Read all about 'it'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 November, 2011, 12:00am


If you visit Mulberry's newly opened Hong Kong flagship store this week you'll find the Evelina and Effie lines, names that conjure images of boarding school and ponies rather than luxury handbags.

But don't suggest that to Mulberry's creative director Emma Hill - she gets a bit prickly about the bad press 'it-bags' have been getting in recent years.

During the fast fashion of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the accessories market exploded, the it-bag became a symbol of the conspicuous consumption of the boom years. Newfangled designs, celebrity fans, astronomical price tags and a magazine-listed status were the ingredients that made up the it-bag.

So it seems odd that, in leaner times, clutching the brassy fashion equivalent of a Kalashnikov is still considered fashionable. Hill thinks differently, of course. 'I don't find it an offensive term,' she says. 'For me an it-bag is a journalistic translation of, 'Oh my god I've really got to have that bag'.'

She's probably on to something. According to Hill, the waiting list for the Alexa, named after model and television presenter Alexa Chung, ran to 10,000 people at one point.

Hill joined Mulberry in March 2008 at the beginning of the global economic downturn. This summer, the company posted a 358 per cent increase in its pre-tax annual profits to ?3.3 million (HK$291 million).

Mulberry's revival has been because it has achieved 'it' status for its product line by recruiting a roster of cool, stylish 'it-girls' like Chung. It now has unabashed devotees such as supermodel Lily Donaldson and Hollywood actresses Kate Bosworth, Emma Watson and Kirsten Dunst. Hill isn't frightened by celebrity endorsements. 'We live in an age of reality shows and weekly magazines, and people are obsessed with celebrities. To say that doesn't play a part is crazy,' she says.

How does she explain the 50-year-old brand's rejuvenation? 'I think it's do with heritage. I think it's the idea that people don't look at you and think, 'Oh that's last season,'' she says. 'We do a lot of work on the leathers so they feel like your best friend - cuddly, tactile and lovely.' She also believes the brand's quirky Englishness and fun identity strikes a chord with its customers. 'We're not showy or uptight, and that matters in these times.'

Hill - who has worked for Calvin Klein, Halston, and Marc Jacobs in New York - coolly says she had a strategy from the moment she arrived at Mulberry. Creating brand identity for the collections was essential so that everything was consistent and 'really showed off its sense of humour'.

She says the staff at The Rookery, Mulberry's Somerset factory, were worried she might be diva-like because of her training in New York. But she was grateful for the company's production capabilities, none of which were available at her previous jobs: 'We have a factory. It's a privilege to have that at your disposal.'

Hill, who trained in fashion at Ravensbourne college, says she fell into accessory design by chance. 'I never wanted to be handbag designer,' she says. At the time, she recalls, accessory design was on the lowest rung in fashion's pecking order. 'That goes to show how much has changed in 20 years,' she says. She bagged a job at Burberry in accessories after graduation.

Hill refuses to say how many bags she owns but admits she has a 'storage unit'. 'I tend to switch around quite a lot,' she says, adding that she changes styles according to her mood.

Mulberry's quirky English seaside theme for spring summer 2012 scores marks for playfulness. Ice cream colours, animal prints, big 1960s bouffants, and parkas give a nod to rainy British weather. They had the likes of Kate Moss and Kristen Stewart giggling in the front row, while long, sheer black skirts added an element of mystique.

So what's the future for Mulberry? 'Bigger, brighter, bolder,' Hill says. But as Mulberry plans to expand into China, how does Hill feel about fears of an economic slowdown in the country? 'I'm not an economist, so I don't know. My strategy has always been to get your head down and create beautiful things.'

Hill recalls the Mitzy Tote bag she created for the company, which she says helped Mulberry ride the recession. 'People continue to buy during a recession. It's just they may want different things or a different attitude,' she says. 'My policy is if it's gorgeous, it will sell. It worked the last time.'