In the past, the idea of ‘ethical trendiness’ has seemed somewhat a contradiction in terms. Living a green lifestyle used to conjure up visions of anorak-wearing vegans frantically monitoring their recycling bins, or of gap year tragedies wearing Peruvian hemp cloth and protesting against carbon emissions. This was, however, before Anya Hindmarch.
The British designer extraordinaire created the £5 ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ cloth shopping tote in collaboration with Sainsbury’s, in order to dissuade the public from using non-biodegradable plastic bags. The response was astounding; in one day, 80 000 people in England queued up to buy it. With a bag that was both stylish and ethical, Hindmarch made green living cool. Soon celebrities from Natalie Portman to Gordon Ramsey entered into competitions to display their green credentials.
“I am not a silly trite fashionista”
But the secret to the phenomenal success of ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ was Hindmarch’s timing. Indeed, this is her consummate skill: the ability to know what people want before they do. This derives from her ability to think in the mindset of the average woman. Indeed, when I ask her who her greatest fashion influence is, she replies: ‘Probably my mother because she was my first influence – and mothers are a subliminal influence which is quite brainwashing! Also though, I think I design lot for myself. Not because I think I am my own ‘muse’, far from it! But because I am probably my own harshest critic and share many of the roles that women have. If it works for me, it tends to translate into working in store.’ She has managed to reach heights of international acclaim in her career, and raise five children. It is a feat that few parents have juggled and managed, and an experience which Hindmarch translates her designs.
I asked her about the infamous ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ idea, and how it came about. ‘I wanted to make people aware that doing what I used to do – that is to say, going to the supermarket and taking 30 plastic bags because I’ve got five children, going home and putting all the bags in the bin and, ultimately, the landfill – is stupid.’ More widely, she draws her inspiration from the everyday: ‘I’m influenced by things as diverse as a colour or a street lamp or the way someone walks. You’re out and about and suddenly you realise you’re obsessed with the emblem on a museum door handle.’
In addition, Hindmarch has managed to distinguish herself from the plethora of mass produced brands by emphasising the uniqueness and personalisation of her designs – she combines British humour with the bespoke. She refers to this as the DNA of a brand – the personal touches, such as an image of a 1950s film icon delicately emblazoned on an inner lining. One of the designs that encapsulates this is the Bespoke Eburt bag launched in 2003. The inside of this bag has a secret message in the buyer’s own handwriting. It is this attention to personal detail that sets Hindmarch’s designs apart from the culture of the ‘It-bag’, which seemed as ostentatious a representation as any of the overconsumption of the noughties.
Hindmarch has all the genuine excitement about a bag of a sixteen year old girl: ‘I love bags because you don’t have to try them on, you don’t have to be a certain size, they can completely alter your mood…It is a form of self-expression, which is very important in life. It’s showing our colours. It’s tribal.’
“In one day, 80 000 people to buy her infamous bag”
Certainly, Hindmarch is passionate that fashion can be fun. However, she does believe that although ‘fashion is criticized for being frivolous, something like ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ shows its power to influence people. For me, it was about raising awareness, not about selling lots.’ She is keen to emphasise that she is not ‘ a silly, trite fashionista.’ This, she certainly is not. Business-minded and astute, she is fully aware of the pitfalls of the fickle fashion world. ‘The buyers can be quite ruthless at times and you have to keep telling yourself that ‘customer is king.’
Aside from transforming eco-fashion, Hindmarch is a key mover and shaker in political and social circles. She is keenly involved in resuscitating the Conservative party’s image and organized the annual Conservative Black and White Ball. If anyone can transform the Conservatives stuffy image, it is her. Unashamedly, she admits that perhaps her most pivotal role model is Mrs Thatcher, whose steely determination she has always aspired to emulate. Hindmarch got her big break at the age of 18, when Thatcher was in power, when she managed to persuade Harpers and Queen to commission her as a buyer, despite being so young. ‘I think I was pretty determined and quite persuasive. I think these two qualities are a common trait in being an entrepreneur. When I was 18, Lady Thatcher was pushing the nation to say, ‘get on with it. Get out there. Get going.’
So Thatcher is responsible for Hindmarch being on the fashion scene, but despite this, Hindmarch’s domination of the looks set to continue, and her creations will continue to inspire fashionistas everywhere.