Hill & Friends launched at London Fashion Week and sells luxury handbags priced between £500 and £2000. It was set up by Hill & Fendley, who met while Hill was creative director at Mulberry and Fendley was brand director (Fendley’s design studio, Construct, has also worked with Mulberry on its branding and communications since 2006).
The Hill & Friends strapline is ‘fashion just got friendlier’. After years spent working for major fashion brands, Fendley says she and Hill were keen to set up their own business, where they would have control over everything from manufacturing to the brand’s ethos and working environment.
“There wasn’t ever an obvious plan, but we wanted to have creative control, be able to set the strategy and culture and not have that distorted,” she explains. “Working at Mulberry was my first time working inside a fashion brand, and I initially found the culture really alien. Fashion should be so much fun – it’s really creative, it’s really joyful and it’s about making things we all want, but it’s not always the friendliest of industries, so that culture of warmth and fun was really important to us.”
This fun and friendly ethos is evident throughout the brand’s identity, which was created by Construct (both business are based in the same office). Metal clasps on bags feature a smiley face with screws for cheeks and a winking eye, a symbol which is also used on the brand’s website and promotional material.
“We want our products to be beautiful and special but also funny and bit subversive,” says Fendley. “I love the idea that from a distance these look like very serious products but then they have that added subversion. Someone might be having a shitty day and they’ll see one of our bags and it will make them smile.”
The brand’s low-key logo features an understated word marque in a lozenge shape based on old railway signage – “we liked that they just feel very friendly and British,” says Fendley – while neon pink is used as an accent on black-and-white business cards and stationery.
Fendley also designed a set of character icons which are used individually and to create patterns, drawing inspiration from both Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men series and the work of Keith Haring. Characters appear on everything from the brand’s envelopes to fabric patches and temporary tattoos which are given out free to customers who purchase products from the site.
“For us, it’s that kind of late 70s early 80s look, when punk went to New York and came back again a bit pop – like Keith Haring’s pop-ups with painted floors and walls and ceilings,” says Fendley. “The icons allow us to switch up from being more serious to fun and silly, and work across everything from the website and digital comms to the show we did at Fashion Week.”
The brand’s Fashion Week show was held at Claridge’s hotel last Sunday, where Hill & Friends invited over 50 fashion editors to a sit down breakfast. Invites packaged in deli bags featured an English breakfast-themed design, with paper bacon and eggs with a Hill & Friends logo embossed on the yolk. The reigning theme, however, was pink: London florist McQueen’s created bright pink floral arrangements for the table and hotel entrance, while a breakfast for guests featured pink food and drink (including pink muffins and eggs) plus biscuits in the shape of eggs and bacon. Products were presented by bellboys dressed in custom pink uniforms, who were later accompanied by Shetland ponies in pink rosettes.
“The idea for the show really came from the challenge of showing accessories without ready to wear,” says Fendley. “Normally people who just do accessories set up what is essentially quite a dry showroom, and people can call in through the day, but you never really get a sense of the brand – it’s quite a flat experience, so we wanted to create something different.”
“We knew we were going to do something at Claridges, because they’re an old friend of Construct’s (the studio designed the hotel’s identity), and the fact that they’re so grand let us be quite silly,” she adds. The use of pink was also inspired the opening sequence in What a Way to Go (a 1960s black comedy starring Shirley MacLaine, about a widow whose husbands keep mysteriously dying), in which Maclaine descends a pink staircase in her all-pink house, only to have the pink coffin of her husband come tumbling towards her when it is dropped by the pallbearers.
Staging such an elaborate show for an accessories presentation is rare at Fashion Week. Even in clothing shows, Fendley says many designers are reluctant to feature anything which might distract from the products themselves (though Hunter’s Fashion Week presentation, which we wrote about here, featured a vast festival themed set with a giant tent structure and muddy runway).
“It’s a real mixed bag. You have some fashion purists who don’t do it and I completely get that, they want journalists to be writing about the clothes and not the experience. But there’s the other school of thought, which is a brand is an expression of your personality and philosophy and everything else, so the fashion show should be an immersive moment. I think everyone who went to the show completely got what we were about – and why shouldn’t a brand use every possible touch point to explain themselves?”
Putting so much thought into props and decorations also provided content for the brand’s Twitter and Instagram pages, helping Hill & Friends build a following and interest around their launch on a limited budget, a much cheaper alternative to running print ads in luxury magazines.
