Talking to Anya Hindmarch

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A chat with Anya Hindmarch

Anya Hindmarch’s course in life was set the day her mother gave her a secondhand Gucci bag when she was 16. A couple of years later, while in Florence studying Italian, she picked up on a particular kind of drawstring duffel bag that was popular with local women. With entrepreneurial spirit, she started importing them to the UK, and, after sending one to Harpers and Queen, she sold over 500 through that magazine alone.

Back in London, she began designing her own bags and set up her own business in 1987, with her designs made in east London and sold in luxury stores across Europe and America. Anya soon built a reputation for craftsmanship and quality, but also for humour, with playful, brightly coloured designs often referencing popular culture. Some have had eyes, others based on tins of baked beans and crisp packets. There’s also an emphasis on personalisation, with leather stickers being offered to add to your bag to make it unique, and more recently customers have been able to design their own bespoke bags from thousands of different possible combinations.

She was also one of the first accessory designers to move towards making more environmentally friendly products. In 2007, there was the “I’m NOT A Plastic Bag’ tote, which sold for £5 in four limited edition colours. This was followed by the ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ campaign, a collection made from a new fabric created from recycled plastic bottles.

Among other achievements, Anya was the first accessories designer to hold their own London Fashion Week show, was awarded an MBE in 2009 and then a CBE in 2017 for services to the fashion industry. She’s also very involved in the art world, as a trustee of both the Design Museum and the Royal Academy. And, just this year, she published her first book If In Doubt Wash Your Hair, a ‘manual for life’ that aims to help women to feel better about themselves.

We caught up with Anya to find out how she keeps up with everything.

Was it really an old Gucci bag that inspired everything? Do you still have it?

It was, probably, yes. I was given a bag by my mum when I was about 16 and I remember how it made me feel, actually, which is the bit that really interests me in fashion, and I remember being fascinated by the beautiful leather and the craftsmanship and the stitching. But I also used to make lots of things in my playroom out of paper – little bags and purses – so it was always something that interested me. Do I still have the bag? No, I don’t, sadly.

What makes a really good bag?

I’m a great believer in bags that work, actually. Bags are ultimately for taking things with you when you leave the house, to be organised, and finding things quickly is also important. And it’s kind of annoying when you can’t. I’m a bit obsessed by organisation, in all aspects of my life, actually. There’s a real art to organisation. In a way I think your handbag is something that really ties in to the art of organisation. But equally, it’s about being lightweight, that it’s actually designed to be ergonomic, that it actually makes your day easier. But it can also just be something that makes you smile, it’s just a really beautiful thing that enhances your life. A bit like if you’re a driver, a really beautiful steering wheel is a just a lovely thing.

How would you define your own distinct aesthetic style?

I don’t like dressing in a really shouty way. I’d rather buy clothes that last but you don’t necessarily notice immediately. Perhaps later on you notice the small details. So, I’d always rather let my accessories do the talking for me. So, I like brands like Jil Sander or Dries van Noten, or having things made that are really beautiful, sometimes men’s shirts. So good quality things that last, that don’t suddenly look of a moment. I’m not very good at the big ta-dah, frothy thing, I’d rather be a bit discreet.

How big an influence has the kind of art you find in galleries had on what you do?

I think all art has an influence on design and ideas. And that might be art that you’ve studied and grown up with, and then new art that you see. I think that it always sparks ideas and somehow banks subconsciously in your brain, or sometimes quite consciously on something like a Pinterest board to log things that you like. And I like to surround myself with images of things I like because it sparks ideas, often when you’re not thinking about it. Galleries are a very important part of feeding my brain. It might be colours, it might be shapes, it might be a mood or feeling, or it might be something quite specific. So, I have very much missed galleries in this endless lockdown and I’m very excited that they’re opening again.

Do you collect art or have any particular favourites?

I do, but in a very informal way, more really just to, I suppose, fill the gaps in my home. I tend to, without realising it, have a bit of a British theme going on in things that I surround myself with. I have some things by Conrad Leach, by D*Face, Chris Levine, David Mach, Tracey Emin, a few things that are quite sort of British as artists and as a theme as well.

What made you decide to move on from selling that original Italian drawstring bag to designing your own?

