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What is it with women and handbags?

Deborah Ross meets Anya Hindmarch, Britain’s accessory queen, and finally gets to the bottom of our obsession with fashionable bags

26 August 2009

12:00 AM

26 August 2009

12:00 AM

Deborah Ross meets Anya Hindmarch, Britain’s accessory queen, and finally gets to the bottom of our obsession with fashionable bags

Look, can I be totally honest? I know, I know, it’s not usually my style, but today I’m going to be honest and what I want to honestly say is this: I may be a little in love with Anya Hindmarch, the handbag designer and creator of that ‘I am not a plastic bag’ canvas shopping bag. Now, am I as surprised by this turn of events as anyone? Christ, yes. I am not even into handbags and, as a rule, am wholly scornful of the women who are. Some days, sneering at women who are into handbags is actually all I do. (And it’s more tiring than you might think. I’m exhausted by the evening.) But I just don’t get those who are obsessed with ‘designer’ bags, spend fortunes on them, and even go on waiting-lists for the ‘must-have’ bag of the season. Must have or what? Your legs will fall off. A handbag can never be as must-have as a hip joint, surely? So I did not expect to fall in love with Anya Hindmarch, nor did I expect to actually buy one of her bags, but here’s a thing: I did both.

I’d like to say I don’t know what came over me, but I think I do. I met Anya, I had lunch with Anya, I walked with Anya to her Sloane Street store and because I was with her, and she’s lovely, and so gracious, I just wasn’t as petrified as I would have been otherwise — smart shops usually scare the living daylights out of me. I keep fearing someone from security will tap me on the shoulder and ask: ‘Madam, are you lost? Were you looking for Poundland?’ But without that terror — ‘Out the way, out the way, coming through with Anya Hindmarch…’ — I could see that a wonderful handbag might be a fine thing. And her handbags are wonderful: all buttery, baby-soft leathers and glass-like patents but, never having looked close-up before, it’s the craftsmanship and attention to the teeniest detail that gets me: the mini-leather tassels attached to the zip-pulls, the dinky internal clip for your key; the beautiful linings; the delicious smell of real leather which, perhaps not astonishingly, smells quite different to the smell of faux leather from a market stall. I feel the first stirrings of desire. I try on every bag in the shop, more or less, and then think: ‘Goddamn it, I am going to have one of these bags.’ I chose the ‘Chantry’, a patent tote in the most astonishing Yves Klein blue, reduced in the sale from £345 to £170, although when I take it to the till Anya tries to give it to me as a gift. Naturally, I protest. ‘Anya’, I say, ‘if I’d known I wasn’t paying, I’d have picked a much more expensive one. Give me one of those £1,000 bespoke Ebury’s, and be quick about it!’

But I do insist on paying and I do love the bag even though I’m ruined and know I’ll never be able to go to Poundland again. Even if they opened a more upmarket sister chain, Twopoundland, I probably won’t be able to go to that either. It’s like always going to Rhyl for your holidays and then one year going to the Maldives. How can you ever go back to Rhyl? But enough of all that. Let’s move on. After all, I’ve got a new bag to go and stroke, so it’s not like I’ve got all day.

OK, I first meet Anya at Il Vaporetto, a Venetian restaurant in Belgravia where she has the chopped steak and I have the salmon fishcake — very ladies-who-lunch. Il Vaporetto is her local. ‘I live just two streets away,’ she says. ‘and I do love local. You can bump into people.’ She lives with her husband, James Seymour, a director of her company, and their five children. He was a widower with three children when she first met him, they had two more, and the kids now range in age from 20 down to six. We grumble pleasantly about being mothers.

‘My 20-year-old is home from university and he’ll say: “What’s for supper?” Probably a completely reasonable request, but he is 20,’ she says. I say I will cook, but I’m a resentful cook. Sometimes I can shred a lettuce just by looking at it. She says she now doesn’t cook at all. ‘The thing about cooking,’ she says, ‘is that I can’t multitask in that way. It’s all got to be ready at the same time. I can’t drive and talk either. When I first met the three kids I remember making supper for them. I thought, “I can do this”, and I made such a disgusting meal — the pasta stuck to the side of the pan — and they said sorry, it’s inedible. I can’t even do pasta.’ Come on, anyone can do pasta. A monkey with its head on back to front could probably do pasta. But if your husband was ‘really, really good at cooking’, as James is, wouldn’t you leave it all to him? I know I would. Anya, I salute you.

Anyway, she is 41 and extremely pretty with blonde hair and blue eyes and is wearing, today, a Marni dress teamed with wedged sandals. She can’t do high heels, she says, or lipstick. Me neither, I say. We agree it’s a wonder we even remember to put clothes on the bits in between. She is carrying one of her own clutch bags, while I have brought a Fendi beaded bag borrowed from a friend because I did not want to bring shame on the house of The Spectator by bringing one of my Poundland jobs or one of those rejected bags from four seasons ago, as always available from TK Maxx. I am still wholly scornful at this point, am still struggling to comprehend, so decide to put it to Anya straight: Anya, I ask, what is it about women and handbags? Please, please, please enlighten me but don’t make me beg, as that would be embarrassing.