“Everything at the show was crying out to be photographed and shared, and I think it’s the same for a lot of the work we do at Construct now. Even when we’re creating something physical, we’re thinking about the digital. When you have a small team and a tight budget, you’re really reliant on your friends to help spread the message, so we think very carefully about those things – digital is a real gift if you use it in the right way,” she adds.
While many luxury brands adopt a carefully controlled approach to platforms like Instagram, focusing mainly on product shots or official photo shoots (there are exceptions, of course, such as Paul Smith), Hill & Friend’s feeds are filled with informal behind-the-scenes imagery. There are snaps of its factory as well as pictures of everyday objects which have provided visual inspiration, adding a personal and friendly touch to the brand’s communications.
“When you’re very small, it’s just us, we’re there, and it’s all very hands-on, so there’s nothing we’re not prepared to show. In big businesses though, you have so many layers of hierarchy that there’s often too many people dealing with social media, who either don’t have the authority or are too frightened to do something different, while the more senior people just don’t get social. You end up with this social experience that feels very stilted and commercial, which is not what we wanted at all,” she says.
“The least interesting thing for people on social media is seeing straight pictures of our products. Some might like them and want to share those with their friends, but most people want to see the models messing around, the ponies, what went wrong, because it’s visual gossip,” she adds. “There’s a lot of brands who make backstage content, but it often feels quite fake. You think hang on, where’s all the bubble wrap, all the people running around and panicking?’”
Aside from its cheerful outlook, one of the company’s core principles is an ethical approach to manufacturing. Fendley says bags are made by hand at a factory in Somerset and all leather and suede used is a by-product of the meat industry.
“100 percent of our products are made in England, that was really important to us,” she says. “A lot of brands have moved their manufacturing out of the UK and into places like Turkey or China, but we really wanted to produce excellent craft quality and be 100 percent sure that whoever’s making the product is happy. For us, it’s not really a luxury to own something that has been created out of an abuse of someone’s rights. The lovely thing about making the products in England is that we’re in touch with the factory every day and we can go there once a week,” she adds.
This focus on sustainable and ethical production is something Fendley feels strongly about, but it’s not something she thinks the luxury fashion industry always takes seriously. “I think younger consumers are much more aware, and much more willing to interrogate something, but I think that luxury brands are the absolute experts in seductive communication, and there’s been a lot of seductive communication around the concept of ethics, or made in, or whatever is particularly pertinent at that point, without any real commitment. Often, products are made somewhere where people are suffering out and out abuse yet we’re pretending those products are something desirable,” she says.
Of course, there are plenty of high-end companies who do follow ethical processes, or are making positive steps towards doing so, but outsourcing manufacturing to countries where workers are poorly paid or often work in poor conditions is still rife in both luxury and affordable fashion. (A recent report by the Clean Clothes campaign, published in 2014, challenged the assumption that a high price tag guarantees ethical manufacturing).
“Luxury has been weirdly slow to the party [in terms of changing practices] and I wonder if that’s because consumers believe that luxury is ethical – that if you pay that much for a product, you’d assume the person who’s organising everything has the ability to do the right thing. You can go on a site like ASOS and choose to see just ethical brands – they’ve done the research for you, so you can switch off everything that may not have been made in an appropriate way – yet there’s not a luxury equivalent. You don’t see the major luxury retail sites doing it, and I think that’s really odd,” she adds.
Hill & Friends products are currently sold through its website and at Net-a-Porter, but will be stocked in luxury stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols from February. There are no plans to open a shop just yet, but the brand will be launching pop-ups, says Fendley.
“We’re massive fans of online shopping, but it’s great for buying things you already know – sometimes, you just need to see something. Things like fluoro pink or navy blue, or the fine detail in stitching, you just can’t show those properly online, and if you’re investing in this really well-made product, you want that tactile experience,” she says.
“We’d love to have some amazing atelier in London or New york, a kind of shop/showroom/office where customers could come and buy a bag and chat to us and look at sketches, but I think in the meantime we’ll settle with pop-ups and stores who will let us do something fun and creative with point of sales and merchandise. It will be at different scales in different stores, but hopefully, even if you’ve never heard of us, you’ll get a really good feel for the brand.”