Handbag queen Anya Hindmarch: I’m guilty of not having a great work-life balance

Anya Hindmarch (Marloes Haarmans/PA)
Anya Hindmarch (Marloes Haarmans/PA)
9:06am, Tue 11 May 2021
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Her clients include the Duchess of Cambridge, Gigi Hadid, Reese Witherspoon and Kendall Jenner – yet handbag designer Anya Hindmarch tries to stay out of the red carpet spotlight her customers attract.

As the creator of bold bags – some have eyes, others resemble glitzy crisp packets – she’d rather be running her business than smack bang in the public eye.

The Duchess of Cambridge with an Anya Hindmarch clutch, meeting Michelle Obama in 2011 (Toby Melville/PA)

In fact, when she was younger the environmentally-conscious entrepreneur had neuro-linguistic programming to help her nerves when speaking to industry groups and students.

“It was a very particular thing which came out of the trauma of failing in a singing competition at school when I was about 13,” she recalls; nerves got the better of her onstage and she just dried up.

The problem got worse as her company grew and she would struggle to breathe from fear of public speaking, and end up hyperventilating.

“I felt silly and embarrassed about it. I read up on it, and the best advice I could find was to breathe into a paper bag, but that really wasn’t practical.”

The NLP worked, but even now she isn’t a fan of being in the limelight, preferring to be at home with the family. “I don’t live for going to fashion parties. I prefer to be at home in my kitchen,” she reveals.

Hindmarch, 52, has spent years juggling running her designer handbag empire with bringing up five children (stepmother to three, mother to two).

She was 25 when she met her husband, James Seymour, who was a 37-year-old widower with three children under the age of four. She says she knew the instant she met him that she was going to marry him, and also fell in love with his children.

“It was very instinctive and you have to follow your gut. I fell for him and I fell for the kids and it felt really right. And I was a bold 25-year-old, having started my business young.”

“At one point we had five children at five different schools,” she recalls. “It was complex. Very hard. We had to invest a lot in help at that point [they had an au pair]. The logistics were incredibly complex, with five sports days and five parent-teachers evenings. It was pretty full-on.

“I’m certainly guilty of not having a great work-life balance,” she continues, as she confesses she doesn’t easily switch off when her working day finishes. Seymour also works at the company but is able to switch off more easily, she reflects.

But lockdown has given her some precious family time. “A lot of people, if they were honest, would say that just taking a moment to step off the conveyor belt and take stock will bring them benefits.

“For me, spending time with the kids was really special, and not travelling and being endlessly busy was for me quite important, both creatively and personally. It was nice to go for walks every morning with the kids at 7am – that was really special, and I probably won’t have that again.

Handbag designer Anya Hindmarch (Marloes Haarmans/PA)

“I’d be sitting at the table doing my business and the children would be sitting at the table doing their work. I was learning what they do and they were hearing more about what I do.

“They understand they’ve always had a working mother. That’s what they’ve known. That comes with pluses and minuses, but it does even out.”

Hindmarch has now written her memoir-cum-self-help guide, If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair (the first piece of advice she gives to busy women), an uplifting ‘manual for life’ that offers practical tips and quick fixes, advice on how to make women feel better about themselves, along with anecdotes about how she has tackled her own hurdles and self-doubt issues.

She is keen to keep responsible fashion at the forefront of her brand, with environmentally friendly processes and products remaining hugely important to her. “It gets me out of bed every day, to think, ‘How can we make a difference in our tiny way? How can we communicate and do our bit?’

“It’s about everyone doing as much as they can as fast as they can. We’re not perfect, no one is, but we want to do our bit.”

In 2007 Hindmarch ran a campaign called ‘I’m NOT A Plastic Bag’, the slogan emblazoned on a tote, to raise awareness of single use plastic.

“Some 80,000 people queued in one day in the UK [to buy the £5 canvas tote on the day of its launch] and it went on and on around the world. Thirty people went to hospital in Taiwan because there was a stampede [for the bag]. It made a real difference because it contributed to the reduction of the use of single use bags quite considerably.

“That was just using our platform to communicate that single use plastic is bad.”

Then, in February 2020 the company launched ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ in response to the fact it’s estimated there are 8 billion tons of plastic on the planet, she explains.

The campaign created a bag made out of plastic bottles, coated in recycled windscreens. The brand’s London stores were closed for three days during London Fashion Week and were filled with 90,000 used plastic water bottles, partly as a protest and partly as an art installation. “The bag [which costs up to £895 for a tote] has sold really well. Each one is made from 32 half litre water bottles.”

The environmental message needs to be pushed more, she stresses. “We are not connecting with the fact that if you buy something, use it and throw it in landfill and keep doing that, we’re going to end up in an unsustainable mess. If you had to bury all the stuff you throw away in your own garden, you’d quickly stop doing it.”

Hindmarch started her business, aged 18, straight from school, opened her first store at 24 and by 2015 had 58 stores in 10 countries including Japan, China and the US.

Today, she agrees the most difficult thing for women to cope with is juggling work and family.

“Every day there’s a difficult hurdle when you’re running a business or you don’t manage to pull off the thing you’re doing, or you’ve a problem with one child or another. That’s the reality and you learn to appreciate they are normal problems.”

“I think it’s important to accept that you cannot do everything and to try to focus on the things you are good at,” she offers.

She readily admits she’s never been around for the children’s homework and is not a cook, but that it’s important not to feel guilty about leaving the children in someone else’s care when you go to work.

How did it feel taking on three young children when she first got together with Seymour? “It was a baptism of fire, but I was young enough and naïve enough to know I wanted to do it. They were three beautiful children who I just wanted to put my arms around.

“Becoming a stepmother was easy for me in a way. It’s about being sensitive and working with all my amazing in-laws. We found our way through by being very honest.”

She and Seymour live together and work together, but it works she says. “We laugh a lot together – we almost sit next to each other at work and then we are at home together. He doesn’t take me at all seriously. It’s like being with my best friend all day. I feel really lucky.”

If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair by Anya Hindmarch is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99. Available now.

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