Absolutely meets Emma Hill, co-founder of British handbag label Hill & Friends to talk smiley faces and creating bestselling ‘It’ bags
Words Charlotte Adsett
“We are on a mission to make fashion friendly and fun” says Emma Hill, the former creative director of Mulberry, who launched her own handbag label Hill & Friends together with her good friend (and Mulberry’s former brand director) Georgia Fendley last September. Hill is credited for transforming the British heritage brand into one of the fashion industry’s hottest names, thanks to cult ‘It’ bags such as the ‘Alexa’ satchel and the introduction of a successful ready-to-wear collection.
A good bag should feel like your best friend
Hill left the company in 2013 after six years at the helm in what was described as a “very public fashion divorce”, amid rumours of disagreements about a change of direction with its new CEO. Fast forward three years to happier times and we meet at Hill & Friends HQ in Mayfair to discuss the brand’s second offering for the new season. Hill & Friend’s debut LFW presentation last September showcased their SS16 collection at a pink-themed breakfast at Claridge’s for glossy magazine fashion editors that included Anna Wintour. Bellboys clad in burgundy velvet suits with pink trimmings carried the bags on silver platters and were accompanied by Shetland ponies cantering down a mini catwalk. “It was completely bonkers and said everything we wanted to say about the brand. The Bellboy is now our mascot as he is so quintessentially British,” says Hill. “The brand is aimed at women who want a grown-up silhouette and lust after luxury, but are still playful. We decided to start small with six styles that were very functional and classic, but fashion-forward. A good bag should feel like your best friend.”
Growing up in Wales, with her mother, an artist and her father, a mathematician meant that Hill had the perfect parental mix of both creativity and numbers.
“It really was a dream combination, as I was super arty, but also fascinated with logistics, analytics and business. You absolutely need both in the handbag industry.” Though becoming a bag designer wasn’t always the plan. After studying design at Ravensbourne College, Hill had her sights set on becoming a graphic designer and only took a job at Burberry in the accessories department because it allowed her to fulfill her lifelong dream of moving to New York. She spent 14 years in the Big Apple working for Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Gap and Chloé before moving back to London.
Why did she and Georgia decide to start a label together? “Georgia and I joined Mulberry within days of each other and always had such a great working relationship there, so when we both left it made sense to join forces. We wanted to create a brand for women like us, with handbags that were practical with exquisite quality. I felt that there was a gap in the market for bags with a touch of wit and feminine subversion. We have such different skill sets and extreme areas of expertise, yet much crosses over in the middle – I reference the Venn diagram in the way we work. For the most part I’m in charge of the design, manufacture and production and Georgia looks after branding, social media and communications. But it blurs.”
Having a partner in business must mean support through the lows and being able to share the highs, I surmise. “You are always stronger together. We have a gold bell in the office that we ring when ‘good stuff’ happens, such as seeing our first sale in a new country (Finland had it’s first chime the day before we met) and when we spot a celebrity wearing a bag” (Erin O’Connor, Gemma Arterton and Caroline Flack are fans).
Hill & Friends’ bags close with a postman’s lock fastening in the shape of a smiley face – to lock the bag you twist the lock to ‘wink’ an eye – which is the brand’s clever signature. ‘Making fashion fun’, happiness and smiley faces seem to be central themes that are often referred to throughout our chat. So what makes a bag happy? “It was really important for us to have a real sense of personality and humour. Fashion can be so highbrow and dull without an injection of fun. I like to mix high and low – mixing luxury with fun to make it less stuffy. Your brand has to reflect who you are.”
Do your customers buy your favourite bags? “On the whole, yes. The Mini bag in Oxblood is our biggest selling bag so far. Oxblood is also our biggest selling colour throughout the styles – far more than the black. It’s such a classic and English colour. I adore traditional school uniform colours – I think most Brits inherently do. I spent so much time on the construction of the gusset ensuring you could fit as much as possible into a mini bag. People are amazed at how much space there is.”
The Autumn/Winter collection has doubled in size with 12 styles in numerous colourways and prints with a focus on popular mini and micro bags. The standout star of the season looks set to be the teeny tiny and impossibly cute ‘Tweency’ Bag (it measures just 16cm x 12cm x 8cm).
So what does the future hold for Hill & Friends? “We want to keep true to our brand ethos, continue to grow the brand organically and keep on making fashion friendly.”