'We want to put the fun back in fashion,' Emma Hill, the creative director and co-founder of Hill & Friends, explains over the phone. As we speak, the final touches are being made to the brand's first ever standalone retail store on London's South Molton Street, and Emma has had to walk around the corner in order to find a quiet place to chat. 'All my team have learned a lot about what it's like to open a shop, it's been very hands-on,' she laughs.
Launched in 2015, with a presentation in Claridge's, featuring bell boys carrying handbags on silver plated trays and Shetland ponies cantering across the carpet, from day one, it was clear that Hill & Friends was about more than just really great bags. With a focus on quality, sourcing and fair trade, in just two short years, the brand has become the go-to for smart women who want their bags to be just as Instagrammable as they are well-made. Think crayola colours, chunky chain straps that mean you can dance hands free and a signature iconic ‘wink’ twist lock, that makes both the wearer and admirers smile.
Now with sales up 195 per cent quarter on quarter, and an ever growing stockist list including Selfridges in London and Au Pont Rouge in Russia, not to mention the opportunity of a space on Emma's favourite London street becoming available, the launch of bricks-and-mortar store makes perfect sense.
Three days after our phone call, I make my way to the Georgian House for the opening where I'm greeted with miniature bottles of champagne, doughnuts smothered in hundreds and thousands and a gospel choir doing a version of Bryon Stingily's 'Get up Everybody.' Add to the mix its neon signage, millennial pink walls and giant life sized pandas, and it's like stepping into an IRL version of the Hill & Friends tagline #FashionJustGotFriendlier.
Here Emma talks bags, branding and bulldogs...
Can you remember your first favourite bag?
It was my brownie belt bag. You know the little brown ones that went with the uniform. I loved it so much.
What about your first designer bag?
Designer bags weren't really a thing when I was in my twenties. I remember when I first moved to New York, I bought my first pair of Gucci red patent sandals. No one really thought about bags back then. I had a Bill Amberg backpack in red around then. No one was doing them, it was different. And then things changed. I guess my first designer bag was a Prada nylon one but shortly after that I started designing bags myself so from then on it's really been my own creations.
Do you keep them all?
I try and keep most of my bags. I have a shoe and bag closet at home which sounds very fancy but it’s very unorganised.
Do you remember the first time you saw someone with one of your designs?
It’s the nicest thing to see. I always do a double take. And people send me funny pictures on Instagram of them out with their bags. It’s really cute, and when they meet someone else with one they send snaps of them together. It’s all about the fandom, they’ve saved up their money to buy one so I'm always really excited to see them.
What are you most looking forward to with having a store?
I think it’s going to epitomize our tag line of 'Fashion Just Got Friendlier.' We really love the experience of buying a bag, it’s not just about the product. Making luxury fun is really important to me.
Why South Molton Street?
All my favorite shopping memories are there. When I was at college, it was all about that street. It's a Georgian townhouse, and I live in a townhouse in Notting Hill. My door is painted pink with googly eyes, so we wanted to recreate that idea of a family home. So the showroom is in the basement, the shop is on the ground floor and then above that is the design team. I really like the idea of people coming in and knowing that next season is being worked on upstairs. Plus we can get instant feedback from our customers.
I have a feeling there's going to be lots of Instabait....
Everything is pale pink - the walls, the ceilings and even the floors. We have giant pandas in the window, neon signs, water bowls for dogs plus a customisation bar. It’s really representative of our brand. It's British, it's posh and it’s fun!
What are your most popular bag styles?
The 'Happy Mini Tote' in oxblood with its long strap and happy lock always does well. I love the colour. It makes me think of school uniforms and just goes with everything. Then there's the 'Happy Tweency,' with a chain strap. It's called that because when my son was little he would always say small things were: 'Tweency.' And we’ve just launched, the 'Happy Slouchy Tote.' It’s really lightweight and useful. It’s like taking a shopping bag out. The logo face on it is embroidered by one of the last remaining factories in East London.
You've been in the bag business for over 15 years. Have you noticed women's bag needs changing?
'I think women have always wanted form and function meets gorgeousness. When you think about it, no one actually needs a new bag so you’ve got to love it. It has to meet the needs of your life. I’m at the stage where it has to work, go from day to evening. I think what is changing is the idea of being interested in how things are made, I like things that feel smart. All our bags are made in Spain, the leather comes from Italy and we still work with English factories too. I’ve worked with some of the factories all my career.
It feels almost like a family business...
That was really important to us. Lots of brands are doing heritage and even though we feel old, we’re still quite young. So we’re not competing there. And then lots of others do fun really well. So for us I think we like to think more about longevity. I've always thought like that. That’s how my house is designed and that’s how I dress. I always think it’s because my mum was an artist and my dad was a teacher. So I’m like the middle of that Venn diagram.
Finally, what would we always find in your bag?
A mess. A complete mess! I have a million bags but I don’t have a wallet. I just shove it everything in it, but you'll always find my Oyster card, I go everywhere by the tube and Dr Paw Paw lip balm. And most recently dog toys! I just got a new puppy. She's a French bulldog called Bleecker. I used to live on Hudson Street, in the West Village of New York, which is where I named my son after. So I wanted to call her Bleecker as this is the street that meets with Hudson. I'm pretty obsessed with her!
Find the Hill & Friends store at 63 South Molton Street, London W1K 5SU