's London's Fashion Week, and there is a buzz much like any high-end fashion show. But it's not the clothes that are the focus here. This designer wants you to see her handbags in a way no one has ever done before.

Welcome to the world of Anya Hindmarch. While inspired by the idea of weightlessness for her latest collection, Hindmarch is generally known for her down-to-earth, understated, and practical designs. Embracing entrepreneurship at just 18, she spent her professional life beating a path all her own. Making headlines with her "I'm not a plastic bag" environmental initiative and her "Be a Bag" campaign.

Her brand now stretches across 17 countries and pulls in more than $70 million in annual sales, capitalizing on the generations-long mainstay of a woman's wardrobe. And while her flair for design is recognized by celebrities and royalty alike, her talent for business has been acknowledged with an MBE and the appointment of UK Trade Ambassador.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we meet Anya Hindmarch in Kuala Lumpur, as she takes us back to where it all began and reveals the more personal side to her bags.


RAJPAL: Anya Hindmarch, welcome to "Talk Asia".


RAJPAL: Thank you for joining us here, in Kuala Lumpur. It's quite a momentous time for you, especially here, in Malaysia. 10 years in Malaysia.

HINDMARCH: I know it's gone so quickly, it's unbelievable.


HINDMARCH: But it's such an exciting market, Malaysia, actually. And I really watched it kind of grow and develop and I feel really proud, actually, that we've been here so long. Because I think it's actually one of the kind of really growing markets in Southeast Asia. And Southeast Asia, in fact, is absolutely the buzzword at the moment. It's the big new thing.

RAJPAL: It also is quite dear to your heart. I mean, what, your first store was in Hong Kong.

HINDMARCH: Yes, absolutely. Our first ground floor store.


HINDMARCH: Because my first store in the world was upstairs, because we could only afford -


HINDMARCH: -- an upstairs store. So, the first proper store was in Hong Kong. And I remember it well, because actually, going to see it being built, and it was covered in bamboo scaffolding, which seemed so completely foreign to me at the time.

RAJPAL: Why handbags?

HINDMARCH: Exactly what my father asked me when I was 18. "Why handbags?" Very simply, I think, because they're very mood altering. And I think that still, now, if I get a new handbag, I'm really excited. And I'm not a particularly frilly fashion person. And I love fashion and I love beautiful things. I love how things are made.

There is something about the quality and having your things in your pockets and how they make you feel. It's amazing - it's a sort of confidence booster. Or, you know, you wear one type of handbag and be one person and another type and be another person. So I'm interested how they affect women, actually. And that's always been the thing that's excited me.

RAJPAL: You've had such success, even when you've had your - when you had your first store in London. It wasn't ground floor, but it was on the second floor. And you've had some high profile clients, including the late Princess Diana, who called one of her bags "the cleavage clutch" or "the cleavage bag".

HINDMARCH: Yes, yes.

RAJPAL: When you hear things like that, do you ever hold on to that kind of stuff? At times when you do feel like, "Maybe what I'm doing - I'm not as inspired"?

HINDMARCH: Yes, I'm always inspired. That's really never a problem. And, you know, there's so much - if anything, there's too many ideas all the time. So inspiration's never a worry for me. And it is - it's really lovely and supportive as people who, you know, love the brand. And it does - if you're having a bad moment.

But you really can't, you know, get this right. It's just, you know, it's reassuring. And I think you have to trust in yourself. And, of course, by having some success, it means you can kind of carry on and you kind of gain confidence. But I think you mustn't - it's very dangerous for me - I mean, I'm not this person who is this and, you know, pat myself on the back the whole time. I'm always working on the next thing. And there's lots to do.

RAJPAL: How's business been for you, as a whole, so far?

HINDMARCH: Well, pretty exciting. I went 25 years, now. And I always think it's a bit like going from sort of nursery to sort of, you know, school, to kind of senior schools. It's all these steps as you grow a business. And, you know, the early days are one very particular kind of flavor of that journey. And then the sort of middle years as you're kind of growing it and developing it.

