How to turn self-doubt into global success by Anya Hindmarch

Anya Hindmarch is the mega-selling designer whose bold bags spark stampedes. She’s also a woman crippled by fear of failure – which, she tells Anna Pursglove, has been the making of her. 

Photograph: Yuki Sugiura

When a journalist, a politician or a business leader describes Anya Hindmarch, they almost always reach for the word ‘brave’. Brave for launching her accessories business at the age of 18 having never studied fashion or art; for marrying a widower and becoming a stepmum to his three children while in her mid-20s; for taking a stand on single-use plastic bags before being ethical was fashionable, and for being the first accessories designer to hold an on-schedule show at London Fashion Week.

Leaning forward and gazing intently through serious-looking, heavy-rimmed glasses (she is a self-confessed ‘nerd’ whose happy place is in a candlelit church listening to 16th-century choral music), Anya, now 52, gives careful consideration to the idea that she’s particularly courageous.

‘That’s true in some ways,’ she says, ‘but I’ve given many talks about my career and the parts people always want to discuss with me afterwards – women in particular – are the ones about self-doubt and how I cope with it. I’ve been at some quite grown-up political meetings and on various boards over the years and what you come to realise is everyone has that nagging inner critic. Everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. It’s just nobody is terribly honest about it.’

‘Quite grown-up’, in this context, is a wild understatement. In 2009 the Queen awarded Anya an MBE and, that same year, she was announced as a trustee of both the Design Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts. The following year, David Cameron appointed her as a UK trade ambassador and the British Fashion Council made her a non-executive director. When then mayor Boris Johnson needed advice on how to make London look its best for the 2012 Olympics, it was Anya’s advice he sought.

Photograph: Tim Rooke/REX/Shutterstock

Political heavyweights aside, her fanbase includes a generous helping of celebrities. Princess Diana referred to Anya’s satin clutches as ‘cleavage bags’ because she used them to prevent photographers taking revealing shots when she leant forward to get out of a car. Everyone from Kim Kardashian to the Duchess of Cambridge has been pictured carrying her designs, yet she is unmoved by the hoopla that surrounds her famous customers. When Kate and William announced the birth of Prince George, Anya (a mother of five: three stepchildren and two children of her own) was asked what advice she would give the young parents. ‘Lots of Calpol!’ was her pragmatic response.

Princess Diana using her ‘cleavage bag’ to prevent any revealing shots, 1997. Photograph: Anwar Hussein

Despite three and a half decades spent in an industry where image is king, she has never made peace with the limelight. ‘I’m very bad at all that,’ she admits. ‘I would love to be extroverted and entertaining like James [Seymour, her husband of 25 years], but I don’t like red carpets and “ta-dah” moments. I’m bad at what my friends and I call “tiny talk”. You know, those conversations you have while standing around with drinks. I would much rather negotiate a contract.’

Anya credits this ease in a business environment to her father who (somewhat ironically, given her stand on plastics) started a plastics business. Her mother was helping him with invoices when she went into labour. Anya was, she says, the baby in the bassinet under the office desk. Christmas gatherings could be like board meetings with everyone discussing end-of-year results.

eese Witherspoon with the ultimate recycled plastic bag, 2020.

For the teenage Anya, therefore, spotting a gap in the market and acting on it was second nature. In 1987, while in Florence, she spotted a bag she thought would sell well in the UK. She found a factory to make some samples, brought them home and – through a friend of a friend’s stepmother who was working at the magazine Harpers & Queen (now Harper’s Bazaar) – she sold her bags through their monthly offer, making £7,000.

By 1992 she was able to employ a friend to help her, although the extra salary took up everything she had spare. ‘We couldn’t stretch to a desk, so she had to work from two strips of melamine that gave way if she typed too hard,’ she remembers.

But the following year the young designer opened her first shop on Walton Street in Knightsbridge where Princess Diana became a regular customer. Anya, in her typical style, downplays the relationship, simply recalling that Diana was very low-key when she came in – without fuss or bodyguards.

Anya’s 2007 £5 canvas tote that caused a stampede. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum

There have been countless big fashion moments since then. Among the most memorable was the launch of her ‘I’m NOT A Plastic Bag’ in 2007: 80,000 people queued outside Sainsbury’s across the country to buy the £5 canvas tote on the day of its launch and, when the bag reached Taiwan, there was a stampede that resulted in 30 people being taken to hospital.

Last year, Anya reprised the idea, this time with a twist. ‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ is made from recycled plastic bottles and windscreens. Environmental issues are still at the top of her design agenda. ‘We’ve got to buy less and buy better,’ she says (‘I Am A Plastic Bag’ won’t leave you much change from £700).

Although Anya’s other collections haven’t caused riots, her designs are the talking point of any room they’re in. Bags with eyes. Bags that look like cereal boxes. Bags designed to resemble giant crisp packets. They are a stark contrast to her introvert personality.

