Fashion Week: 5 Questions With Emma Hill, Creative Director of Mulberry

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Designer Emma Hill attends the British Fashion Awards at The Savoy on December 7, 2010 in London, England

Mulberry, the British fashion house behind “it bags” like the Alexa and the Bayswater, celebrates its 40th anniversary today. As part of the festivities, creative director Emma Hill spoke with NewsFeed about the brand’s international expansion, the thrill of spotting her bags on the street and the new Mulberry flagship store in New York City.

Mulberry's Bayswater purse

What’s it like for you when you see your bags dangling on arms in the real world, away from the fashion shows and parties?
Oh God, it’s the most amazing thing, really. When you’re a designer, that’s what it’s really about. Thinking that somebody has spent their hard-earned money and [is] loving it. That’s the ultimate feeling. We have an amazing fan base. They post pictures of themselves on websites with their new bags. It’s terribly sweet and endearing.

Those fans include trendy twenty-somethings and busy moms toting diapers. Why does the brand appeal to so many types of people?
It is amazing because not many brands do it. I think it’s just really easy to wear. It’s not self-conscious. You can wear it in any way you want. When I think of the iconic bags, like the Bayswater or the Alexa, they don’t rely on a certain age or a certain kind of person or living a certain kind of life. Some people wear the Bayswater all done up and keep it really tidy and neat, and other people like me make it all squidgy. That really helps. It may be that it feels like it’s not an untouchable brand. I think we’re very friendly which helps people from all sorts of walks of life love us.

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Mulberry's Alexa purse

Mulberry’s sales shot up by 69% last year, and profits before tax rose more than 350%. How have you managed to grow the brand during these leaner times?
The days of having hundreds of handbags at home are over. More people are looking for a heritage bag or a forever bag. They are not looking for something that is going to be outdated the next season. We always joke that our bags are similar to a supermarket’s “two for one” deal. You can carry the Alexa in your hand or wear it across your shoulder or body. That’s important. I think a bag has to be really functional now. It’s not like clothing. It’s with you everyday. It has to go with lots of outfits. You have to be able to use it. It cannot irritate you. I think your bag should become your best friend. To be able to wear your bag in different ways totally changes its attitude. If you wear a Bayswater on the crook of your arm or you sling it across your body with a cross body strap it has a completely different vibe.

You opened your first U.S. flagship store on Spring Street in New York City on Sept. 8, and you have new stores opening in Holland, Korea and Thailand, among other places. Is there a risk of losing your sense of Britishness as you go global?
As you expand globally, there are certain things that you have to be sensitive to. You have to be sensitive to cultural differences. Things like the weather and sizing and modesty. But I don’t think you should ever change what you are within each country. You shouldn’t make yourself more blingy in Russia or more modest in the Middle East. For me brand is everything. It’s all about brand. Nothing supersedes brand. If you start to dilute your brand then it’s really dangerous territory. If you’re not bling enough for a certain country then perhaps you shouldn’t be there.

Why did you want to open a third store in New York?
New York is such a crucial city and it also happens to be close to my heart. I lived there for 15 years, and I have New York City tattooed on my ankle. It’s incredibly important to get locations right and to be in the right neighborhood. We just thought it was the right thing to do, and the store is where we wanted it to be and it looks the way we wanted it to look. It has that classic New York tin ceiling which is so gorgeous. It reminds me of my first apartment.

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William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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