Contemporary accessories brand Hill & Friends is the brainchild of former Mulberry creative director Emma Hill and brand director Georgia Fendley. The duo talk to Drapers about their pioneering approach to crowdfunding and launching their own resale platform
“We’re very different in some ways, but similar in others – there’s a sweet spot in the middle where we meet,” designer Emma Hill says of her relationship with friend and business partner Georgia Fendley.
Both grew up in Wales, have held senior positions at luxury accessories powerhouse Mulberry and are clad in sleek black blazers when Drapers meets them. Together, they are the co-founders of luxury contemporary accessories brand Hill & Friends, which has an enviable global stockist list and a growing direct-to-consumer customer base.
The pair first met at Mulberry. Hill, whose CV has included stints at Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein and Gap, took the reins as the British heritage brand’s creative director in 2008. Fendley, a graphic designer by trade who also runs creative agency Construct, started consulting for Mulberry in 2008, and was appointed brand director the same year.
We did that ‘women working together’ thing of having a constant dialogue, rather than behaving in a very formal or structured way
The duo were credited with revitalising Mulberry. Revenue and profits rocketed and Hill oversaw the creation of a wave of bestsellers, including the famous Alexa, a £750-starting-price slouchy leather satchel named after celebrity muse Alexa Chung.
Both left in 2012 – Fendley to focus on Construct, Hill after rumoured conflict over brand strategy – but the strong bond the pair forged at Mulberry made working together again a natural choice.
Hill & Friends launched two years later at London Fashion Week with a pink-themed show at luxury hotel Claridge’s, featuring Shetland ponies wearing pink rosettes and bellboys draped in the brand’s bags. American Vogue editor Anna Wintour attended.
“We developed a huge amount of trust in each other [at Mulberry],” Fendley explains. “That business was great fun to work in and we hugely enjoyed our time there, but it was incredibly hard work. We were up all night on the phone to each other dealing with problems neither of us had handled before.
“Emma had a young son at the time. I had two children when I started at Mulberry, so we did that ‘women working together’ thing of having a constant dialogue, rather than behaving in a very formal or structured way.”
A new label is born
The pair hit on an idea for a contemporary accessories brand that prioritised quality at a premium but relatively accessible price point. As at Mulberry, Hill oversees product and Fendley branding, although as a small business, both pitch in wherever required. Fendley recalls Hill packing boxes when the brand moved to a new pop-up space – something she jokes “didn’t happen so much at Mulberry”.
Hill & Friends’ 32 stockists include Fenwick, John Lewis and Fortnum & Mason in the UK, and Barney’s, Boutique 1 and Galeries Lafayette internationally. It says sales are on track for £1m this year – although it does not reveal whether or not it is in profit. Direct-to-consumer via the website is the fastest-growing channel, accounting for 52% of total revenue and showing 95% growth last year.
That mix between really classic and really fun has always been something I’ve been interested in
Practical yet playful styles that include quirky design details, such as distinctive smiley face hardware, have become the label’s signature. Bestsellers include the calfhair leopard print “Tweency” bag with chain strap (retail £595) and an oxblood slouchy tote with neon pink embroidery (£395). Products are made in Andalusia, Spain, Italy or the UK, and all of the brand’s leathers are byproducts of the meat industry. Prices range from £95 for cardholders to £695 for larger bags. The brand does not give wholesale prices.
“That mix between really classic and really fun has always been something I’ve been interested in,” Hill explains. “Some brands are purely about being super-super-fun and there are brands that are super-super-classic – what’s interesting about us is that we’re between the two.”
The “Tweency” is a bestseller for Hill & Friends stockist Studio B, an etailer specialising in contemporary brands, says its founder Bethany Rowntree: “The brand is really nice quality for the price point. The Tweency bag is a good product for us because it’s cute, but different. Customers like the smiley lock and the fact that it comes in lots of colourways. There are some core black and nude versions, as well as a bright colour or print every season.”
“We’ve just refurbished our handbag department at our Elys store in Wimbledon,” explains Joanna Allen, fashion accessories buyer at independent department store group Morleys, which started stocking Hill & Friends from autumn 18.
Investors and shareholders [in the fashion industry] tend to be men, yet consumers tend to be women
“We were looking for some new brands to introduce to the mix and felt that Hill & Friends was classic but quirky, modern in terms of styling but also sophisticated. It also hit some of the key price points we thought would suit our customer in Wimbledon.
