Lunch with the FT

September 6, 2013 6:54 pm

Dinner with the FT: Anya Hindmarch

The British fashion chief talks about keeping control, making mistakes and taking her brand truly global
Anya Hindmarch©Luke Waller

Anya Hindmarch is going to be late. I know this because her office emailed me twice on the day of our dinner to alert me to the probability; she is coming from a meeting with Bergdorf Goodman on 57th Street and we are eating downtown and, well ... traffic.

Not only that but she probably won’t have had a chance to freshen up, because she is rushing to meet me, so could I please forgive her if she seems a bit wilted in the New York summer heat? She is, however, really looking forward to our meal.

This email is, in my experience, unusual. In my experience, any email regarding the head of a global accessories brand such as Hindmarch, with annual sales of £45m, 57 stores around the world, a new Qatari investor and plans to quadruple the business in the next few years, starting with the launch of a 2,400 sq ft flagship in New York this month, does not begin by creating an expectation that the boss is going to look bad.

On the other hand, it is also a very Anya Hindmarch sort of email to get. For example, later that evening I arrive 10 minutes early at Barbuto in the West Village. And though Hindmarch has actually arrived before me, and is looking relatively cool – white tank top under a very on-trend unbuttoned black silk pyjama shirt over a pencil skirt, hair up in a just-so messy bun, diamond studs in her ears – when I get to the table, she cries: “Oh, I’m so sorry, I know you were expecting me to be late but we finished in good time and I got down here so quickly, which was amazing. But it’s so loud! Will you be OK? Should we move? I was just so craving roast chicken. Don’t you find that whenever you have a night off you long for roast chicken? When I am at home in London, we always get delivery chicken from Rotisserie Jules. My children joke that it is my home cooking.” Before we have even opened a menu, then, before I manage more than a surprised, “Oh, I thought you were going to be late?” she has already apologised for choosing a noisy restaurant and confessed to not cooking for her family – all at exhaustive length.

When it comes to self-deprecation, Hindmarch’s litany is hard to beat. But, then, that’s kind of the point. Luxury brands increasingly play the national heritage card, rooting themselves in long artisanal traditions to appeal to new markets. The ability to mark out specific territory in consumers’ minds – to identify with some quality that is subconsciously “British” or “French” or “Italian” – is, therefore, de rigueur. So Burberry has claimed the accessibly hip, flag-waving side of Britishness; Stella McCartney is cool Britannia; Hunter is wellies-maker to the Royals. Hindmarch, however, has settled on a more abstract British characteristic for her brand: what is colloquially referred to as taking the piss out of oneself. Combined with regular displays of stiff upper lipness, regarding hurdles overcome, it describes an identity that is both proprietary and quasi-national.

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On one hand, this is very clever. It stops Hindmarch – who started her own business at 18, is raising five children (three of whom she adopted when she married businessman James Seymour, a widower), has been awarded an MBE for her contribution to British fashion, is a UK trade ambassador and always has a perfect manicure – seeming too much like a superwoman. On the other hand, outside the UK, it’s a more complicated sell.

In the US, for example, where women such as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg are lauded for their ability to have it all and then become more famous for exhorting other women to be like them, someone like Hindmarch, who is constantly offering up examples of her own fallibility instead of crowing about her success, can seem a little puzzling. Charming but odd.

Which may explain why, though she is something of a celebrity in British fashion circles, Hindmarch, 45, has never quite managed to vault into the global big leagues. It was predicted in 2001, when her “Be a Bag” initiative enabled customers, including Kate Moss and Elton John, to have a photograph printed on a tote; in 2007, when her £5 “I’m not a plastic bag” canvas shopping tote became a phenomenon (and later a controversy, when it was revealed to have been made in China); and again, two years ago, when she introduced Bespoke, which allows personalisation of everything from wallets to diaries and tote bags, not just with initials but dedications and quotations. Yet here we are again, still on the verge.

