That's steep! Mulberry defies the downturn as profits rise 358 per cent

Emma Hill's hallmarks are supple and slouchy leather, shiny brass hardware and shapes that are classic but not too formal

While the economic outlook may be grim for most, it's handbags and gladrags for the luxury luggage label Mulberry, which yesterday announced pretax profits of £23.3m, a leap of 358 per cent from last year's £5.1m.

The brand certainly has a knack for delivering what shoppers want. In the past few years, it has hit upon several best-selling and paparazzi-friendly handbag designs.

"Mulberry has found itself a good position as 'affordable luxury,'" said Harriet Quick, fashion features director at Vogue. "Their prices are much lower than Marc Jacobs or Celine, for example. They're still premium accessories, but they're more within reach."

With some designer handbags retailing at over £1,000 and most around the £700 mark, Mulberry's £400 to £800 bracket is one that both diehard designer shoppers and aspirational high street consumers can slot into.

"There are several bags that underpin our success," said the chief executive and chairman, Godfrey Davis, of the 44 per cent increase in retail sales, "the Bayswater, the Alexa, and the Daria. They're great classics."

The company was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul, aged 21, in Somerset. Alongside his mother, Joan, they made leather goods, mainly luggage, in their garage, but gradually moved into the fashion accessories market too. Mr Saul was ousted from the company in 2002.

The current boom kicked off in 2002 with the Roxanne, which was seen in the elbow crooks of Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley and Kate Winslet, and continued with the Mitzi, Tillie and Edie – and, of course, the Alexa satchel, named for Ms Chung, the television presenter, a fan of the brand.

Creative director Emma Hill – who last year scooped Best Designer Brand at the British Fashion Awards – consistently designs bags that are attractive not only to trendspotters, but those who favour practicality. And season upon season, Mulberry has successfully perpetuated the notion of a singular "must-have" bag; consumers have been only too happy to follow their directives.

"Emma Hill's bags have a very friendly sort of handwriting," added Harriet Quick. "There's a sort of loveworn, casual feel to them – they're not as uptight or designer-ish as other brands. They're never too precious, so there's an ageless appeal, and there's always a design element, so you can have the funky turquoise animal print, or the lovely battered calfskin."

Ms Hill's hallmarks are supple and slouchy leather complemented by shiny brass hardware, and shapes that are classic without being too formal; the release of the Alexa bag for spring/summer 2010 reinstated the satchel on the fashionable scene – and the impact of its launch is still rippling through high street stores. Such was its success that it sold out several times over, has been recreated in "mini" and clutch styles, and is a conspicuous presence on the shoulders of shoppers in every major city.

"We have significant international growth too," said Mr Davis, "and we're seeing a lot of tourist business. A lot of people are coming to London to visit Mulberry and shop there."

The brand's popularity abroad is spurred on by the vogue for all things British and posh; fellow heritage label Burberry has also felt the effect of this, announcing a 40 per cent rise in profits last month.

Mulberry also celebrates its 40th birthday this year and recently published a book detailing what goes on behind the scenes at its Somerset production plant, where all of the brand's designs are still manufactured, and where the recently extended ready-to-wear clothing collection is developed.

"There's a lot of goodwill and faith for heritage brands among British shoppers – they connect more," said Ms Quick. "Some bags can look so anonymous, but there's a friendliness to Mulberry. They've done it very, very well."

Luxury bags that made the brand

Bayswater

Launched in 2000, Mulberry's classic tote pays tribute to the simple styling of the Hermes Kelly bag, with its flapdown top and postman's lock.

Daria

Britney Spears was a fan of Mulberry's 2009 bag the Daria, which came as a shoulder bag and a satchel. Many believed the enlarged logo was out of keeping with the brand's traditional tastes, but it was an overnight success.

Alexa

Mulberry's hit bag of 2010 was the Alexa satchel, named after hip party girl Alexa Chung and its runaway success continues to resonate now, with the brand producing new versions of the style. Its vintage, preppy cool was an instant hit with shoppers of all ages.

Roxanne

The bag of the season during the boho summer of 2003, when Sienna Miller et al had it dangling from their shoulders, the Roxanne mixes traditional luggage detailing with something a little edgier.

Mitzy

2008's hit bag was the Mitzy tote, a slouchy, casual offering that became near ubiquitous, thanks to an accessible price and range of jaunty colours.

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