There are certain markers that often means a bag brand has made it. Whatever ‘it’ is. When your brand gets its own thread on Purse Forum and people start rampantly posting bag detail shots and patting each’s back on their purchases. When you see more than one of said bags on an average day walking about various high streets in London (I’m talking Oxford Street/Upper Street as opposed to Sloane Street/Kings Road). And in Sophie Hulme’s case, when you enter their office and find it completely unrecognisable from when you last visited because they’ve had to expand considerably to support the extra staff of an accessories company that has seen amazing growth in the last few years. “People have opposite end of spectrums of expectation of us – some people think we’re tiny and we’re hammering out bags in our studio or we’re massive and have hundreds of employees,” said Hulme, as we caught up over lunch at my former Highbury haunt Trullo.
The truth is somewhere in between but from where Hulme began with her embellished outerwear and ready to wear collections back in 2008, it was still something of a shock to walk in and see twenty seven employees beavering away in what used to be Hulme’s lounge. To say the bags – specifically the signature armour tote which debuted in 2012 – have taken off since those early days is an understatement. The aforementioned purse forum thread? Check. Regular multiple IRL bag sightings? Check, check. (“I still get a kick out of seeing my bags on the street,” said Hulme). Avid fanbase? Check, check, check.
However, getting to that point has been a long slog. Since winning the ‘Emerging Talent in Accessories’ British Fashion Award in 2012, she’s been laying low and busying herself with meeting the unexpected demand for not just core collection of bags that have grown substantially from just the one tote. “We’ve been so stretched for the last few years, but it’s a brilliant problem when you have so many orders to deal with.” Hulme now has a right hand head of design, Natalie Frost, to help her with this growth and with every Sophie Hulme collection, new shapes, new modes of embellishment and new techniques are being introduced to satisfy customer demand that now know Hulme for more than just that tote.
But what has been the lasting appeal of Hulme’s bags? The values of her bags certainly haven’t changed much from when she started. “At the time, there was a backlash against the IT bag and people were really tiring of that. The bags were distinctive with their harder leather and strong silhouette and they’ve got not visible branding. There’s something recognisable in the hardware without being brazen about it and that’s why the totes have done so well. It’s not gold for the sake of gold. It’s a masculine use of gold. Interestingly, a lot of people tell me that men stop them in the street when they’re carrying the bags.” What started as a functional piece of metal to hold the straps has become a signature for Hulme to carry over into the rest of her bag range. Now, the metal comes curved on the base of semi-circular saddle bags. They also form the mechanism for a very clever extendable straps on bucket bags and hobos. It’s display of function that doubles up as decoration.
The quality of leather is also something that Hulme still takes great pride in as it’s the primary selling point of her bags. “Our bags our so stripped back that all the attention is on the leather and the hardware,” said Hulme. “It is expensive leather for our price point because it’s so integral. I don’t want to do anything that’s throwaway It’s important that our leathers are long lasting. I really wanted people to SEE that saddlery leather and appreciate how great it is, as over time, they take on an amazing patina and sheen.” Of course, there is currently no Sophie Hulme bag that is aged ten years or more (“Nat has one of the oldest ones and it’s ageing quite nicely!”) Time will tell how the bags fare down the line. But even without physical age, there is a sense of longevity to what Hulme does and that’s down to her core design principles that have built up a certain level of trust. It’s probably why some people do mistakenly think Hulme is a much bigger and older brand than it actually is.
Take Hulme’s latest resort 2016 collection – an important season for Hulme as like most brands, it constitutes the majority of sales – which marks a turning point in her penchant for whimsy. “I know fruit has been so overdone – but we wanted to do it differently. The exciting thing about having a core collection is that you can do a twist on everything.” So her armour totes gets a jingly jangly beaded banana outfit that gives the utilitarian masculine shape a whole new vibe. Watermelon is turned into a graphic printed leather with black stone seeds. Hulme plays with inlay marquetry leather to create shimmering citrus patterns. And her furry family of googly-eyed charms have also multiplied. It’s a brilliantly complete and broad range that I could not have imagined back when I first visited Hulme’s studio in 2011.
It’s interesting to see how Hulme has managed to balance her signature styles with experimentation. “In our bestseller’s top 10 each season, you often have five core and five new styles,” said Hulme. Hence why relatively new additions like the bucket bag, softer leather shoulder bags and from resort 2016 onwards, perspex evening clutches have made their way into Hulme’s world and have been readily accepted by the customer. Moreover, Hulme haven’t shied away from the more expensive pieces such as a sequinned bag in her current S/S 15 collection that retails at £1,500 and has sold out in stores. What has netted Hulme’s success of course are her relatively affordable price points (well in bag land anyway) but it’s heartening to know that she doesn’t always have to think about the bottom line. “We’ve made an effort to lead with product – make things that people want to have – whether it’s core, whether it’s new, where it’s expensive. People will go in and just want our bags without necessarily knowing what the name is.”
So what’s new on the horizon? Where can Hulme go? I’ve personally been thinking about scale and what equates success in fashion. To me, Hulme has struck a happy balance where she’s built something that is bigger than just herself but hasn’t grown so much that things become out of her creative control. “When I started the brand, I never really believed I could actually have a brand. I thought ‘Cooler people have brands…’ The ideal scenario would be that I get to work with more product categories but feel like everything we’re producing is something we’re proud of. I’d like to have physical stores too.” Having dipped her toes into ready to wear, shoes and jewellery previously, Hulme now has the confidence that she can have another go with the right infrastructure behind those verticles. “What I find really exciting is, having done ready to wear, and having done bags and bits of jewellery – I know really clearly where the brand can expand,” said Hulme. “I don’t think we’re a brand that do one thing very successfully and can’t do anything else.” Come October, after a long gestation period, Hulme’s proper e-commerce site will be ready as will a fully fledged jewellery line. And with every addition to the brand, nothing will be any less considered. Hulme may have been ‘emerging’ back in 2012 but it’s clear in 2015, she’s emerged and she’s ready for more.