And then, I think we're into sort of another stage at the moment, where we're really focusing on the brand and the distribution and getting sort of a lot more grown up, in a way. And not corporate, I hope, but it's certainly a lot more grown up. With a lot of outside people coming in who've had a lot of experience in growing businesses. So we're in the sort of, I don't know if it's the tertiary education phase at the moment, but it's quite exciting.

RAJPAL: One of those people that you brought in as a new CEO, James McArthur. And when you talk about - I remember seeing somewhere that he suggested to you, when he first came on board, to compile a scrapbook.


RAJPAL: Of everything about the brand, everything right back from the beginning. What's that process been like for you? I mean, talk about going down memory lane.

HINDMARCH: Well, it seemed a bit like therapy, honestly. Not that I've ever actually done therapy at home - I imagine therapy to be. And he asked me to make a timeline, essentially. To kind of put in order all the dates and all the openings. And actually, it was quite a good discipline. Because I actually hadn't done it and I actually forgot. It's been so frantic, there's been no time to stop and think.

So I felt it was time, in hiring James. And of demoting myself, if you like, as CEO, and getting back to the creative role 100 percent. What was interesting in that timeline was that I saw, you know, where I started, absolutely is where I feel happiest.

That's kind of where my feet very definitely still are. And all those sort of early things that mattered to me - you know, obviously the craftsmanship being the absolutely first and this paramount thing. But that sense of humor, that kind of [UNCLEAR], that sort of passion for personalization. All those aspects - exactly, you know, what so matters now. Which is kind of nice, sort of, in the moment, to take stock.

RAJPAL: When you have someone else, now, coming in and taking control over certain parts of the business - was that difficult to leave - just to let it go a little bit?

HINDMARCH: It's still my baby, I suppose, a bit. And it's still got my name above the door. So you do have a very sort of personal involvement with it. But it's growing to such an extent that actually it was a bit like having a child that I couldn't quite watch the whole time, because, you know, we're in multi-territories. We're in, you know, obviously different product categories and running around and all the factories and tanneries.

And so, you feel - and normal people. And you know, our head office, now, is 80 people alone. And there's all the staff and all the stores and I, you know, I love my people and I want to do a good job for my teams. And so, I was in this stage where I was just working all weekends and I've quite a busy family life as well. So it just was getting to - I wasn't feeling I was able to do everything. So it was the right moment. And I think, to make that step, when you really want it to happen is a really first important thing. I think, secondly, to find someone you really like is really important. And someone who has the same values as you and who understands also.

So, in finding James McArthur - someone actually I had met, because he was at the Gucci [UNCLEAR] for many years. And I'd met in those days and I'd always liked him - had always kept in touch. I felt like it was a very natural fit. So there'll be moments and I'd, "Ooh, I can't quite hand that over" and moments when I'm sure you said, "Come on Hindmarch".


HINDMARCH: So here we are, in London. Come and see this book.




HINDMARCH: So here we are, in London. Come and see this book.

I opened this store with [UNCLEAR] - nothing other than I really wanted to do it. And we opened it in Pont Street - our first store on Pont Street. And just from day one, it just went mad.

I think it's really important to reconnect the customer to how things are made. Because, actually, that's part of the beauty of luxury in a way. And I think that they want to be involved. They want to see how things are made. They want to be involved in the process.

So, essentially, you can have anything you handwrite or draw embossed into the leather. So, for example, if you handwrite a message, we will then make it into a metal plate, which we then heat up and actually emboss into the leather. Or, in fact, you can actually have these tiny, tiny little letters, if you want to have just a block.

And we have this rather beautiful font made - all our own special fonts into brass. And then we line those up and actually then emboss those into the leather and actually have the name of the person made. So, when you have the name on the box, it's always made from these little letters here. It's a real labor of love, actually. I'm getting them out, but they're all specially made on our end - special fonts.


RAJPAL: There's a sense that - we talk a lot about luxury brands. And luxury brands - there had been a time when - or a luxury item was something that came from generations of craftsmanship that was handed down family after family. And the name was handed down as well. Also, the way something was made. And it takes a long time for a product or even a brand to be given the definition of it being a luxury brand. And yet, here you are, 25 years later, and you are a luxury brand.

