LONDON, United Kingdom — “I started my business when I was 18,” said luxury handbag designer Anya Hindmarch. On her gap year in Florence, Italy, she saw a bag that was all the rage among the cool Italian girls and she bought it. “I took it to London and everyone loved it,” she recalls.
The reaction, it seems, helped her identify a business opportunity. “I found a factory, had a similar bag made and took it back to the UK.” Her first break came when she persuaded Harpers & Queen to offer the bags to their readers, resulting in 500 orders. These initial sales sparked demand among the cult London stores of the time, and soon, orders came in from big New York stores too, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel.
Although success came early for Hindmarch she admits that it was a difficult time, replete with growing pains. “You don’t have the volume for the factories to give you much time. And the designs have to be the most special to win the customers over. Basically, you have to sweet talk and sell to the suppliers as much as to the customers,” recalls Hindmarch. “You have to be determined, beyond sense almost, to get through that phase.”
Hindmarch moved some of her production to the UK, to a facility she still uses today. “I needed to control it so I could really make sure that the products were really special," she explains. “I can drive there everyday and make sure that we really get it right.” And once production was in place, the brand enjoyed a steady pace of growth. “The business grew with wholesale," she recalls.
“But it was the first store [opened in 1993 on Walton Street in London] that was a big stepping stone for us. Suddenly, you get to speak with your customers directly. You learn a lot of what you need to do design wise if you listen to the customer,” she says. “The business grew very fast from that point on.”
In 1995, Hindmarch was approached by a Hong Kong-based franchise partner, which gave the brand its first presence outside the UK. And in the years that followed, Anya Hindmarch began opening stores all over the world, in New York, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
In 2007, in the midst of a rapid expansion, the designer took on a private equity investment from Kelso Place Asset Management, the London-based firm who also invested in Smythson. “I wanted someone who understood what we were trying to do… I felt that chemistry was incredibly important because you want to sit down and enjoy being with them while your ambitions are aligned, otherwise it becomes too difficult,” says Hindmarch. “Equally, I wanted to get on people who wanted to push us forward and not micro-manage their investment.”
But it was a product called “I’m NOT a plastic bag,” an eco tote bag create in partnership with not-for-profit We Are What We Do which aimed to reduce the use of plastic bags, that made Anya Hindmarch a global sensation. In London, the canvas bag, retailing for only £5 and available at Sainsbury's grocery stores, sold out within a matter of hours and quickly fetched over £250 on eBay. In the US the eco tote became the official goodie bag at the 2007 Vanity Fair Oscar Party, securing its must-have status. “I didn’t do it as a business success thing. I did it because I cared," says Hindmarch. “Of course, we planned it carefully. I planned for it to be a success, but you never know.”
Indeed, the bag also generated an unexpected backlash. “What [the media] were saying was that it’s made in China," explains Hindmarch. "But there was never any pretense about that… They said that it was made in dodgy factories, but they were made in American-audited factories that made the most incredible brands. You just have to explain to people and get the correct message out there,” she says.
Last month, the brand, which posted just over ₤20 million of revenue in 2010, hired James MacArthur, former CEO of Harrods and Balenciaga, to take the reins — a hugely important milestone for the growing company. MacArthur will help define and execute the brand’s aggressive expansion strategy, which includes opening 11 new stores this year. He also has his sights on emerging markets, e-commerce, and a soon-to-launch Anya Hindmarch Bespoke web experience.
“The big change for me is that I’m going back to the creative side,” said Hindmarch. “I really wanted to get someone on board who understand luxury businesses, what were about, and who I really like, and has that aggressive energy in running the company.”
When asked how she’s managing the speed and scale of her company’s growth, Hindmarch, who is now 42 and has five children, says: “I love it. I get bored very easily. I enjoy it and I will get very restless if I don’t have 100 things on the go.” Clearly, having this kind of drive is one of the secrets to her tremendous success.
Robert Cordero is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.