“Of course, sometimes I think about Jimmy Choo,” says Hindmarch, referring to another UK accessories brand, founded almost 10 years after her company, and bought for $811m in 2011 by European private luxury group Labelux, “but the opportunity was there many times over and I just never wanted to give up control. Everyone knocked on our door.”

Everyone like LVMH, I ask? “Everyone,” she says again. “I could have taken on a big investor earlier and opened lots of stores and run big ad campaigns but I am a believer in growing organically, and I’m very proud of the fact we have been profitable every year. I don’t want to be LVMH but I do think we are at the point now when I need to pick up the pace.”

The waiter asks if we would like a drink. Hindmarch thinks for a bit and then says, “What about an Americano?” The choice of cocktail, it turns out, has a backstory: she has known Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto’s owner, for a few years, and once she was in town for work “just after Felix [her first child with Seymour] went to boarding school, and I was feeling very bereft, so he invited us over for lunch and brought out a tray of Americanos and we just sat there in the garden all afternoon, drinking them.”

. . .

The waiter leaves and we examine the menu. Hindmarch says she isn’t going to have a starter because she had a two-course lunch. She puffs out her cheeks in an “I’m so full” gesture. Her constant struggle with weight is a regular refrain. When the drinks arrive, she orders her chicken and I ask for some pasta. The waiter suggests we share a side but I am hungry, so we each get greens. Afterwards, Waxman himself appears to deliver some extra treats: zucchini ribbons. “It’s the Jewish mother in me,” he says.

Two years ago Hindmarch hired James McArthur, a former chief executive at Balenciaga and Harrods, as her first external manager, to help her break through to the next level. Previously, she had been running both the creative and corporate sides of the business, with the help of her husband, who joined as finance director in 2000 (he had previously been at Jigsaw), a job he still holds. Hindmarch, who launched her business in 1987, grew up in Essex, the middle child of a businessman and a French teacher. Dyslexic, she was never particularly academic but on a trip to Italy she discovered a leather bag she loved and brought it back to the UK. When her older sister Nicole decided to start the Wedding List company (which, in effect, monetised the nuptial gift list), she went in on a building with her in South Kensington and started selling bags, now marked by a tiny bow. The first time we met was in that shop, more than a decade ago.

“It was heaven to get back to the pure creative side,” she says of the effect of McArthur’s appointment; “not to have that feeling of dread when someone at head office – and there are 80 of us now – says, ‘Anya, can I have a word?’ I am having so much fun thinking of new ideas; they come all the time. Waiting in line at immigration, I could have three ideas!”

McArthur’s arrival has coincided with a creative flowering. “It was probably my biggest mistake not hiring an outside CEO sooner,” says Hindmarch. One of McArthur’s first moves was to ask her to create a “brand scrapbook”, going all the way back to the beginning. “I realised that all these things had gotten away from me: the colour of the tissue paper, which should be slightly chalky, but not cream or beige; the size of the logo, which was never really supposed to be a logo but more like a trademark.”

Indeed, though Hindmarch has embarked on various brand extensions over the years, from shoes to a small collection of ready-to-wear (primarily outerwear and beachwear), the company has, since McArthur’s arrival, sloughed off those products to concentrate purely on leather goods. “We needed to get back to our core, to be very clear about what we stand for,” she says, though she notes that at some point she will probably return those other accessories to her accessory business.

The waiter comes to remove our plates. I have demolished my zucchini ribbons but Hindmarch has not even touched hers. “May I keep this?” she asks politely, moving it to one side.

McArthur also put a number of systems in place, and started poaching people with specific big brand experience. “We have a logistics person from Gap, product development people from Balenciaga and Gucci, a merchandiser from Burberry,” Hindmarch says. “It changes everything. We really re-plumbed the business. It was like having a private course from Harvard Business School. We never had a merchandising team – I never really knew why you wanted one – but James showed me that you really want a triangular business, with design on one angle and sales on one, and those two should be in constant tension, with merchandising as a referee between the two.”

