Anya Hindmarch's £5 eco bag revolutionised the world of fashion.
BY Roya Nikkhah | 18 April 2009
The 40-year-old designer explains the theory behind her company motto: "You know how we look at men's shoes to sum them up? Well, it's the same with women and their bags. Accessories are how women accent their character; they are a form of self-expression.
"If you see someone carrying a tatty, beaten-up handbag, full of crumbs, doesn't it kind of make you wonder if their house is just like that, too?"
Glancing at my overstuffed silver bag unlovingly slung on the chair, I wonder what it says about me. Hindmarch answers diplomatically: "I think it says you're a very busy person who needs to carry a lot with you."
Hindmarch's coveted accessories - "It bags" which can cost up to four figures - have been arm candy for Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Sitting in her showroom in Battersea, south London, which is stuffed full of her handmade bags, it's easy to see why. But while Hindmarch is renowned for intricately designed bags with stitched-in compartments for make-up and mobile phones, it was a far simpler design that became her bestseller, and helped her clinch an MBE in the New Year honours list.
Two years ago this month Hindmarch launched her now-famous canvas "eco-tote" emblazoned with the slogan "I'm Not a Plastic Bag".
The limited edition bag, which cost just £5, was intended as a replacement for plastic bags. When it was seen dangling from the arms of Keira Knightley and the model Lily Cole, all 20,000 of the first run sold out in an hour, and within days they were trading on eBay for more than £200.
More than 120,000 were sold in total and the bags even received royal assent, with the Prince of Wales writing to Hindmarch to congratulate her on "the marvellous new bag".
"It was one of those things that had been keeping on and on in the back of my mind," she says. "Like when you know you need to go to the dentist but keep putting it off. I used to be so stupid - going to the supermarket and using 30 plastic bags and throwing them out when I got home. I knew it was wrong but you feel powerless as an individual to make a difference.
"Then I thought, hey, how about using fashion to persuade people it's cool not to use a plastic bag? Fashion designers can persuade people to wear drainpipe jeans, after all. "
The impact of Hindmarch's initiative has been huge. Statistics from Wrap, the Government's anti-waste body, show that shops gave out 3.5 billion fewer plastic bags last year, with the number of plastic bags dispensed falling from 13.4 billion in 2007 to
9.9 billion last year. "Woo hoo!" she yells, punching the air when I read her the figures. "I knew they would be good, but that's really something."
Hindmarch dismisses the negative coverage she received soon afterwards, when it emerged that the bags were made by cheap labour in China, and not with Fairtrade cotton. "Typical tabloid hot air," she says. "We were upfront from the start that in order to stay within our cost limit, we weren't going to be able to manufacture the bags in Britain, and we offset all the carbon output from production. And don't forget we made a loss on every bag. The factory workers were paid double their usual wage, and the factory is checked all the time because it is used by some of the world's biggest companies. I'm proud of what we did. It made a difference."
The middle child of three siblings, Hindmarch grew up in Essex, the daughter of a businessman who, ironically, made his money in plastics. "Yes, I'm an Essex girl," she laughs, rolling her eyes. "I suppose I should carry a white handbag. I guess it's ironic what my father did as a living. He says we shouldn't demonise plastic and he's right. It is an incredibly clever, light, cheap material. The key is not wasting it."
After a convent school education, Hindmarch, a keen singer, considered opera as a career, and spent her gap year in Italy, the spiritual home of opera - and handbags. "I saw this leather duffle bag that all the cool girls were wearing in Florence which I thought my friends back home would like," she explains. "So I found a factory, got some samples made to bring back to England, and sold them through Harpers & Queen magazine. I still can't quite believe they went with an idea from an 18-year-old."
Hindmarch launched a wholesale business, selling her designs to department stores such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, before opening her first store in Chelsea in 1993, where the Princess of Wales was one of her first buyers. "She was a very loyal customer and a lot of fun," Hindmarch recalls. "She would come and see us with no bodyguards or any fuss. We used to laugh when we designed what she called her 'cleavage bags', little satin clutches which she would cover her cleavage with when she stepped out of cars."
Hindmarch now has 51 stores around the world, with an estimated turnover of £20 million, but she remembers starting out in an equally gloomy economic climate to the one facing retailers today. "I launched the business during the recession of 1987, which gave me some important lessons," she says. "I remember the nightmares when customers didn't pay me and orders were cancelled. You learn from that."
Despite the financial gloom, Hindmarch says she seems to be bucking the trend, with sales up five per cent on last year, which she attributes to the "good value" of her designs. "The average price of our competitors' bags is upwards of £1,000; ours is £650." But isn't £650 still an indulgent amount to spend on a handbag? "I suppose you could say, who really needs another bag? I hate waste more than anything, it makes me ill, and spending thousands on a bag which is unfashionable the next season is ludicrous. But I make beautifully crafted bags that women invest in and can hand down to their children. There's a difference."
Dressed top-to-toe in navy, Hindmarch is also a self-proclaimed "true blue" Conservative, and a devotee of Baroness Thatcher. Among her prized possessions is a letter from the Iron Lady hanging on her office wall, thanking Hindmarch for the navy bag she sent as a gift, and a card wishing her a happy birthday. As a surprise present for her 40th last year, one of Hindmarch's friends arranged for the two of them to have tea together, which Hindmarch describes as "one of the highlights of my life".
"I'm a Thatcher child through and through. The reason I started my business was because she was telling people to stop putting their hand up and asking the government for help, but to get out there and get going."
She is also a fan of David Cameron, who last year asked Hindmarch to chair the Conservatives' annual fundraiser, the Black and White Ball, in Battersea. "I admire Cameron because I think he's honest. I'm sick of all the spin and lies of this Government. When I grew up, politics was inspiring. Now, everyone seems a bit turned off."
Hindmarch lives in Belgravia with her husband, James Seymour, and their five children. She met Seymour, a widower, when she was 25, inheriting three young stepchildren when they married in 1996. "It was a baptism of fire," she recalls.
The couple also work together, with Seymour the company's financial director. "It was a very scary decision, because you don't mess with your marriage, but somehow it works."
In January, Hindmarch was awarded her MBE, an honour that almost passed her by. "I received this letter that looked like a VAT return, so I gave it to my accountant," she laughs. It is, she admits, a bit special. "I never dreamed that a bag lady would ever receive such an honour. It has made me feel a bit treasured, and that's the nicest feeling in the world."
Source : http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG5178887/Anya-Hindmarch-bag-lady-with-a-20m-empire.html