Anya’s iconic chocolate bar clutch. Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum

‘I find having attention focused on me difficult. It isn’t a comfortable place. I have truly struggled with it in the past,’ she explains. The problem became acute when she began hyperventilating before giving talks to large groups of people. ‘I felt silly and embarrassed. I read up on it, and the best advice I could find was to breathe into a paper bag. Where was I supposed to go with a paper bag before a meeting?’

At the point where she was having to take betablockers before speaking events (‘I even remember thinking, “Maybe I should have a shot of vodka?”’) and having panic attacks in the night, she knew she had to act. With the help of a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) expert, she learned something that has proved a game-changer. ‘He told me that fear and excitement are the same emotion. They make you feel the same way, and you can decide: which one are you feeling? It was like a penny dropping. As an entrepreneur, I’m frightened all the time: that I’m hiring the wrong person, or that an idea won’t translate into reality. There are a thousand scary things, and you learn to live with that knot in the pit of the stomach. NLP flipped a switch.’

In fact, so interested is Anya in combatting the afflictions of doubt and fear – particularly for women in their mid-40s to mid-60s – that she’s written a book about it. If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair: A Manual For Life is a compendium of the tips and tricks she has gathered over the years. ‘We’re trying to do the thing our fathers did and the things our mothers did and that often leads to feeling as though we aren’t doing any of it properly. You doubt yourself and it leads to unhappiness. For a private person like me, putting my insecurities in a book was like opening up my underwear drawer, but I felt it was something I needed to do. The book is for all those women who’ve approached me and told me about their fears. It’s for my friends and my daughter Tia [who’s 31], to help her understand where my generation is coming from.’

The part of the book she finds hardest to talk about is her eldest son Hugo’s diagnosis of skin cancer aged just 20. Having had multiple surgeries and an all-clear that lasted five years, the cancer then returned. ‘When something like this happens, you understand how out of control you are,’ she says. After pioneering treatment, Hugo was again given the all-clear and is now well and in his 30s, with the same prognosis as anyone else his age.

Hugo’s illness, says Anya, made her realise how unimportant other fears are. Determined to keep hers in check, she put practical strategies in place. Alongside seeing her NLP expert, she sets aside every Sunday evening to look ahead at the following week and get her to-do lists in order. ‘My kids tease me but I don’t think you can be creative without an element of organisation.’ She says that her ‘nerdy fascination’ with order has led to a labelling machine, a jokey Christmas gift from her brother, becoming her go-to gadget. ‘I’d label my children if I could.’ Her pet hate in the mess department? ‘Drawers containing a lightbulb, batteries, three stamps, a banknote from Uzbekistan and a cable of unknown origin and function.’

The connection between organisation and bags is not lost on her. ‘Even as a child, I loved little drawers, zips and pockets.’ Her penchant for storage solutions moved her to design something to help the NHS when Covid hit. After consulting Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine at University College London, about what was needed, they came up with the ‘holdster’. Intended to be worn over PPE (which prevents access to pockets), the design has easy-clean compartments for staff to store phones, pens and glasses. Anya’s company funded an initial run and gained sponsorship for further production.

Next month she is launching The Village, a collection of five Anya Hindmarch stores in Knightsbridge. ‘To celebrate the publication of my book,’ she says, ‘we will be opening a hair salon, offering “shampoo and therapy”. It feels like a much-needed way to celebrate as we emerge blinking from lockdown.’

If she could pick just one bit of advice for women suffering from self-doubt, what would it be? Anya pauses, thinking hard. ‘There are two things that have stuck with me and helped both personally and professionally. The first is a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” The second is what Sister Angela, a nun at my convent school, once said: “Girls, you’re never going to be fully happy and if you accept that you
will be very happy indeed.”’

Show doubt the door with these tips and tricks from Anya’s new book

‘I don’t know what to wear’

Try putting an outfit together and taking a photo. Include everything down to the belt and earrings. Put it in an album called ‘Outfits’. You’ll save valuable head space in the morning and it’ll quickly become obvious what you’re not wearing.

‘I’ve lost confidence in my idea’

I’ve come to understand that there’s a process to go through once an idea has bubbled up, so it’s best to hang on for the journey: ‘I love it – It’s amazing – I’m nervous – I’m bored of it – It’s hard – I’m not sure – It’s really hard – I hate it –Maybeit’sOK?–Ireallyhateit–I hate myself – Actually, it’s OK – I like it – In fact, it’s great – I love it.’

‘I can’t decide what to commit to’

Stop and ask yourself if you would want to do that thing tonight. If you wouldn’t, then should you be committing to it at all?

‘I’ve lost sight of what makes me happy’

Write down the times and places you remember feeling really good. Where and when did you feel most comfortable? Where did you last have a really good laugh? Where did you last feel really relaxed? Where were you last when you felt completely unselfconscious? Then try to join the dots.

If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair (Bloomsbury, £18.99) will be published on 6 May. To pre-order a copy for £16.14 until 2 May got to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 02033089193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. 

The Village, Pont Street, London SW1, opens on 17 May.