The new Manhattan flagship, on Madison Avenue, will be the first test of the new-shape Hindmarch, as well as the first store to unite the ready-to-wear collections – traditional leather bags, occasionally adorned with a supersized leather tassel, and the more humorous evening bags, which can mimic bejewelled candy bars or even super high-end snow globes – with the bespoke line. Hindmarch has a thing about bespoke, partly because she has a thing about presents, especially ones that feel personal, which she explains by saying: “You know, recently I was trying to cull the children’s books, because they are just taking over the house, but then every time I opened one with a dedication in it, I thought, “Oh no, I can’t get rid of that one,’ so it ended up being something of a failure.”

She hopes the store will address the issue that, as Hindmarch says, “in the United States our visibility has been very low”. She knows this will necessitate her being more hands-on but it has also coincided with her children being away at school: both Felix and Otto, her youngest son, are at boarding school, and her three elder children – Hugo, Tia, and Bert – are, respectively, at the law firm Freshfields, Bain Consulting and spending a term at Beijing University. I ask if she wishes they had joined the family business. “No, not at all,” she says. “Maybe they can later, or maybe they should start their own thing. It’s so much fun!”

. . .

As our main courses arrive, Waxman suggests we might like a “nice glass of rosé” with dinner. Hindmarch laughs and says she is going to blame him if the interview comes out funny. She has some experience with this.

She recently made headlines for saying “maternity laws will cripple this country” while testifying before the House of Commons business innovation and skills committee about the fact that employers should be able to ask female employees how long they plan to take off when they have children. Her point was not that women should toughen up but that employers might actually choose to hire men instead of women because they were so unhappy with the amorphous maternity leave situation, which was, in the end, bad for women.

When I bring it up, she says. “I can tell you this, my press office does not want me to talk about it at all” but then she does anyway. She is against the overt campaigning for women’s empowerment; she feels it actually has a negative impact because it ghettoises women. “I think we just need to do what we are doing, and change will come in a relatively short time,” she says. “There is Angela [Ahrendts, Burberry chief executive], Natalie [Massenet, of Net-a-Porter], me – and where you have one, next you have three, and then you have nine.”

She is a vociferous David Cameron supporter and fundraiser (her former right-hand woman is now Samantha Cameron’s top aide at No 10), though she has recently toned down public expressions of her politics to take more of a background role. Still, she’s not afraid of an unpopular opinion. Though much had been made in the fashion industry of the lack of support for young designers (admittedly, a complaint made largely by young designers), she feels quite the opposite is true – “there is a lot of money for young designers” – and besides, she doesn’t think it’s necessarily good to give them too much too soon anyway. She didn’t have help, after all. Hindmarch is an unapologetic Thatcherite.

When the waiter finally takes our plates away, of the four pieces of chicken on her plate, she has maybe eaten one and barely touched her greens. I realise, while she has been talking, I have been eating. Are you sure, I ask, that you don’t want some food? I can stop asking questions, and let you eat. But she laughs and waves her plate away.

Hindmarch laughs a lot and has a well-developed sense of humour: her Instagrams consist largely of such accidental discoveries as a sign at Condé Nast that reads: “Please do not smoke in this back passage.” And she recently held an “away day” for her employees that steered away from strategy sessions in favour of a treasure hunt, where the challenges included putting on your underwear back to front by Tower Bridge. “It’s lovely to see how competitive everyone was,” she says, suggesting that laughter, even at your own expense, can be a tool for achievement.

Neither of us wants dessert, and it is too hot for coffee. I ask if she has a car waiting. “No, but I Uber,” she says, referring to the taxi-hailing app. “I love to Uber.” I leave her on a street corner, energetically punching numbers into her phone. As she turns, I see that her shirt (by Stella McCartney) is not simply black, as I had assumed, but actually has a giant bird embroidered on the back. It’s an eagle. And it is in the process of landing.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

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Barbuto

775 Washington Street New York, NY 10014

Pollo $19.00

Bucatini $21.00

Verdure x2 $16.00

Americano x2 $28.00

Total (incl tax) $91.46

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