Accessories have long been a money-spinner for big-name brands, but it was a decade ago that the It bag first appeared – and its desirability was matched only by a seemingly insatiable demand for exquisite, but impractical, designer shoes. Then, in late 2007, came the first signs of the impending financial crash, and fashion critics and commentators began to proclaim that the death knell had finally been sounded for such ostentations.
Instead, though, it seems that the accessories market still has plenty of room left to grow – offering customers designer labels at entry-level prices, comparatively speaking at least, but also enabling a more even playing field for emerging designers.
Sophie Hulme is one such designer, who founded her eponymous label mere months before the bubble burst. Despite having won plaudits for her graduate collection, including Student of the Year and Best Collection, Hulme decided to branch out from her training in clothing design into accessories. “When I showed my final collection at college there was a lot of interest,” she says. “So I decided to make a small pilot collection to see if there was enough interest from buyers. It then just snowballed really, so I started by testing the water and went from there.
“I worked with various London designers while I was still at university. It’s a real lesson in the actual workings of a business and how much work goes into everything aside from the design. That was an important lesson to learn, because I think people often overlook all the other work when aspiring to start a label.”
Hulme’s military-themed debut collection, presented for autumn/winter 2008, included bags, hats and outerwear – silver-sequinned parkas and bow-swagged bombers – and was picked up by a small selection of London buyers. Since that first collection, Hulme’s aesthetic has been pared back and refined, although it stays true to the same early source of inspiration: “I always return to looking at old menswear and reworking it into womenswear,” says Hulme. “I love the practicality and straightforwardness of menswear. Military surplus always has amazing details and at the moment I am really into the Soviet surplus from the Eighties. The colours and fabrications are amazing.”
While her ready-to-wear offering has steadily grown, it is for her accessories that Hulme is most renowned. In 2011, she was part of the British Fashion Council’s Talent Launchpad, in conjunction with Elle, which provided Hulme with support to show at London Fashion Week for two seasons. Last November, Hulme added another trophy to the mantel when she took home the British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent – Accessories, for her “iconic bag designs that have gained global attention”. So just what is it about Hulme’s bags that are so covetable?
One of Hulme’s signature styles is the Armour Tote: a cleanly-cut, capacious leather bag embellished simply with brass handle frames and available in a variety of rich colours. This is a bag that is spotted on the fashion-week front row season after season, withstanding seasonal flights of fancy. “My aesthetic is intentionally not trend-led,” says Hulme, whose designs echo the luxurious, logo-free minimalism of her personal style icon, Phoebe Philo’s work at Celine. “My customers can keep things for a long time and build them into a personal wardrobe.” This is demonstrated in a look from her spring/summer 13 collection.
The totes, clutch bags and mini-messengers that are central to Hulme’s collections are a constant, although as her collection has developed, she has experimented more with colours and contrasts. Each season, Hulme – who lives in a converted toy factory – creates a brass charm, which is sent to editors along with their invite and incorporated into the styling of the show. When the collections arrive at Hulme’s impressive roster of stockists, including Selfridges, Net-a-Porter and Liberty, each piece comes with the particular charm of the season.
The fashion world has latched on to this little touch of whimsy, and now Hulme sells them in gold to be worn as jewellery, or kept as trinkets by collectors. “The inspiration for the charms just comes from things around me – so they normally are quite personal,” explains Hulme. “I like the idea of adding value to everyday things we overlook by making them in gold – like the gold chip fork [from autumn/winter 2009], for example. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m overly sentimental but I do like the idea of making things that last and have a story – to me they represent the idea of collecting things and building a personal collection.”
Hulme began collecting trinkets from a young age, when her grandmother gave her a charm bracelet and encouraged her to add to it: “I enjoy finding amazing old things for inspiration – I’ve always been a collector so I love searching flea markets for bits and pieces”. Although Hulme always wanted to be a painter, it was this hobby of collecting that fed into her current career. “I always collected different things – old charms, leather goods, and this led into my real interest in product and craftsmanship. I still aspire to make time to be a painter, too, but I always loved drawing the figure, which led into an interest in clothing. I trained in clothes, not handbags – so I spent a lot of time with my leather manufacturers when I started doing bags. That taught me a huge amount about leathers and construction, which definitely makes you a better designer.”
Fashion is full of contrasts, and while Hulme’s discreet luxury has helped her amass an impressive following, there is also plenty of room for more flamboyant designs, too. Enter Sophia Webster, whose impressive debut collection for spring/summer 2013 at London Fashion Week last September created a huge buzz among editors and buyers. After graduating with first-class honours from the esteemed shoe-making college, Cordwainers, Webster went on to complete a Masters degree in footwear design at the Royal College of Art in 2009 – her final collection there was picked up by that famous champion of fresh design talent, Browns. Awarded the retailer’s Shoe Designer award in 2009, in the same year Webster was also crowned Student Footwear Designer of the Year by industry magazine Drapers.
During her Masters studies, Webster embarked on a stint of work experience in the design studio of the shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood, who took the student under his wing, offering her a role as assistant designer on graduation. Webster decided to take the job – despite being urged by press and buyers to go it alone – with the promise that her boss would help her launch her own collection after two years of service.
“The main difference is the freedom to design within a style that comes naturally to me and not through the eyes of someone else’s vision,” says Webster of going it alone. “I think Nicholas has been a great influence in terms of his approach to design – he has the capability to balance his technical knowledge of shoe production with his creativity without letting one restrict the other.”
Webster has got off to a blindingly bright start – she was the only shoe designer to receive New Generation sponsorship from the British Fashion Council for spring/summer 2013 – “a real honour” – which allowed her to show her designs at London Fashion Week, where she also teamed up with the white-hot knitwear label, Sister By Sibling, to provide the shoes for that show.
“It’s a huge compliment,” she says of the reception to her collection. “When you draw inspiration from personal travels, surroundings and the things you see every day to create a piece of the collection, and then see someone acknowledge that, it makes you feel happy and proud. I was in Brazil for the beginning of the creation process of the spring/summer collection, so I took inspiration from the culture, lifestyle and colours around me at that time. For my new autumn/winter collection [which was presented last weekend] I wanted to bring the same colour and fun, but in a way that is tasteful and wearable for the winter months. There are a lot of berry tones and colourful metallic and polka-dot ponyskin.”
Like Hulme, Webster’s first passion was art rather than design and her bold use of colour is a testament to her vision. “I was into art and painting from a very young age,” she explains. “I first decided to go into shoes when I was studying on the Foundation course at Camberwell College of Art. We were doing a day of still-life fashion illustration and I really enjoyed drawing the shoes. I was really into sculpture at the time, too, so learning how to make shoes was a natural progression.”
Webster’s shoes and bags are now available at some of the biggest-name boutiques and department stores in London and internationally; no mean feat when you consider that this is her first proper collection. Retailers are drawn not only to her bold, fresh designs, but also to the way she has structured her prices in a way that begins on the accessible end of the designer spectrum. “I think the price point was really appealing to buyers,” she elaborates. “My experience with Nicholas taught me that getting the production right is the key to keeping the confidence of your stockists.”
Webster then, like Hulme, is a shining example of blending creativity with commercial nous – her designs may be bold and bright but they remain wearable thanks to carefully considered design touches – such as a range of heel heights. Perhaps Webster’s colourful creations are inspired by her previous career: “If I wasn’t a shoe designer I would have loved to have been a choreographer,” she says. “My sister and I used to travel a lot when we were younger competing internationally as freestyle disco dancers. We’d always planned to start our own dance school, but as you get older I guess your interests and aspirations change.”