Life lessons from Anya Hindmarch: the accessories designer, whose latest collection, I Am A Plastic Bag, is available now at Brown Thomas, shares her down-to-earth advice on modern living with Rosaleen McMeel …
Anya Hindmarch is a gifted overachiever. She founded her eponymous company from her kitchen table in 1987, when she was just 19, and built it into a global business with 60 stores in ten countries, all while raising five children (who range in age from teens to 30s) in a beautifully blended family. When the pandemic struck, she secured her workforce, developed an accessories holster for the NHS, all while plotting the execution of a long-held dream – the opening of The Village, a cluster of five permanent retail units on Pont Street, in London’s Belgravia. A first in retail, The Village will be a quintet of neighbouring Anya Hindmarch stores, and include The Anya Café, The Village Hall – an evolving concept space launching with a hair salon, The Plastic Store – the home of the brand’s I Am Not a Plastic Bag totes, The Labelled Store and The Bespoke Store, offering personalisation.
After recovering from Covid-19 herself, Hindmarch spent the rest of her lockdown penning an open and honest book about life as a mother, entrepreneur and globally renowned businesswoman. The result, If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair is a beautifully honest and genuinely useful guide to modern life. “It’s so frightening writing a book,” she tells me over the phone from her home office in London. “I think it’s important to be honest. I don’t think anyone is ever totally honest and so I have written it with my daughter or a girlfriend in mind.”
The title is based on her most frequently shared piece of advice. “On the one hand it’s flippant, trivial. It literally sums up how much better I feel about myself – how much more confident, how much glintier-eyed, how much better able to cope and respond – if I have freshly washed hair. But on the other hand, it is a reminder that I must look after myself, that I must put my own oxygen mask on first.”
The idea for the book came from the questions Hindmarch received while delivering talks on her business journey. Audiences always wanted to know more about the bigger picture. In response, she has written a revealing manual covering everything from dealing with investors to navigating a family illness, all with razor-sharp discernment and a self-deprecating honesty.
This insightful book does little to dispel her reputation as a talented overachiever, but it does reassuringly shed light on the sacrifices she has made and hard-won lessons learned along the way. One such lesson is when she sold her business and relinquished the role of CEO to concentrate on the creative side, only to later buy it back and resume the position of CEO. “I thought it would be quite good if I could just focus on the creative, but a few years later I realised I liked doing the business part as well, and we bought the business back. That wasn’t easy, I will admit, but it felt right. It’s interesting that a lot of founders feel like they need to bring in professionals and experts but you don’t always have to do that. You realise you know more than you think. I had never trained or been to business school and thought I needed to bring in a pro, but actually you can have pros, underneath you as well. I think keeping the founder leading the company is probably the most authentic way of keeping the sense of community in a company, so I’m glad I’m back where I am.”
Hindmarch’s book will speak particularly to the “transition generation” of women who are now working as hard as their dads while also doing much of the work at home. At its heart, however, is a deeply practical guide to the universal struggles all women share, with or without the global accessories empire. Here, she shares a flavour of the wisdom she’s gained along life’s colourful path.
POWER OF THE PACK
“I think women, generally, are very kind to other women. I think what you put out in the world you get back, which is a very basic strategy. But women can help other women with the smallest thing, like taking their kids for the afternoon, giving someone a leg up or a nice compliment that could really boost someone. Tiny things make a huge difference and I believe in setting up a chain of actions. I think women are mostly collaborative and I’ve found that the support of my girlfriends almost takes my breath away.”
“I make mistakes every single day. Running your own business is a patchwork of mistakes. That’s what it is. It’s about trying to navigate that. I think of it as a bit like sailing: you are going from A to B, but you go a bit right and a bit left and it’s a very wonky journey. If people think it’s easy, we’re not doing anyone any favours. It’s all about navigating through the mistakes.”