HINDMARCH: Yes, if you had asked me, really, what I think luxury is to me, it would start with, you know, if you were to lock me up somewhere, the one luxury you could never take away from me is my memories. And I have lots of snapshots in my head of really special things to me. And I think the extension of that is the things you have that mean something to you because someone gave it to you because of some special story to it or you might have found it somewhere on some special trip.


HINDMARCH: And I think that, for me, actually, luxury has lost its way when it loses that sort of narrative and that story to each individual piece. And so - and for me, the idea of personalization and being able to actually, you know, handwrite a message and emboss it into a secret place on the wallet. Or to write some child's message on a beautiful leather bookmark or to, you know, just have your initials on the strap of a bag that's kind of cross-body - it just makes it something special. And I think that luxury, per se, without any kind of story, is a bit meaningless.

RAJPAL: Yes. And what interesting you say about putting - embossing - something in a bag - you did that for someone who was very high profile, Margaret Thatcher.

HINDMARCH: Yes, indeed. Well, there's so many stories of things that, you know, we've made for people. And you get very sort of involved in their lives in many ways.


HINDMARCH: But I think, you know, you then make memories. And actually, the great fun thing is - for me - is designing beautiful handbags that are kind of mood altering and make women feel fabulous - not feel rich - feel fabulous. That's the thing that interests me.

RAJPAL: What was it about Margaret Thatcher? Because I know that she's had an influence on you, as a businesswoman. What did you see in her that you potentially saw in yourself?

HINDMARCH: Two things - it's not so much what I saw in her that I see in myself. It was more that she just sort of said, get out and get going. She kind of pushed the UK to kind of, you know, start businesses. And it was a very sort of fertile time. And many of my friends who started businesses, started at that time because she kind of freed it up. So that was the first thing.

And I think the second thing is that she made the word handbag into a verb. How cool is that?

RAJPAL: Yes. You're also representative when it comes to British business abroad. Especially when it comes to working with the Conservative Party. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, describes your talents as, "Awe inspiring". Give me an idea of how important you feel government - or what role government can play in inspiring young entrepreneurs.

HINDMARCH: I think it's really important, actually, not so much for government, but for entrepreneurs to inspire other entrepreneurs. Because, when was - you know, whenever I talk to people. And I talk to a lot of people who come and, you know, meet me at the office and ask advice. Or, you know, as I travel around.

And honestly, that's the most exciting thing ever. I mean, I just love what I do. It's like going to work every day. And you kind of put on your battle dress and it's like a great game of chess. You know, you never quite know what's going to happen. You might have a lucky day. You know, you never know what's going to be in next.

RAJPAL: Do you think the government, though, does play a role in trying to, at least, help?

HINDMARCH: Without a doubt, it can facilitate. And I think that, you know, the fact that, you know, they've asked would I promote and try and help businesses that are, you know, specifically probably in the creative industries. And just business - small businesses - SMEs, particularly to, you know, to export and to grow and to give feedback to them on, you know, what helps. So I think, absolutely, they can facilitate. But I think they shouldn't get too involved. I think it's about enabling, really.

RAJPAL: Do you see Anya Hindmarch, the brand, as a British brand?

HINDMARCH: I do, yes. But I think one shouldn't get too hung up on Britishness, actually. I mean, I feel very British. I'm very proud to be British. But I think, you know, you can rest on your laurels with nationality in a funny way. And there's all sorts of, you know, footprint of memory and all those things that you can associate with that as a label. And yet, I think that, you know, I feel like an international brand, honestly. You know, we sell all over the world and, you know, we make also, not only in the UK, so it is a very international brand, so -

RAJPAL: Do you feel that there are challenges, though, when it comes to actually finding the craftsmen within Britain, itself? Because a lot of your work is done outside of Britain - manufacturing. What are the challenges, do you think, of actually bringing that back home?

