The heart of the Mulberry empire lies fittingly in a quintessentially English setting – Somerset’s rolling Mendip Hills. There are cattle in the meadows, starlings swooping across the sky, the occasional kingfisher, and even wild mushrooms growing in the hedgerows. Amid this pastoral idyll sits The Rookery, the artisan-based factory in Chilcompton, where 17-year-old apprentices work alongside septuagenarian “old hands”, studying every stage from “paper prototypes” to glueing, stitching and even selecting the exact six sheets of white tissue that will enfold the finished product.
Fast-forward, in space and time, to London Fashion Week and there’s a buzz as celebrities arrive clutching their Mulberry bag or showcasing Mulberry’s beautiful silk dresses. These two scenarios of a rural workshop and a star-studded catwalk show, while seemingly worlds apart, are the strengths that encapsulate the happy marriage of heritage and hip that is Mulberry today.
The years of the Gisele bag
Just what makes the company tick, and tick all the right boxes? Undoubtedly, the drive, determination and experience of one of the world’s richest – and shrewdest – businesswomen, Christina Ong, is a major contributing factor in the brand-building. But no luxury name can succeed without “the product”. Mulberry’s “It” bag epiphany came when Stuart Vevers, later a creative director, but then freelancing in the Mulberry studio, collaborated with young British designer, Luella Bartley, on a handbag for her New York show in 2002. A soft, squash tan “tote”, it was carried by – and named for – the Brazilian catwalk superstar, Gisele Bündchen. Although the “Gisele” was successful, it was, in fact, a second bag, the Bayswater, designed by the next creative appointee, Nicholas Knightly, that really put the cash into the Mulberry cachet.
Emma Hill joins Mulberry
Then, this is where designer Emma Hill, 42, stepped in. She joined in 2008 just weeks after the markets crashed. Undaunted, she commented that she always liked a challenge, and rather than playing safe, she felt it was better to be daring: “People are always going to want gorgeous things. What a lot [of luxury labels] tried to do to ride out the recession was to play it safe. But when you are being much more conservative with your money, you are only going to part with it for something that makes you press your nose up against the window, slobbering – you’re not going to do that for a safe bag.”
She also thinks that Mulberry’s British heritage counted: “Whenever it was a recession, my family would always buy British, to help keep the economy afloat. I may have a romantic view of it, but I think people still do that.”
The Alexa bag
One of Emma’s first hits was a slouchy, super-chic satchel, inspired by seeing TV presenter Alexa Chung toting a vintage Mulberry bag. It was named – what else? – the “Alexa”. There was a waiting list of 15,000, including online, and The Rookery went into overdrive.
Emma slots into the Mulberry “family” as perfectly as the final piece in a jigsaw. “I was born in England at pretty much the time Mulberry was established, and when they approached me, it felt like serendipity,” she said. “The authenticity of the brand, the warmth and passion of the people, and the chance to breathe new life into a sleeping giant were irresistible.” She loves Mulberry for the fact it is “irreverent yet iconic”. She uses words such as “fuzzy”, “warm”, and “gorgeous” to describe the brand image – and she’s right.