Anya Hindmarch is sipping an Americano in the Anya Cafe in Belgravia, London, tickled at how many customers are ordering cakes at 9am. To be fair, they are delicious cakes, with delicious names like “chubby cloud”. Diet? What diet?
Hindmarch has built an empire on seducing people into buying things they might not need, but really, really want. Whether of handbags or cakes, she is a natural‑born seller, one who so passionately believes in the theatre of shopping that in May last year, in the midst of post-pandemic gloom, she launched The Village, a five-store retail concept that lures customers in their droves. If Britain is in recession, nobody told this gilded London enclave. According to Hindmarch, business is brisk. “Everyone’s talking doom and gloom. We don’t need that. And I’m not seeing it in the stores. I’m seeing some quite expensive sales.”
Whatever the reasons not to – financial woes, environmental concerns, the fact we reached “peak stuff” some time ago – Britain is still shopping. Hindmarch’s mission is to get Britain shopping more sustainably. “It’s something I think about a lot. We have to be realistic: businesses are vulnerable and we need to keep them going. I overuse this phrase, but ‘buy less, buy better’. Don’t stop spending, because if we all stop spending, the economy shrinks.”
She is against Black Friday, in 2020 donating all profits made from sales within the period to the environmental charity Voice for Nature. “It’s a thorny subject, and debatable whether going on markdown before Christmas even helps business,” she says. “Not to diss businesses that are having a tough time, because businesses need to work right now. That’s important not only for the economy, but also for employment. So I don’t want to sound irresponsible, but as a general trajectory, the idea of more products, more consumption and more waste is driving the market and the environment in the wrong direction.”
Unlike those brands whose greenwashing is as transparent as it is ineffectual, Hindmarch has been going in the right direction for a long time. It was 15 years ago, in 2007, that she launched I’m Not A Plastic Bag, the £5 cotton tote of which 80,000 were sold in 12 hours, with customers queuing for hours to buy one. As well as being the first of countless cloth totes to become ersatz status symbols, it ignited a debate around plastic bag usage that contributed to the eventual decision to charge for them in the UK.
In 2020, she launched I Am A Plastic Bag, a tote made from 32 recycled plastic bottles, in a bid to reuse a portion of the eight billion tonnes of plastic currently in circulation. Last year, she launched Return To Nature, an innovation that revolutionised the handbag industry by utilising fully traceable skins and new tanning methods, which ensured each bag was fully biodegradable. And this year, she’s launching the brand’s first rental service, whose “rent, wear, return, repeat” ethos further cements her commitment to sustainability. Prices start at £42 for a four-day hire.
It’s an astute move, devoid of the sizing and dry-cleaning issues that hinder the process of renting clothes, and democratically priced to allow customers who can’t afford to buy a handbag the chance to enjoy one for a weekend. “Real luxury should be inclusive,” she reasons. “Plus sharing is a nice thing. It’s a bit like if I borrowed from your wardrobe and you borrowed from mine.”
She says she’s thrilled that so many businesses have recently become more mindful about their environmental impact. “I’m not an expert,” she stresses. “My mantra is ‘progress not perfection’. We’re all grappling with these issues.” Which include the seasonally-appropriate woe of being unable to source sustainable sequins. “It’s troubling me terribly. We have a range that uses sequins, and I’m ashamed that I haven’t stopped [producing] them. So we’re looking at recycled sequins, and we hope we’re nearly there.”
The key thing is to be transparent. “Just be honest. People are intelligent. Your customer understands. Give them choices and they go on that journey with you. I’ve always been rewarded for being honest. We could do with more of that in politics, but let’s not go there.” Does the woman, who so admired Margaret Thatcher that she once dedicated a window display to her, have high hopes for Rishi Sunak? “Yes. We won’t get into politics. But I have high hopes for anyone who can try to make this better, because right now we have a real responsibility to look after our amazing country.”
Her can-do, no-nonsense attitude would make Hindmarch a rather good prime minister, but since Britain has already had enough of those, I ask what sort of boss she is. “I hope kind, and I hope fair. I like very much being a woman leader, because I can set the tone for how I want it to be. I hope it’s a nice atmosphere. People do their best work when they’re happy.” As for other female business leaders she admires, she says the list would be 300 strong. “I’ve met so many incredible women – authors, judges, prison governors, supermodels, architects, all walks of life. Great things happen when friendships happen. There’s a very real strength in that.”
Friendship is also, she believes, at the heart of her enduring marriage to entrepreneur James Seymour, whom she married in 1996, and who is also her business partner. As a member of the long-term married club, I wonder how she remains thus without killing her husband. “Or him killing me,” she quips. “We’re a good team, from a good example. We come from very lucky families that have remained happily married. That does help. It also comes from not expecting [marriage] to be perfect. We expect to work at it. And we laugh. He’s a really kind man. So yes, we muddle along. In a nice way. For 26 years. Half the time, he probably wants to kill me.”
As a mother of five grown-up children aged between 19 and 32, her days in the trenches of parenthood are over. “I’ve got an actor, an artist, a lawyer, a management consultant and a student who wants to be a cook,” she smiles. “So it’s really interesting to see what they will do.” None of them have shown an interest in working in the family business, but she doesn’t mind.
“We recently had all five children, plus two girlfriends, under the same roof for a couple of weeks. I loved it. My children went to boarding school, which is the biggest regret of my life. The worst decision I ever made: not to diss the schools, but because I think you really miss out. So it was nourishing for me to have them here. I’d like to set up a commune with all my children, if I’m honest. They’d probably loathe it, but that would be my dream.”
Empty-nest syndrome can affect anyone, whether they helm an international luxury brand or not. How does she protect her self-esteem? “I think you have to be a bit kind to yourself. And not many of us are. We’re all perfectionists, driving ourselves on. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your friend. You also have to work out who you are. I’m a bit of an introvert. I don’t like parties and red carpets: I’d much rather roast chicken at home with good friends. I know that if I have four nights out on the trot, I need to have some time off. Look after yourself, and also protect your energy.”
She agrees that anxiety is on the increase. “It’s terrifying, and real. I’m ashamed to admit that at first I thought it was [an affliction of] snowflakes, but I’ve taken stock and I think that’s wrong. Imagine if you are 20, hearing that in 30 years half the world will be climate refugees. Some of the stats are terrifying. Some of my kids are questioning whether they should be having children. They have all this stuff to weigh up, plus they know we’re all going to be paying for Covid for years. It’s tough information, not always framed in a balanced way. So I think it’s incumbent upon us to be a bit more positive.
“I’m naturally a positive person. Look at what we all faced through Covid. Look what the community did. Community is unbelievably powerful. We saw what it could do. Let’s go back to that. We are amazingly resilient. We will crack this problem. We’re creative people, we’ll support each other and we’ll fight our way through it.”