Catchin’ up with Sophie
British designer Sophie Hulme has quickly become an iconic name in fashion; since launching her eponymous label in 2007, her tote bags and clutches have propelled her to global success.
Gold-plated armour and tough leathers lend a masculine style to her classic creations, although the incorporation of childhood toys ensures a tongue-in-cheek playfulness permeates her super-chic aesthetic. We went to Sophie’s studio, located in an old toy factory, to find out a little more about her.
How did you find yourself working as a designer?
I wanted to be an artist and so I did a foundation year in order to study fine art. But part of that course was fashion, so I had a go and then realised that I really enjoyed it! It made sense, because I was always interested in the human figure and, when I was tiny, I always used to make stuff. I had a big cupboard at my parents’ house that was filled with cardboard boxes and bits and pieces and I used to build stuff all the time: sweet machines, things like that. And I was always interested in objects and so I collected things; my nan bought me an old gold charm bracelet and so I started collecting old gold charms and then I hoarded vintage clothing and old leather pouches. The idea of being a fashion designer never really came into my head before my foundation year – although it all makes sense now, when I remember those things.
Did you study in London?
Yes, at Kingston University. I loved it there because it was very creative but you also studied things like pattern cutting and so you learnt how to make things yourself. My graduate collection got quite a lot of interest, so I thought that I’d pilot a very small sample collection – a really nice, finished version of the things I had already made and, because of Kingston, I was equipped to make it myself. It was great – I don’t think that you can come out of a lot of places and do that. I took those first samples to a trade show and got picked up… and then I had to produce it! So it all started there, and then I did a second collection because the first one sold and… I don’t like the word organic, but it wasn’t all planned out.
You didn’t have a business master plan behind everything?
Exactly. I wasn’t one of those kids who leaves college saying, “I’m gonna have my own brand!” I was like, “Okay, people quite like these things… okay, I’ll make a few more…!” I’m not sure I’m confident enough to say, “I’m going to start my own label and it’s going to be like this!”
It was funny though, suddenly your bags were everywhere – I kept seeing your stuff all over the place.
Yes, it’s weird! Sometimes, other people see the brand very differently to how I do, because I’m in it and I’ll get on the floor and cut out leathers. But people can perceive it as much bigger than it is – and vice versa, some people are surprised that we even have staff. The whole brand is at an interesting stage; in the last 18 months, we’ve gone from three staff to 12. It’s amazing to think of the difference between now and a year ago; then, I was doing half the shipping, packing all the stuff up… it’s really different now! I do bank holidays now!
It must be strange for you, managing all of the less glamorous elements of the business but also the creative side.
I love my job but it is quite a strange spectrum. It goes from being really creative to having to be very financially aware and aware of the merchandising angle and then the press… I think that we’re quite different from a lot of other brands that get loads of press and have all the hype first and then do the sales. We’ve done it the other way around; we started off by getting lots of sales and now we are starting to look more at the other side of things. I find our way exciting because it’s more about the product itself – it means that people want to own the stuff rather than having a big hoohaa around it all.
Absolutely. People love the bags for what they are, rather than buying into an abstract, cool concept. Who are your other favourite brands?
I find the idea of product branding really interesting, so I find Prada incredibly inspirational. It’s so clever how many areas they cover, that this one name is identifiable across so many types of product. I find it exciting because of what we’re doing, because I feel like the identity of our brand can span a lot of areas: there are ways we could do full ready-to-wear line, shoes would make sense, sunglasses… I don’t want to just make loads of stuff for the sake of it but there’s some depth to what we’re doing, and opportunity for development.
Miuccia’s my hero, too.
Yes! Other people ask, “What would Jesus do?” I ask, “What would Miuccia do?”
Where did you get the idea for all the little trinkets you incorporate into your designs from?
I’ve always been really interested in objects and in collecting things. I like iconic things, stuff that you no longer necessarily value because you see it so much. So, we made a biro lid and bubble blowers out of gold, because I like to collect things that you don’t necessarily value. I think that’s where the collecting has led and really informed the brand… I really like the idea of valuing the things that are actually incredibly special to me, without always realising they are. A chip fork can hold so much meaning, and I’d much rather have a gold chip fork than a gold flower necklace!
Yeah, those little things can tune into your own personal narrative.
Exactly. I like that in objects, in them having a story.
Your Spring/Summer collection has a lot to do with poisonous frogs – where did that idea come from?
Poisonous frogs always need to be saying, “I’m poisonous, don’t eat me!” so they have all these amazing markings – things like stripy legs and a spotty belly. I was looking at those elements and also thinking about that little frog toy that you get in Christmas crackers – you know, the one where you press on its tail and it jumps across the table?
I just wandered into your storeroom, and there was a big box labelled ‘poisonous frog charms’ – it was like a childhood dream!
Every season, every piece comes with a charm! We have the frogs this season and then next season, we have googly eyes in gold casings for our monster collection.
Your bags are very classically designed; obviously they have different elements from season to season but they have a sense of timelessness. How do you work with the pace of trend-based fashion?
Since the day we started, I’ve said that I don’t want the brand to be trend-led. I want the things we make to last because I don’t like the idea of fast fashion. If you’re buying something for ten quid in Primark, you know it’s impossible to do that correctly… especially when you’ve produced things and you know the cost of making them! I like the idea of a wardrobe just being lots of beautiful things that you can jigsaw together and keep forever and that’s how I like to design – so that you can wear something from one season with something from six seasons later. I don’t really know what the trends are for next season or what colours people should be wearing but I love thinking that maybe someone would give one of my bags to their daughter. I just love the idea that it has value to someone.
That it’s special?
Yes, that’s what’s important to me. And we do fun stuff, too because it’s also important to me that the brand has a certain playfulness to it. As much as I want the bags to be timeless, they’re handbags… it’s not all sooooo serious! So many people take fashion too seriously and at the end of the day, it’s not, is it?
What do you feel like your biggest achievement has been within the brand?
In terms of career achievements, getting a British Fashion Award was amazing… to go to an event like that with people like Valentino walking around and having people recognise you – it was so weird. I was just in a bubble for the whole time. Stella McCartney gave me a hug! And I’m really excited about having created something that people can recognise, that has an identity, something that has scope for so much more… I feel like what the brand represents I could design forever and never run out of ideas – I can see a future! But for me, to see a girl who’s bought a bag on the bus with it… that’s the proudest moment of all of it.