“They say a lot about who you are.” It’s Emma Hill, Mulberry’s creative director, on the phone from the company’s London headquarters. She’s talking about—you guessed it—women’s handbags. “It’s like whether somebody is a PC or a Mac [person]. What type of girl are you?”
In the evolution whereby bags went from practical hold-alls to the most integral indicator of a woman’s personal style, Mulberry had a small but significant role. The company began in 1971, when Roger Saul, using a loan from his mother, started a leather-goods company in Somerset that offered country-inflected styles for citygoers, playing on the Brits’ eternal fascination with the landed gentry. He helmed the U.K. luxury business until Nicholas Knightly became the design director in 2002 and introduced the softly structured aristo-boho Bayswater. It was a massive hit, becoming the anti-It It bag regularly seen getting in and out of cars on Kate Moss’s arm.
Stuart Vevers, the next design director, riding on the shoulder straps of his Maggie and Poppy, solidified their place as a serious contender. But it wasn’t until Hill, the first official creative director, arrived, following accessory design stints at Burberry, Marc Jacobs and Gap, that Mulberry became a household name (at least in those households that know “baguette” is a homophone).
Now they have plans for greater global domination. There are 15 confirmed worldwide store openings in 2013 alone, and Toronto will be home to two of them this summer: one at Yorkdale Shopping Centre and the other nestled on Bloor Street’s luxury label row.
Although the wires have been thrumming with the news that Hill is leaving the company, reportedly due to creative differences, she’ll see them through the spring 2014 collection, and her parting handiwork will be available to us at the new boutiques. As fashion followers await news of her replacement, we discussed the groundwork she’s laid at Mulberry, which included expanding the ready-to-wear line to become the most celebrity-filled runway show of London Fashion Week.
Mulberry recently relocated its cramped New Bond Street offices to 30 Kensington Church Street near Notting Hill. All old brick and new glass, tufted leather sofas and Tom Dixon light fixtures, its architecture and decor embody that which Mulberry offers and which Londoners are the world masters of: a modern cool, easy because it’s backed up by centuries of good taste.
Hill is gregarious and warm, and her speech is littered with giggling one-liners. But she’s serious about her aesthetic mission. “There’s lots I take to mean to be British,” she says. “There’s having the sense of humour, but we’re [also] a very old country and we have such a history of craft.”
This summer, Mulberry will open a second factory in Somerset, the spiritual home of the company—the real-life version of its logo, the Mulberry tree, grows wildly there. It’s a short drive from the Rookery, which has long been the centre of bag production and is one of the only luxury factories left in Britain. “Even with the second factory, we can’t make 100 percent there,” admits Hill. “It’s difficult. There’s trouble if you keep preaching that you’re a British brand and not really standing by it.”
Yet even if they can’t produce everything in the U.K., Hill believes there is a powerful message in staying as local as possible, while exporting that eccentric Brit wit.
Hill connects the growing love for English style to the microscope the country’s been under with the Diamond Jubilee and last summer’s Olympics. But also, she says, “People are more interested in the provenance of things and the idea of having heirloom pieces.
“The photographer we use is English. We shoot in England. We’ve got armies of Scottish grannies who live in the Highlands.” She’s laughing now. “There’s one main Scottish granny and she bosses all the others about. They hand-knit for us, and when a knit designer goes up there, they bake shortbread.”
The image strikes me as particularly English, and I say as much. “You have to say Scottish,” Hill reprimands. “You’ll have the wrath of Scotland on you!” I’m contrite. In any case, these grannies are pros—this fall’s knits are gorgeous nubby pieces in a range of plaids and checks. And that English photographer? Tim Walker, perhaps the most fantastical, the most British photographer working in fashion today. “He’s such a genius. I really like to tell stories in my work and he’s an archetypal storyteller with fantasy and whimsy,” Hill gushes. “If I reference a movie, there will an obvious reference to it, rather than something oblique.”
This season, Walker was given a reference to the ’70s, the English countryside at night and Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. The campaign, featuring yet another It-Brit—Cara Delevingne—is, of course, Hill’s favourite yet.
As we’re chatting, I realize Hill is talking about handbags as though they were people. “I love Willow,” she says. “She really suits my lifestyle.” Willow, Mulberry’s new blockbuster this spring, will be the company’s first bag to be made entirely in the U.K. Kate Moss was the first star to be snapped with it, revealing another British trait: loyalty.