I just really wanted to, I suppose, make something that I thought would make it better or make it my own, really. And I’d always had an idea that I quite wanted to build a brand or build a design label, a fashion label, and so it was quite instinctive in a way, to want to design my own piece.

Do you have a particular favourite among all the bags you’ve produced over the years?

It’s a really hard question. My favourite is always the one I’m working on next. I’m always excited by the project I’m working on, but of the things that I’ve really loved, and there are many, obviously, one of my favourites is something called the Crisp p Packet Bag, which is this really beautiful, almost like a piece of art, it’s a 3D version of a crisp packet and it’s made out of metal. It has ten different moulds, so it really is actually a piece of sculpture. It was incredibly difficult to make and it opens up a bit like a clam, and it’s just a forever piece which is really lovely. I also love what we call the Anya Brands, which are almost a recreation of everyday things, but done in the most beautiful hand-beaded way. So it might be that it’s a Mars bar or it might be a Coke Zero or it might be an After Eight packet but it’s made out of really beautiful hand beading and recycled satin. So many things that I love – I Am A Plastic Bag, which is a really important project, in terms of the re-use of waste materials.

In what ways has your own environmental awareness changed the way you think about what you do?

I think it’s changed everything. It makes you think about seasons, it makes you think about delivery dates, it makes you think about materials we use and how we use them, where we manufacture things, make things, how we move things around the world, and it just makes us stop and think about what’s important. So, it really has changed everything for me, and we’re all grappling with how to find our way through that whilst also carrying on employing people and making sure that you have an economy that makes sense, because without that it’s going to be quite hard to prioritise the sacrifices we need to make to look after our planet. So, it’s a really, really serious and urgent problem, in my view, and it’s really changed everything in the way that we work and is continuing to and will only escalate, so It’s an important moment.

What made you decide to write a book?

I do lots of talks to various groups, mainly about business and fashion and my world of work, and often it was the questions at the end of the talks from people asking me how I juggled working as a woman and having a family and, if you like, the creative doubts you have in designing and creating things. People would always ask me what’s my best bit of advice for a busy working parent and I would always jokingly reply ‘If in doubt, wash your hair’. Partly because it’s that thing of look after yourself, it’s important because if you don’t you won’t be good to anyone, but also it has the word ‘doubt’ in it, and I think there’s an awful lot of doubt when you’re a parent, when you’re a woman in business and when you’re a creative. And actually, I believe that doubt can be a really good thing, a positive thing that can help you produce good work and make you the best version of yourself.

So, I really wanted to write a book that was very honest about the doubt that I feel in the roles that I have and how I manage that. And sometimes how I don’t, and how that’s okay, too. So, it’s very much a book about that. And I just think that you get to a certain age and think that it’s quite good and important to write down what you’ve learnt in the hope that it helps someone else.

We loved hearing you recently on The Midult podcast. How did that come about?

Well, it was exciting to be invited on the podcast. I’d done it once before as well. Annabel Rivkin is a friend, she makes me laugh, they both make me laugh, they’re great fun. It was really simply that, as the book came out, they felt that some of the themes were probably quite relevant for their topic of midlife and honesty.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

Well, apart from ‘If in doubt, wash your hair’, I think that things come of things. I’m a great believer in that if you do things, things happen. It could be that one thing that you nearly didn’t do that often leads to the thing that really made the difference, so I’m a great believer in just do things. But I’m also a huge believer in being positive and working really hard.

What’s next for you while navigating out of lockdown?

Trying to bring everyone back and get everyone working in a different way and moving the business forward. It’s nice to have all the stores open. We’ve opened what we call the village, which is a collection of stores, including a café and a building we call the village hall, which is forever changing, and has currently opened as a little hair salon called If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair for shampoo and therapy.

It’s a really fun project, opening a little retail enclave that is all about localisation and globalisation. It’s really nice to have a creative place, this little village, to share our ideas that sort of make sense for retail in a way. There’s always a need for customer experience, but it needs to be different, I think, from what is on offer online, so it’s fun and more experiential and a place to focus all our mad creative ideas. That’s been super-exciting. We opened that on 17 May, and there’s lots and lots of projects in play, some really interesting ones and some quite fun ones. Both in the village and more widely as well, so it’s mega-busy right now.