“I feel guilty for saying anything positive about the pandemic because it has been so awful for so many, but it was an amazing time that made me stop and think and recalibrate a bit. The merry-go-round was unsustainable really and I feel happier for having stepped off for a bit and focused more on family. Workwise, it gave me creative headspace. It made me focus on localisation rather than globalisation, hence launching The Village. It was really special applauding the NHS every evening and even more special was meeting the neighbours we didn’t know and the chats on the doorstep. Let’s grab the silver linings to have come out of what was a really rough year and try to embed them in the future. I’m sure we will go back to the way we were, but even if there’s a ten per cent change, that’s really good.”
LOOKING THE BUSINESS
“I think it’s all about feeling like yourself. When I feel I’ve nailed an outfit is when I put it on and don’t think about it again. I forget it. I’m not having to hold in my tummy or pinch at something. When you get that right you smile with your eyes and look people in the eye, you’re just a bit more yourself and that’s what fashion is for – that’s the point – to forget what you’re wearing and feel good and confident. That’s my focus when it comes to dressing.”
MIXING BUSINESS WITH PHILANTHROPY
“My dad always says ‘if in doubt, do things’ and that’s what it’s all about. I love using our platform for philanthropic causes – that gives me deep, deep pleasure. And for the staff, I think it’s nice to know they’re doing things that people are responding to and hopefully they feel proud of. I think the people we attract are people who care about those things, not just fashion people.”
PROTECTING THE PLANET
“If people found Covid hard, that’s nothing compared to an overheated planet with everyone migrating north. I mean, it’s terrifying, so let’s just get going. That doesn’t mean we can’t shop, it just means buy less but buy better. Reuse, reduce, recycle. Buy things that biodegrade, refillable shampoo bottles, for example. You buy a recyclable bottle and refill it and that’s one bottle. You don’t have to buy more. It’s so easy and it makes such a difference. No one’s perfect. But start and do one thing. One thing can lead to three and three leads to nine. Really it’s just about common sense and being smart. There’s nothing clever about endlessly designing things and throwing them in landfill. We are going to run out of resources. Let’s all just go back to how our grandparents were. There was no such word as “disposable” and everything was local. It’s common sense, but we really need to get there very quickly.”
“When you drop a pebble into a puddle you create ripples. Similarly, when you do something, you create a reaction. You can’t necessarily imagine in advance what that reaction will be. But one dropped pebble can create momentum and open up big opportunities. When you tackle something scary or difficult, you always get something back. Throw energy at things, and you will get energy back.”
“I chose all of the elements in my life that keep me busy, and I keep choosing them – so I need to find strategies to make all of them fit together and work. I always align burnout to sunburn: by the time you realise you’re in danger, it’s too late – it’s already happened. So you have to learn how much exposure you can take, learn to recognise your own telltale signs, and make sure you cover up accordingly. Exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and organising myself so I have breaks planned ahead are my sunscreen. If I get those right, I can put my face in the sun and enjoy its warmth. If I don’t, I am taking my chances.”
“I always say now to anyone getting engaged, first, that I’m thrilled for them, but second: ‘Always remember this day. You have made a contract today’. If you were merging two companies, you would sit down with both sets of lawyers and do the due diligence and analyse the balance sheet and work out all the what-ifs and all the contingencies. For marriage you pretty much just smell each other (nature’s way of checking your immune system compatibility, apparently), fall in love, and off you go. The smell of your immune system does the job of the lawyers and the contracts, to some extent. But you have to accept the balance sheet as it is today. If you find his mother annoying today, she’s only going to get more annoying. Don’t complain later. Be realistic. Note it today, accept it, realise it will probably get worse not better when the rose-tinted glasses come off, and don’t moan about it once you’re married.”
EMBRACE YOUR DIFFERENCES
“I have accepted my slightly dyslexic brain. It made me feel stupid and ashamed at school and for years afterwards but now I positively embrace it. I think it is part of what made me so restless in the classroom, so impatient to leave education and just get on with things. And I think it is part of the reason I see things a lot of people can’t see. I can digest an image immediately and effortlessly – I can close my eyes and tell you exactly what is in the room – whereas text takes me that bit longer. It got me used to feeling a bit lonely and different. All of that has given me advantages in my career and helped me to become who I am.”
If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair by Anya Hindmarch, published by Bloomsbury, €22 is out now. The Village, on Pont Street, London SW1, is open now.
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