She says she thinks it’s because a bag can have a tremendously transfor-mative effect. She remembers being given a Gucci bag by her mother when she was 16 and ‘it made me feel incredibly grown up and sophisticated. Even when I was wearing slobby clothes, it made me feel grown up and sophisticated.’

I can sort of see that, I say, but I’m not sure I totally buy it. How about the Louis Vuitton bag, the ones covered in the L and V initials? If you have a real one you look like a dumb fashion victim with too much money, and if you have a fake one you look like a dumb fashion victim who also happens to be a poor chav. It’s a lose-lose situation, as far as I can see. You look dumb either way. She says: ‘It’s just not your tribe, is it? And it’s not my tribe. The thing about that product, which is brilliant, is that as well as being tribal and mood-altering it’s also a way of showing your state of wealth.’ Like a Rolex? ‘It’s saying “Look at me, look what I’ve got.”’ She does not think her bags are like that. She knows that this season’s ‘it’ bag is generally next season’s ‘isn’t’, but hers, she hopes, are long-term investments; hers are heirlooms, to be handed down from mother to daughter and so on through the generations. So what, I ask, about Posh reportedly spending £1.5 million on all those Hermès Birkin bags? ‘That,’ says Anya crossly, ‘is really, really silly.’

Still, many bags are, at least initially, celebrity-driven purchases and Anya certainly has her celebrity fans. Madonna carries her bags, as do Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie, but when it comes to the most exciting person to ever own one? ‘Well,’ she says, ‘the Queen has one, which is rather nice, and Margaret Thatcher has one.’ She gave Lady Thatcher a bag — ‘a navy one’ — as a gift when invited to meet her. And what was she like? ‘She was still incredibly sharp, with these steely eyes, and she can still cut right through the nonsense, but
you also got this sense of a lonely figure, sitting alone in her drawing room for most of the time. She’s this astonishing combination of strength and fragility.’

She is a fan of Thatcher, having started her business during the early Thatcher years. ‘I remember everyone feeling down and then Maggie got in and it all changed. Shopping centres were being built, and along came a new generation of entrepreneurs like David Ross and Sophie Mirman.’ She has business in the blood, was born in and brought up in Danbury, Essex, with a businessman father who was in plastics — ‘I think he invented the plastic flower pot’ — and who now sits on her board. Crikey, I say, he must have loved the whole ‘I am not a plastic bag’ shtick. She says, smilingly: ‘Yes, we did have quite a few debates about that.’ She then says she is not against plastic bags. ‘They’re actually a brilliant invention. They’re light, they’re strong, they’re cheap, but just don’t waste them. It’s the waste. When you throw something away there is no “away”. It’s going into landfill.’ The £5, limited-edition tote, produced in 2007 in collaboration with the social change movement We Are What We Do, caused near-riots when it first went on sale, so I guess It Did What It Should. But near-riots?

‘We kind of piggy-backed the formula I hate,’ she says, ‘which is the “it” bag phenomenon.’ Make it hard to get? ‘Yes. It was about scarcity, and the right people wearing it, plus getting a designer bag for £5, which is quite potent.’ And if you hadn’t made it a limited edition, if they had been freely available, no one would have wanted one? ‘Exactly.’ It is spectacularly manipulative marketing but goddamn it, she did make not using a plastic bag fashionable, which has to be good. And it did a lot better than my own invention, the ‘I am not a canvas bag’ plastic bag, which wasn’t intended as a limited edition but became so once my marker pen had run out. Still didn’t shift very many, though.

Her business began when she was 18, during what was meant to be a gap year in Italy, but turned into something else when she noted an over-the-shoulder drawstring duffel bag all the cool Italian girls were wearing. ‘I took the bag home and showed my friends and family and they all loved it.’ Eventually, she sold 500 through an offer in Harpers & Queen, and made £7,000, ‘so it was “sod university”.’ And then, I ask, you started designing your own bags? ‘Yes,’ she says. But how did you know you could do it? She says she didn’t. ‘But I didn’t know I couldn’t do it either.’

She now has 51 stores globally and, in a peculiar kind of way, is enjoying the recession. ‘It gets the adrenalin going,’ she says. ‘London had a paralysis moment in November/December where I had people in my office asking if we should take our money out of the banks, and I remember thinking: “Christ, if everyone does that, it’s the end.” But now London is completely buzzing, and our sales are up on last year. It’s inflated by the exchange rate so the other Europeans, the Americans, and the Japanese have all benefited. Also, people who have mortgages are sitting pretty right now and paying very little, so there is also all that going on.’

After lunch, it’s off to her Sloane Street store where she takes my virginity, bag-wise. How was it for me? Lovely. Anya is kind, warm, gentle and didn’t laugh at me once. She also tries to give me the wallet that matches the bag. ‘Oh, I couldn’t,’ I say, before quickly snaffling it up. One can’t have integrity all the time. It can be almost as tiring as sneering.

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