Totes amaze: Anya Hindmarch on her 'plastic bag' and eco-fashion

Genevieve Fox
Totes amaze: Anya Hindmarch on her 'plastic bag' and eco-fashion. The fashion designer’s famous bag inspired the world to say ‘no’ to plastic. Her new one takes direct action

We are sitting in Anya Hindmarch’s bright office in a converted brewery in south London and the Queen of Bags is stroking a fabric sample as if it were ermine (faux, of course). “It’s so soft, it feels like cotton,” the luxury handbag and accessories designer says. Hindmarch spent two years researching and developing this fabric, which is spun from recycled plastic bottles, for her latest sustainable fashion initiative, the “I AM a plastic bag” tote, debuting at London fashion week. “It has a real weft and weave to it. Feel it!”

And as I do, the pioneering designer, who insists she is “not an eco-warrior” yet brought us the game-changing “I’m NOT a plastic bag” tote in 2007, charts her latest “journey – I hate that word, but you know what I mean” – in sustainability. It is a journey that has seen her hanging out in recycling depots, her staff bin-diving and even partners of staff scrabbling about in skips. “Every line on my face is to do with this,” she says, pointing to herself. “This has not been normal business for us. It’s been really stressful, but we are there.”

She’s used to stress, though. The £5 white canvas “I’m NOT a plastic bag”, created for a charity, graced stellar shoulders, including those of Keira Knightley, Lily Allen and Reese Witherspoon. It was a global sensation – and it unleashed a frenzy.

More than 80,000 people queued at Sainsbury’s stores for the limited-edition tote, which had a run of 20,000. It sold out, appeared on eBay for upwards of £300, and was marketed in counterfeit form for close to double that. When it was launched in Taiwan (where, incidentally, the new fabric has been made), a stampede of hungry shoppers resulted in 30 people being hospitalised. There was a similar bag-bath in Hong Kong, but no injuries. Beijing and other cities ended up delaying the release of their stock.

“I passed Isetan in Tokyo,” recalls Hindmarch, “the day before the bag went on sale there and people were queuing all the way around the block and the next block and the next. Unbelievable, and a little bit frightening. Our bag was front page news. I had the world’s press at me – even harassing me outside my house.”

Her first alt-statement bag “was a lightbulb moment,” she says. “It was fairly early on in our consciousness, where a lot of us were asking, ‘What can I do as an individual? But we felt quite hopeless. I just didn’t know…” and her voice trails off. “It was a bit like smoking – we were all using plastic bags at the supermarket, even double-bagging. Which is obviously disgusting.”

The campaign’s impact proved that “fashion is not frilly”, but can actually be a powerful communicator, says the designer, who was made an MBE for her contribution to fashion in 2009. The bag was created for the social change charity We Are What We Do (now Shift) and published in tandem with a modest handbook called Change the World for a Fiver. In 2007, the UK used 10.6bn plastic bags, according to the British Retail Consortium, down to 6.1bn in 2010. Sainsbury’s cut the number of bags it gave away by 58% in the subsequent two years, saving 13,200 tonnes of virgin plastic. Levies of 5p on plastic bags sold in supermarkets in the UK were introduced between 2011 and 2015.

More than a decade later, green has earned its stripes, vegan-boasting is a thing, and Greta Thunberg is a teenage prophet for the Anthropocene. Even so, Hindmarch is stealing herself for the inevitable flak. I give her a trial run and ask if she is guilty of green-washing. After all, her customers are presumably either too old or too wealthy, or both, to take action.

It’s about not making new things out of new. That’s a waste of energy and a waste of resources

“No! This is our generation’s war,” she says, and she talks about how her parents’ parents “sacrificed their 19-year-old sons for the Second World War”. The way to win the climate challenge is not to be “dazzled” or overwhelmed but to take “baby steps”. To those who pick holes in her efforts or anyone else’s, she says: “Don’t shout people down. If everyone did 10% of what they can, it would change a lot. I feel a duty to put up my hand and say I am not perfect.” The “extremes” are the problem, she says: “Raping the land for profit. Doing what is unnatural. Pushing for the last cent of profit.”

Her bags will retail at £695. “They’re not making us money,” she says. Putting the planet before profit is notable, given the company had seen punitive losses in 2017 and that Hindmarch only took back the reins of the company last year, when she became managing director. She pledged to be “brave and decisive”. The eco-tote is just that: it is durable and luxurious. You buy one and you keep it.

And if you shop at Primark? “Keep what you buy. Don’t throw it away. I’ve been shopping out of my wardrobe recently and I’ve bought very little. It’s kind of disgusting how many clothes we need.”

I glance at the slogan art on the wall in front of her, made from used Kellogg’s Frosties boxes. It reads: “Creativity will eat Strategy for Breakfast.” She’s re-thinking the future, with imagination, in a spirit of fun and with what she loves best: words.

“I love words and stationery,” she says. Cue a company re-think and no more dinky care cards. “When you look at what we send out with our web order or how we transport our products from the factory… I’ve had to look at every bit of packaging.”

While she admits that the process has been “very complicated,” her goals are underpinned by “common sense. I am no scientist. I am not even an eco-warrior. It’s about not making new things out of new. That’s not good for the planet. It’s a waste of energy and resources.”

The company is “transitioning” to a new way of making. Producing the bag, which is currently made in Italy – apart from the fabric – has entailed looking at everything, from the fabric’s weather-resistant coating (extracted from old car windscreens) and the provenance of the various inks and dyes to the leather trimming. This is made from responsibly sourced leather from a tannery in Italy. Hindmarch had initially favoured vegan or recycled leather, but they were ruled out (their levels of polyurethane were too high). The bag has just got the green light to be made exclusively in Italy, fabric and all.

We are completely disconnected from what we throw away

The first “I AM a plastic bag” to land is the charcoal in white and two shades of grey, the letters of the logo repeated on cubes to form a geometric pattern. Other colours will follow. But you won’t see the bag on the catwalk during LFW. Instead, Anya Hindmarch’s London stores will be closed, their windows filled with a total of 90,000 plastic bottles, the number of plastic bottles purchased globally every six seconds.

Waste management is Hindmarch’s new passion and it would be yours if you listened to her marvel at how recycling depots sort waste. She grabs her phone and shows me pictures of conveyor belts of plastic and aluminium in a Grundon recycling site near Heathrow. “It’s like Willy Wonka.” The quantities horrified her. “We are completely disconnected from what we throw away.”

The full collection, launching in April, includes “girlie stuff”, such as natty makeup bags and pimp-my-phone pouches. She jumps up. “See. You wear it like this!” she says, modelling a pouch across her jacket. “Hands free! I hate the idea of giving a whole hand to a phone. To a glass of wine or a child, maybe, but not to a phone!” And therein lies the Anya Hindmarch magic: her values a mixture of heritage and time-honoured, of roast chicken and chatter around the kitchen table with her big family, of “being like our parents” and making do, and of the new and innovative. The yellow 1970s smiley face she turned into one of her signature motifs probably says it all.

Even when I mention Brexit and what it means for business, she sighs and then sees the bright side. “Italy is very keen to make the bag. I am a great believer that we will work it out. We are good like that, us Brits – as long as we know what the problem is.” With fashion, that problem is using virgin materials to make products. “I’m an optimist,” says Hindmarch.

Limited styles in charcoal and clementine are now available at Anya Hindmarch and through Net-a-Porter. The full collection launches mid-April