It’s been a dark and stormy year for London’s retail scene, but Anya Hindmarch is feeling positive. “I’m a great believer that people want to touch things and experience things,” she says. “We’re all a bit screened out now aren’t we?”
And if any shopping experience were tantalisingly tactile and novel enough to entice us from our virtual baskets, it’s surely the five-store ‘Village’ the handbag designer has this week opened on Pont Street; a quiet, leafy thoroughfare connecting Chelsea and Belgravia.
“Throughout my entire career the backdrop has been about globalisation… but I had a realisation about two years ago that 60 cookie cutter stores is not really very modern anymore, it’s not the way forward,” says Hindmarch, who, alongside her husband and business partner James Seymour bought back her eponymous business from a Qatari investment fund in 2019, and has since closed 42 of the 58 stores the business once owned. “I had this magnet to get local.”
Local meant re-focussing energies at the site of the brand’s first ever store which is today dedicated to its wildly popular bespoke business (“it feels like I have my bones there”) and pouncing on a pandemic opportunity to buy up four recently vacated neighbouring sites. Alongside the bespoke flagship, Anya’s Village opens with a store dedicated to the art of organisation (something she’s obsessed with “in a nerdy way”) selling a system of cases and bags labelled to keep your paraphernalia ordered; The Plastic Shop, a paean to recycled plastics and in particular her recent ‘I AM a plastic bag,’ the circularity-championing successor to her 2007 smash hit ‘I Am Not a Plastic Bag’; The Village Hall, a rotating concept store that will change its identity (and Instagrammable interiors) monthly and launches as a blow dry bar serving “shampoo, therapy and Champagne;” and the Anya Café, a 1950s-inspired breakfast-to-cocktails dining destination that’s reminiscent of Pimlico’s iconic Regency Café, with food by William Norris and décor from Brady Williams, the people behind Café Colbert and the Wolseley.
“In a digital and post-pandemic world you need to give people a reason to visit,” says the entrepreneur, as poised and professional as she is warm, showing me the brands signature cartoon-like motifs of chubby hearts and clouds that have been reimagined as impossibly shiny cakes and the plays on boxes of After Eights (‘Anya’s Before Dinner Mints’) and Tunnocks (Anya’s) Tea Cakes that will be sold as affordable bites of the brand. “I really wanted it to be really inclusive.”
After a year in which an estimated 320 stores closed each week in the UK and we lost 17,500 chain stores on Britain’s high streets, Anya’s Village is a big, bold and incredibly brave bet on physical retail at a time when London has never needed it more. Was she nervous I wonder? “Listen of course its fraught with difficulty and any time you put your head above the parapet… it’s always a bit scary,” says the one-time UK Trade Ambassador. “But with time, I’ve managed to look on fear as the same emotion as excitement.”
Conquering fear is a topic she covers in her new book, If in Doubt Wash Your Hair, a down-to-earth self-help guide meets career manual that came out earlier this month and is the inspiration for the Village’s pop-up salon. “It’s about managing, and not managing, through my experience of being a woman in business, and a mother and a stepmother and all that entails. And it talks a lot about doubt, and navigating that,” says the mother-of-five, who at a one point in her global business career was juggling the school run with five children in different schools. “I think my generation is a sort of transition generation. We have the example of our mothers in our heads being homemakers and perhaps having a more traditional feminine role, and yet we are working as hard as our fathers did. And actually that’s quite tough.”
The Village will have an active programme of events, workshops and talks on everything from managing your inbox, to circularity and innovation – a topic she’s big on. “Much, much more important and serious than Covid frankly is an overheated planet and that’s terrifying. We know we’ve got ten years and that’s it. Ten years to fix this problem. I think it’s incumbent on all of us to think about that quite carefully.” The solution, she believes, is to live a little more like our grandparents; buy locally, pay twice as much for something and wear it for ten times longer. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to consume, it means you have to consume wisely.”
Hindmarch, who’s 2007 ‘I Am Not a Plastic Bag’ was so popular 30 people went to hospital in Taiwan following a store stampede the day it launched and acted a massive driver in the shift away from plastic shopping bags, believes in the power of the fashion to effect change, and is convinced our high streets have an exciting future full of opportunity for considered concepts and emerging brands. “I don’t think retail is over. And fashion is not over,” she smiles. When it looks this good, I would wholeheartedly agree.