“The styling makes it a little bit different – it has a fun edge. We’ve seen a huge growth in cross-body styles, and lots of the chain styles can be worn cross-body. Oxblood has done really well for us.
“We also felt that our fashion-forward Wimbledon customer would recognise Emma’s history working at Mulberry.”
Hill and Fendley adopt a pioneering, start-up approach that allows them to test and trial initiatives that might spook a larger business. The brand was self-funded up until last year, when it received £1.5m in investment from IW Capital in return for a minority stake. The funds were used to improve the website and grow the team to seven. Last month, it launched its first crowdfunding campaign – for a 10.37% stake – with Seedrs. At the time of writing, it had raised 96% of its £655,000 target.
“Investors and shareholders [in the fashion industry] tend to be men, yet consumers tend to be women. It is often women who drive the success of a brand, and yet they don’t get to benefit,” Fendley explains. “From day one, we talked about how exciting crowdfunding would be, but to be perfectly frank, we originally felt nervous because we couldn’t think of a luxury brand that had done it.”
The pair first flirted with the idea 12 months ago, but struggled to find the right platform before choosing Seedrs because of its low minimum investment.
“Lots of platforms have quite a high minimum investment – you have to be investing £500 or more,” Fendley explains. “For us, that would have defeated the object of what we wanted to achieve. We wanted women who might not have shares in anything to feel that, if they decided to save some money by taking their own lunch to work for a few days, they could then invest that money in £20 worth of Hill & Friends shares.”
In addition to re-platforming the website and moving from Magento to Shopify, which allows an improved customer experience and Instagram Shopping, the funding will enable the launch of a dedicated resale platform within the site.
Our goods are made to last a really long time and we don’t want them to sit in wardrobes not being used
“We couldn’t do some of the things we wanted to do until we’d re-platformed,” Fendley says. “Before the end of the year we’re launching something we’re calling ‘Loveworn’, which is essentially a circular reselling of Hill & Friends product. Reselling goods is becoming increasingly common, but it can be difficult to know the quality of what you’re getting. The idea is that you sell your handbag back to us, we give you a discount on a new handbag, then take your bag, give it whatever kind of love it needs and resell it for you. Our goods are made to last a really long time and we don’t want them to sit in wardrobes not being used – we want them to have as long and as active a life as possible.”
Hill adds: “The whole fashion landscape has changed so much and resale now is so massive. Loveworn will allow us to tap into that and reduce waste in a really hands-on way.”
The duo admit that the idea is a bold one, but as a small business, argue the brand can trial new ways of working.
“Other businesses might be concerned about devaluing full-price product or damaging margins, but our view is that we can be braver and do things more progressively, because we’re small enough to do that,” Fendley says. “If we can do things that benefit our consumer, then that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
Hill & Friends is also exploring producing more of its pieces in the UK. When the label first launched, all of its product was made here. However, it suffered a setback when its manufacturer went bust in the brand’s first season.
Since then, the collection has been made in Europe, but creating most of its core collection in the UK is a long-held ambition. Hill & Fendley are currently talking to UK factories and hope to bring manufacturing back to this country over the next 12 months.
“We’ve always kept our foot in [UK production] where we can,” Hill explains. “The embroidery on certain styles is done in London and if we use goat leather, then there are a few tanneries left in the UK, which we use.
“There’s a nimbleness to local manufacturing. You can jump on a train rather than fly to the other side of the world. UK factories tend to be more receptive to lower minimums or changing things around, and there’s no language barrier.”
Fendley agrees: “There’s a significant financial cost when it comes to shipping product to the UK, but there’s also the carbon cost. With all of the unknown factors around Brexit, it is probably smarter to make in the UK than it ever has been before.”
The brand has dipped its toe into bricks-and-mortar through pop-up shops, including a candy-hued temporary home on South Molton Street last year and a Christmas-themed spot at Fortnum & Mason from the start of November until 4 January.
New product categories could also be on the cards.
“The brand is primarily accessories, but we’d love to do more once the business is more mature,” Fendley says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean ready to wear – it might mean homeware, it might mean all sorts of things.”
Hill adds: “The industry has changed so much. The traditional model might be to start with accessories and then do a ready-to-wear line, but we have the freedom not to do that and take a much more item-driven approach. We might have a great idea for one homeware piece or a brilliant kids’ product – there’s something very freeing about that.”