Interview: Sophie Hulme

“He’s just really, really not a humpy dog!” She’s talking about the new man in her life, her new beagle puppy, Alan. “Why Alan?” I wonder, thinking that there’s probably some edgy, alternative reason for the name. “Just a good name, isn’t it?” Well, yes, I suppose there’s no arguing with that. In fact, it’s a surprisingly apt reflection of the girl I meet. Sophie is down to earth, normal, and very funny.
 
Hulme and I are connected by that most bizarre of bonds: she’s a ‘family friend’. Although our parents have known each other since we were born, this is actually the first time I’ve met Sophie, and I have to say, the prospect of interviewing her left me a bit nervous. Since leaving university with accolades such as ‘Student of the Year’ and ‘Best Collection’ Sophie has developed her own hugely successful brand –Sophie Hulme. She now sells her collections to 120 stores across the world, and last year won the ‘Emerging Talent Award For Accessories’ at the British Fashion Awards, which, I am reliably informed, is “like the fashion Oscars”. She’s clearly a big deal.
 
Thankfully, Hulme is nothing like what you might expect of someone who lives in a world of high fashion and higher egos. I ask her about my media-led perception of the fashion industry and its tycoons. “The number of people who meet me and say, ‘Oh, you’re not actually awful!’ is ridiculous. Yes, the industry is a bit like the way it’s presented in the media. Designing is quite an egocentric thing to do, essentially, and there are a lot of people who are very into themselves. But [being a designer] is the thing I do. Yes, I love doing it and it is massively consuming, probably more than most jobs, but it is just the thing that I do, and it doesn’t mean it’s all I am.”
 
Of the plethora of awards that Hulme has won she says, “It is quite nice to have the recognition because invariably it’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point. I didn’t really realise how big a deal the British Fashion Awards are; I really didn’t think I’d win and had absolutely nothing prepared. I said ‘This is bonkers!’ in front of just about every important person I’ve ever met. A couple of years ago I’d have been terrified by those people, but I think I’m taken a bit more seriously because of [the award] which is nice.”
 
Hulme left Kingston university with a degree in Art and Design and immediately started her own label. In such a ruthlessly competitive industry I wonder whether this was something she ever questioned or doubted. “I think you do have to be quite self-assured to start your own company and think it’s going to work. What actually happened was that we did a fashion show at the end of university and quite a lot of buyers came and said they’d be interested in my collection. I then took a capsule collection of about 20 pieces to a trade show and it sold well. That was it really.”
 
She wasn’t without her wobbles though: “In the middle of all this I was headhunted for a job – a job which would have been my dream job, were I not doing this. It was the most difficult decision because at that point I was about halfway there but still had no idea whether it was going to work or not. I’d put so much time and effort into it at that point so I decided to carry on [with my own label], and obviously I’m pleased about that decision now.”
 
And pleased she should be. Hulme’s professionalism is impressive, but she retains an innocent excitement about the extent of her success, “It feels like a really big deal when you first sell to a department store. My biggest dream was to be in Liberties [she now is] – seeing my name on a shelf there was a completely out-of-body experience. It’s a bit weird because it doesn’t feel like you: your name becomes this object that people discuss, and you can get a bit disconnected from it all. But it’s fun, it’s exciting stuff.”
 
I wonder how Hulme’s attitude to fashion and her own image has changed since being thrust into the limelight, and ask whether she feels the pressure to be a fashion role model herself. “If I’m being photographed then yes, I have to think about what I look like. But I don’t have a stylist and I don’t think I ever would. I don’t think about [how I look] too much. It seems to go the other way because it’s work: most designers I know who work really hard and take things seriously just wear really boring, round-necked navy jumpers and jeans. In fact, we all do.” She also mentions the fact that her fashion aspirations are a season ahead of what’s available in shops: “The things you own are the year behind the things you want to own. At the moment I’m excited about the next collection which is Winter. If I had those things I’d be wearing them all the time but when I get them I’ll be like, ‘Oh. But now I really want this.’”
 
As Hulme’s brand has grown, she’s found more and more time to design, which is what she loves although she acknowledges, “Managing people is a lot more time consuming than I thought it would be. At the beginning you’re doing everything on your own so I spent a lot of time organising the production side of things but now I have more time to sit down and think about what I want to make which is a real luxury.”
 
One of Hulme’s trademark ideas is that for each collection she designs, she also chooses a specific charm which customers are given with each purchase. “The idea is that loyal customers can build up a collection. It came from the fact that a lot of fashion is very fast-moving and my designs aren’t trend-led at all. I want to make things that last, and therefore they need to be well made. That’s partly the thought behind the charms: you collect them and they tell a story. It began as a hook, but it’s grown as its own thing now; people really like it. I didn’t expect that at all.”
 
I ask her where she finds the inspiration for her designs. “I go to a lot of flea markets and old costume shops. Military surplus stores are really interesting because it’s all so practically made, and serve such specific and extreme functions.”
 
Practicality in design is clearly important to Hulme. She says, “It’s very important to me that my clothes are wearable. I get inspired a lot by the practicalities of menswear. I think there’s a lot of fashion which isn’t particularly [wearable], and that’s a bit of a waste of time.” But she goes on to qualify this: “I mean, [my designs] aren’t wet weather gear or anything!”
 
Forging her own label straight from university was a brave choice, and one which seems to have worked for Hulme. I ask her if she has any regrets. “No. The thing I have realised though, is how incredibly difficult and competitive it is. I see hundreds and hundreds of other designers who’ve done several seasons of trade shows and haven’t sold anything, and I realise how incredibly lucky I’ve been. I’m so lucky that I can design what I want to design and that there’s a customer for that. Even people who have their own brand do have to skew it for what the buyers want, and I’m lucky that I can design what I want.”
 
It is clear that it’s taken a lot of hard work and ambition for Hulme to make it, and I wonder if there’s anything she’d advise people in similar situations to do when the odds are stacked against them. Her response? “Question the conventional wisdom.” This is something I hear her dad repeat later that day, and wonder if it’s a family mantra. If it is, it’s clearly working.
 
She elaborates: “There are so many preconceptions about what you have to do, in every industry, but especially in fashion. People say the first thing you have to do when you start out is a big fashion show. But because I didn’t really know that this was what everyone said you have to do, I didn’t. I thought about what actually made sense for me, and what people wanted.”
 
The future for Sophie Hulme? “I showed in Paris last season and in London the season before. I don’t want to do a big show every season yet. I think a lot of people do that too early, and you can spend an incredible amount of money on a show. I also think I’ve reached a nice place where I’m getting quite a lot of recognition. I sell to all the places I wanted to. I’m not in any rush to get into people’s faces: there’s quite a nice amount of spotlight on it at the moment so there’s no need to rush things.”
 
I ask Hulme if she’s had any awkward moments thus far, and she tells me about a meeting with an important client. “It had all gone so well, and when he was leaving he asked, ‘So, does Alan [who accompanies her to the studio] hunt?’ to which someone replied, ‘Well, yes he humps a little bit but he’s getting better.’ It was awful!” It’s a testament to Hulme’s charm and talent that the client agreed to continue working together.  
 
It’s hard to know where Hulme will take her brand in the future, but if we can be sure of anything, it’s that Alan will feature heavily.