An interview with Mulberry designer Emma Hill

The Mulberry designer talks about her inspiration, designs and how to spot a fake

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Mulberry

Emma Hill, 42, took over as creative director at Mulberry in 2008 – after 14 years in New York, designing accessories for Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein and Gap. Under her direction, the brand evolved from an accessories label trusted for its functional briefcases and wallets to a global fashion powerhouse with an eye for a lucrative celebrity tie-in. Despite her arrival coinciding with a spectacularly miserable economic crisis, Hill’s winsome clothing and bag designs, and irreverent branding (with long-term Mulberry collaborator and celebrated photographer Tim Walker), have seen the label’s profits rocket (up by 54 per cent last year). Key bag designs – such as the Alexa (named after TV presenter Alexa Chung) and the Del Rey (inspired by musician Lana Del Rey) – dangle off fashionable arms the world over.

A lot of British designers have told me they’d love to manufacture in the UK but can’t find the workmanship. What keeps Mulberry here?

‘It’s different for us as we have our own factory, The Rookery. We manage it, we train people – you can make the skill set what you want it to be. I’m devastated by what’s happened to the UK manufacturing industry – I’m from Wales and my families are bakers, miners: people who did things with their hands. We have such a rich tradition of manufacturing in this country; it’s terrible to see what’s happened. ‘When I go down to our Somerset factory, they have pictures of celebrities on the wall, carrying the bags.When you work in fashion at this level, you can become a bit jaded by it all – but our workers see Michelle Williams looking really cool with a bag and find it exciting. What we’re doing down there is almost like the old YTS [Youth Training Scheme], which doesn’t exist any more. Somerset doesn’t have a great employment rate, but we’re in a position to employ a lot of people. We have three generations of one family working in the factory. We have a second factory opening in June – that will mean another 300 jobs.’

How is a Mulberry bag made?

‘It’s a blend of old skills and modern machining. We tend to use the best skill set of particular countries – our ready-to-wear dresses are made in England, our knits are made by an army of Scottish grannies in the Highlands. But our tailoring is Italian because they’re better at it. The workers at The Rookery are great – we really challenge them. Like this [she gestures to an intricate bag]: each of these is hand-beaded.’

Presumably, using complex workmanship is a way of making counterfeiting more difficult? Mulberry is a very copied brand…

‘Oh yes. Definitely. The speed at which people are able to copy us is mindblowing. Sometimes five weeks after the runway show. You used to do a runway show and wait a few days for [trade magazine] Women’s Wear Daily to come out, to see the review, and six months later it would be in store. Now, you can sit and watch the show wherever you are on your computer. In real time. Sketching!’

Can you easily spot a Mulberry fake?

‘My six-year-old son can spot them! He has shamed a lot of girls in Westfield. He’ll shout: “Look, Mummy, it’s a Mulberry – OH NO, IT’S NOT A MULBERRY.” And you can see the girl is mortified. The best one I saw, and I was just so stunned and wished I had a camera, was in Westfield again. A girl was coming down carrying a mix of four of our bags: the Bayswater with Alexa straps stuck on, and the Tilly buckle, and the Daria plaque. So someone has actually looked at my design and decided it would look better with a bloody shoulder strap or a buckle!’

At least they’re bringing their own creative vision to their counterfeiting…

‘They do say that you only need to worry when people aren’t copying you. But it’s the mentality – I had years and years and years of staring in shop windows with my nose against the glass – but I would go and get a funny canvas tote instead.’

Mulberry isn’t cheap, but you can get an entry level bag for £400 rather than £3,000 – so do you hope it’s more within reach than a lot of prestige brands?

‘Well, there are £3,000 bags in the collection!’

But it does seem that a lot of women who don’t necessarily earn a lot of money do have Mulberry bags. Do you think that’s a price thing? Or something else?

‘It’s also an of-the-moment thing – we’ve had this incredible run where lots of people who could afford those more expensive bags were buying Mulberry instead. I think our Englishness helps. The Olympics, the flag-waving. The recession worked in our favour, almost, because people have been supporting home-grown product.’

What can you do as a designer to maintain that appetite?

‘It’s a dangerous road to go down to overthink designs – you can see when people are trying to recession-proof their products. At the end of the day it has to be gorgeous and relevant. And right for the brand – I’m always shouting: “Is it Mulberry, though? Is it Mulberry?” ’

How much of the creative branding – the Tim Walker campaigns, the Coachella parties – are you involved with?

‘I’m a control freak – and all of that is inextriciably linked. You have to have a message alongside your product. We live in a disconnected world where people communicate virally and talk to each other on Twitter. People want to connect things. Shooting a campaign is still my favourite thing – not least because I get to work alongside Tim Walker…’

Is he as magical to work with as you would expect?

‘He’s a dream. We work in quite an old-school way here. Every season we would patch together these mood boards and every season at least ten of his shots would be on there. It got to the point where I was like, “This is ridiculous. We have to just work with him.” We both love the idea of storytelling: everything from the product through to the store to the music at our shows is a whole story. And he is the master storyteller, so I just said, “Imagine what we could do if we worked together.” It’s a lovely collaboration.’

You mention the music at your shows – and you’ve named your new bag after Lana Del Rey. How big a driver has music been for you?

‘My office always has music blaring out – I have to listen to it really loud. Back in the day before we even had a show, we’d have parties in the store with Hot Chip, Friendly Fires, Hurts. The Del Rey thing came about because of my obsession with her homemade video [for ‘Video Games’], with the Hollywood film mixed in with funny little references to Road Runner etc. I was like: Oh my God. I’m all over this! I’m in a fortunate position now where I can see someone and say, “I want them to be my friend. Can we meet?” And we do!’

How did the collaboration with Lana Del Rey work? She doesn’t strike me as… animated.

‘It was a really interesting challenge, because it wasn’t like the Alexa, where she was carrying a man’s Mulberry bag and we took that as a design starting point – this was the other way. Lana’s very “Hollywood glamour”, not uptight but controlled and ladylike. She was like: “I like white. And I like gold.” The immediate thing to think of was a very structured bag – which isn’t us. That would have been so wrong. That’s why we came back with the Del Rey – which was structured but still soft and more representative of both of us.’

Do you get inspiration from people out on the streets as well as celebrity muses?

‘I don’t get out very much! I like people who put things together in interesting ways – I take pictures of kids who look like they’ve had fun getting dressed up. I like people who don’t follow rules, who change the way they look.’

Do you think that’s quite a London thing, the ‘un-done’ look?

‘New York is so much dressier – more polished. There’s no question you’d get your blowdry, your waxing, your nails done. Here… let’s just say, when I came back to London after 14 years, it didn’t take long to slip back to dirty nails.’

When you came back to London for Mulberry, did you have a vision of what you wanted the brand to become? Or is it something that evolved?

‘I knew what I wanted to do. I used to sit up late and write these emails: “I’m thinking about Julie Christie, I’m obsessed with this.” This is before I even started. My head of development found it the other day and said “Look – so much of it is what we’ve done and where we are now.” I wanted to really make it into a brand, I wanted to make Mulberry an icon.’

 

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2 comments
David Ewart-White
David Ewart-White

FAO Emma Hill. My colleague Luis Rodrigues and I were sorry to read about your situation with Mulberry recently. We operate with a handbag designer and manufacturer and would very much like to meet you to discuss an opportunity for you. I would also be grateful for an address to which we can send some product for you to assess before we hopefully meet. I look forward to hearing from you. Best regards - David Ewart-White.