HINDMARCH: I think it's about finding the better craftsmen, full stop. And I think that, if one was too limited and insisting there on your own territory, I think you wouldn't actually necessarily get the best product. We have craftsmen in our stores and our perspective. So we actually have the craftsmen in the store, because I really wanted to connect people back to how things are made. Because the customer's really disconnected from that at the moment.

RAJPAL: You have made a very strong stance to stay privately held. Full, I mean, ownership - at least majority ownership - for yourself. Why is it so important to do that, do you think? To have ownership of your name and your brand.

HINDMARCH: We've been approached over the years many times to join groups. I mean, who knows? One day, it might be the right thing. Up until now, it's always made sense to - just, I mean, it feels like family in my company. And it feels like my company. Which, of course, it's not. There's lots of us now. But I wanted to keep that atmosphere and to keep that sort of sense of taught ropes and kind of commitment. So that's something I've loved and wanted to keep. I mean, we have take n an investment about five years ago. And then, a year ago, again. And it's very important, I think, to find people who share your vision, who are long term, who really are committed to doing something really beautiful and good, as opposed to just wanting a return. Because that's not the way I would ever run the business. It's much more than that for me.


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up, Hindmarch takes us back to where it all began.

HINDMARCH: Every little detail is very much something that matters.





RAJPAL: In terms of, also, what you see - how you keep refreshing your ideas and how you keep being inspired - what do you look for? So, I mean, what are we looking at this season, for your work?

HINDMARCH: How long have you got?


HINDMARCH: So this season, which is kind of around me, here - it's spring-summer. And it was actually inspired, interestingly, by two things. One was the technique I found where you can actually bond really beautiful French goat skins, which is very tight, beautiful, thin, firm skin, but very lightweight - to a piece of modern, man-made material. So you get amazing contrast of color. But it also means that you can make things that are very, very deconstructed and raw and light. And yet, they're very - they perform really well.

And so we looked at a lot of performance and weight and the bag we brought, I call the Featherweight, which is very, very light. We did a lot of deconstruction on our name bags and the ones that we're sort of known for. But there was this levitating globe, which was levitating on magnets. I became fascinated by it and I wanted to explain the weightlessness of this collection in our show at fashion week.

And so we worked on our show to kind of explain the context of having a runway show that actually started off as a normal runway show and then ended up being a sort of a planetarium with everything happening in the air. So it's kind of a bit mad, but quite fun.

RAJPAL: The interesting thing about being an artist is that you can have an idea, but it's another thing to be able to take that idea and to make it into something real. And to not only be something real and concrete that you can hold, but something that will sell.

You were able to do that from the time you were 18 years old. Where do you think that came from? I mean, you were able to sell 500 bags from the time you - from having an idea. You had the marketing, the PR, and just the skills to be able to get your name out there. Where did that come from?

HINDMARCH: When you're young, you're very naive. I mean, it's a wonderful advantage, in some ways. I mean, I think there was very much that time of everyone go, go, go. It was quite intoxicating. I think that - and I suppose I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I'm sure that was probably quite fertile for helping me think I could do it - for some enabling it.

But you also - you're quite precocious at that age, aren't you? Just like, "Why wouldn't I?" You know, "I'll have a go". And it's really fun. And I didn't want to university. I would have been really bad at university. Really impatient in the classroom.

RAJPAL: When do you think you actually felt that you were - you cracked this market - that you had something there that was worth selling and that your name was worth buying into?

HINDMARCH: I didn't ever stop and think about that. You're just always thinking about the next thing. You're always worrying about how things are, you know, doing. And what's the next project. And, I mean, I love what I do. I'm not sort of endlessly worried, but I don't ever sit and go, "Whee".

RAJPAL: Even when you saw people lining up around the block to get your "I'm not a plastic bag" bag? Around the world? Places in Japan as well. I mean, even then you didn't feel --?

HINDMARCH: That was amazing. It was an amazing experience, that. And exciting and scary. Because that was really a baptism by fire. Because it was quite a kind of political project. But you know, at the time, you're running around worrying about the fact that, you know, everyone's going to get cross and there are people ended up in hospital in Taiwan. So, there's all sorts of issues to deal with. And what's back crashing?


