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How Sophie Hulme Built a Successful Handbag Line With an 'Anti-Fashion Approach'

And how she competes in an industry dominated by "super-brands."
Handbag designer Sophie Hulme. Photo: Tereza Cervenova

Handbag designer Sophie Hulme. Photo: Tereza Cervenova

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

"I don't come from a fashion background," explains best-selling handbag designer Sophie Hulme over the phone from her office in London. She entered art college to study creative arts, but once she dabbled in fashion design, she was hooked. "I probably thought it was far too terrifying and I wasn't nearly cool enough until I tried it," she laughs. 

She then narrowed her focus to handbag design. After all, Hulme held a fascination with packaging ("things you keep things in"), evidenced by her collections of jewelry boxes and decorative pencil cases. "It's very personal about what you keep in [a bag]," she explains. And "it's an incredibly functional item. So that's a really nice challenge as a designer because you've got parameters in which to be new and creative."

Hulme launched her handbag line in 2011 and the fashion world — and customers — quickly took notice of her unique aesthetic that skillfully meshes sophistication, elegance, military-inspired utilitarianism and whimsy.

In 2012, she won the emerging talent accessories British Fashion Award and by June 2016, had grown her company's headcount to an impressive 34. Hulme's classic-meets-quirky bags are sold through 250 retailers in 30 countries — including Opening Ceremony in the U.S., Selfridges in her native U.K., On Pedder in Asia and Net-a-Porter — and are responsibly produced in Italy, Hungary and Spain. 

Before jetting out of town for her wedding — yes, her bridal party and "mum" all enjoyed personalized Sophie Hulme bags — the designer was generous enough to squeeze in a chat with Fashionista about finding success so quickly in a competitive industry (and with minimal marketing), not creating a soon-to-be-basic It Bag and declaring her deep love for math. Read on for the highlights.

The Albion Hearts, Box Albion and Mini Albion totes from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

The Albion Hearts, Box Albion and Mini Albion totes from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

Your bags have such distinctive design elements. What was your inspiration behind that?

I think the best design comes from practicality. Because obviously, if you spread [the hardware plating] across more rivets, you're spreading the load and making the handbag much stronger. I was looking at how to attach the handle in a strong way and it's a very industrial way of designing. It's very masculine by nature and, what I think is a lovely twist on that, is to then plate it in 24-carat gold. Then you naturally have this magpie element. It's beautiful and shiny, but it still is a very functional thing and that's why the proportions are attractive. Because it's doing something and it's working. 

Then the leather is the same leather they use for saddle-making. The reason [the bag] is unlined is [so] you can see all of the leather and see how it's made and really celebrate the materials. It's quite a masculine leather, but with this feminine gold. It's quite interesting. I think women are attracted to that sort of crossover — very few women have totally feminine, feminine taste.

Do you have an engineering background or a math background? The way you describe your design process sounds like you do.

I love math! Math is my favorite thing. It helps when you run your own business, actually. I have this weird mind in that I love creative things, but I also am very logical and that kind of crossover shows in the product. I do think I design like a product designer. I try and push my team to work [in the same way]. [Handbags] are beautiful products that should be timeless and last. We don't follow trends. We're far more interested in engineering and product design. 

What has your strategy been for growth?

Often the normal starting point is to go really heavy on press and do big shows and do a big song and dance and then hope for the sales to come later. Whereas, our product was luckily popular and picked up very quickly. So now I'm catching up with myself and working much more on the communications side because, frankly, for years I had my head stuck in a production spreadsheet and packing boxes myself.

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The Finsbury shoulder bag from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

The Finsbury shoulder bag from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

Your bags run from $350 for a mini-crossbody to $2,000+ for Swarovski-embellished totes. How did you determine the pricing?

We use the same leathers as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, so our quality is luxury. But we offer it for a contemporary price point, which I think can sometimes be confusing for the department stores because they're like, 'it's a contemporary price point, we should sell it in contemporary.' But then the great news is people really feel like all their money is going to quality rather than a name, which is quite an anti-fashion approach. But as a consumer, I want to feel like all my money is going to the leather, rather than paying for advertising.

I think certainly when we started, there was a real gap at the time. Because loads of bags that were sort-of-expensive-but-just-about-affordable had suddenly gone astronomically expensive and you couldn't get anything under £1,000 (about $1,480). I felt like that gap was still real money and people still want great quality for that, so that's our unique offering.

Has it been challenging to compete with bigger brands?

We are competing on the same shop floor as Prada, Balenciaga, [Alexander] Wang, Miu Miu, all these huge people who can put massive amounts of resources behind [selling their product] and who own enormous, fantastic factories. And yet the buyers are going to a sales appointment with you and they see it exactly the same as the sales appointment at the mega-brand. They expect the same level of service. The product needs to sell through in the same way and it has to be delivered on time and the price has to be right and you have to get everything right in the same way as a 1,000-person business is able to do. So inherently that's crazy.

I think the reason that it's worked for us is because we haven't tried to compete against them with advertising or compete against them with communications. Of course, we're trying now, but there's so much noise, you can’t do that. For us, what worked, I think, was: the product is right and people bought it because they wanted that product rather than because they wanted the name on it. 

The Holmes North South tote from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

The Holmes North South tote from the pre-fall 2016 collection. Photo: Sophie Hulme

There’s always an 'It Bag' out there, which can be the downfall of a bag style. How do you walk the fine line of having a bag that everybody wants, but not too much?

I think that’s letting the product lead the brand because sometimes when people make too big a song and dance and start shouting loudly, then people get fed up with it. Whereas we've organically grown as people have wanted to buy it. 

So the way to avoid [hitting the saturation point], hopefully, is just to be sensitive to constantly evolving your ideas. Make sure that the consumer follows the journey with you. Don’t jump too quickly because then they're just like, 'what is this?' and 'what you were doing before, I liked it.' 

You've launched evening and will introduce jewelry soon. What other categories would you like to conquer?

At some point on the horizon, shoes would be a really interesting thing for our brand. Because there's an interesting spot where our price point would be if you think of the equivalent for bags... But my production manager keeps reining me in. We've got quite a lot to worry about already.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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