HINDMARCH: So, you know, there's no time. And, you know, of course you look back and go, "Woo hoo, that was exciting". But there's always the next challenge. So I think if you stop and kind of pat yourself on the back, that's when things can really go wrong. I think you've got to keep kind of staying focused and looking ahead.

RAJPAL: You talk about coming from an entrepreneurial family. I read somewhere that your cot was under your father's desk. Do you feel that maybe there was some sense of osmosis that you picked up from him and guidance from him as well?

HINDMARCH: Certainly guidance. Absolutely. I think that I'm never sure what's nature on that. I'm sure it's a combination of both, probably. And I'm lucky because I really love the creative side, and I also really like the business side. And I think that's enabled me to kind of push on without having to end up with, you know, take external management many years ago. So we kind of could get to this scale.

And, without a doubt, my family are amazing to me and have been -- my father still sits on my board and is, you know, the person I would probably turn to for the most brutally honest advice. Which is actually a really pretty special, so he's always really honest.

RAJPAL: What kind of advice has he given you that has really stuck with you?

HINDMARCH: Well so much, honestly. But I think the one thing that I've really sort of taken away is the times he said, "You know what? Just trust yourself. You know more than you think".

RAJPAL: you talk a lot about having stories. Because stories are very important. And a woman's handbag can tell a lot of stories.

HINDMARCH: And truths, too.

RAJPAL: Well, it's true. I mean, I remember, when I was a child, looking at my mother's bag. And I always used to tell her, "Why is your bag so heavy? It's so big and it's so heavy." And I swear to God, I've turned into my mother.

HINDMARCH: We all do, don't we?

RAJPAL: That's what it is.


RAJPAL: What are your memories of your mom and her bag?

HINDMARCH: Actually, my mother is actually quite a sort of subconscious source of inspiration for me, actually. Because I was growing up in the 70s. And I mean, I have a very clear memory of her in these sort of slightly high-waisted, quite fitted trousers. Sort of flared and kind of camel - lots of camel going on. And those very thin, metallic belts, with the two tones of metallic. And so it's quite a specific time and, you know, very much a fashion - you know, a particular fashion moment.

So, I probably learned a lot of what I've learned from my mother. She's amazing - she is an amazing present-giver. And she'd always make us fantastic sort of treasure hunts of birthdays. And we'd be running around in the lots with wonderful ribbons and so on. And I'm sure that part of the fact that I love that is the presence and things that are very personalized and that, you know, come in boxes with the name of the person embossed onto the box. And so it's really - all those little details very much come from my mother.

RAJPAL: Is it true that she was still signing - filling out an invoice? When she was about to have you?

HINDMARCH: Yes, absolutely, yes. She didn't officially work with my father, but my father started a company very young, also. And so, you know, was very busy with that. And she would actually help out. And I think she was helping, literally typing invoices as she was experiencing labor pains. I think, you know, it's a full circle, basically.

RAJPAL: The interesting thing about your story is that - you know, you have a business, but for you, it literally is family. You've got your work - you work very closely with your husband. That's got to be the best of both worlds, but also can be quite challenging, too, at times, right?

HINDMARCH: Well, I mean, I love it. It's like being with your best friend all day for me.


HINDMARCH: I think he would raise his eyes to heaven if he was to see this. But I think the problem is, poor man, he's brilliant and it's such a privilege to work - and he's really good at what he does. I think that, you know, being married to an entrepreneur, it's so much part of everything I love.


HINDMARCH: So much part of me, that I love having him involved in it. And we've worked together, now, for, you know, 13 years. And it's great for me. I mean, I'll sit down and he'll sit and we'll be next to each other all day.

RAJPAL: -- next to each other -

HINDMARCH: I loved it. He was like, "Enough". So I'm now actually in my design studio upstairs, and he's downstairs. At least, at the end of the day, we can say, "How was your day?" Which is actually quite a nice thing.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much.