Bags are the fashion must-haves, with high-priced versions flying out of stores. Mulberry has tapped this trend, with its range of luxury leathergoods that owe as much to practicality as to branding, says Hannah Booth

Fashion used to be about clothes. Now it’s about shoes, sunglasses and – most importantly – bags, bags, bags. Walk down any high street, open any copy of Grazia or Vogue, and you’ll see over-sized, over-priced ‘It’ bags hanging from women’s and, increasingly, men’s forearms. The accessories business is the fastest-growing sector of the luxury fashion market, according to Mintel, with the bags sector predicted to grow at about 11 per cent over the next five years.

One company representing the rise of the It bag is Mulberry. It’s one of the biggest accessories success stories of recent years. No wealthy, stylish celebrity is seen without one of its leather bags. Sales almost doubled last year as Mulberry opened stores in Japan, Oslo, Edinburgh, New York and Los Angeles (its first US outposts) among others, with more to follow in 2007, including Paris. No surprise that its 33-year-old design director, Stuart Vevers, won Accessory Designer of the Year at the coveted British Fashion Council Awards last November.

‘We’ve had a good couple of years,’ says Vevers, with impressive understatement. ‘I think people enjoy it when a small English company does well. But then Mulberry has always been about bags. It’s the backbone of our business.’ Founded in rural Somerset in 1971, Mulberry was originally a leather goods brand. It has since expanded into men’s and women’s fashion, but at its core are its leather, hand-finished bags.

Since joining Mulberry in January 2005 from Louis Vuitton, having graduated with a BA in fashion design from the University of Westminster, Vevers has overseen the design of the ready-to-wear collections and accessories, running a team of over a dozen fashion and accessories designers, external fashion consultants, and freelance print and knitwear designers. He is also involved in aspects of store design (Mulberry works with Four IV on all its stores), packaging and advertising. ‘I give my opinion, but I don’t oversee the store concepts,’ he says. ‘Our stores are hugely important to the product, however.’ Most of his days are spent hands-on designing.

‘Bag design is halfway between product and fashion design,’ he says. ‘You start with an idea, you translate it into something that will work, then you create a prototype. From idea to store takes around nine months. I always have certain people in mind when I’m designing/ my old school friend Sally, for example. She’s a lawyer who is into fashion, but not overly so. It helps you design more useful bags when you can picture someone real. It’s all in the detail. If it’s a work bag, can it fit an A4 folder? One centimetre can make all the difference. If it’s a shoulder bag, is the strap the right length? But most important is security: people won’t buy bags if they’re too open, or there aren’t enough zips or pockets, no matter how popular it is perceived to be.’

Mulberry names – brands – all its products. It’s a clever and successful device, used by almost all fashion companies, as it gives the bags a kind of identity, particularly in the fashion press. But Vevers insists it’s for practical, rather than headline-grabbing reasons. ‘We’ve always named our bags, not after models or celebrities, but used fictional, suitable names such as Emmy, Roxanne, Portobello or Bayswater. I leave it up to the individual designers. It helps consumers know which bag they’re looking for. Our bag names might be well known, but the name only sticks if the bag is good.’

Mulberry’s main bags are retail at around £495 to £595, with the most expensive being the bespoke Piccadilly, at £4500. But these sky-high prices have done little except encourage sales. Why are expensive bags so popular? ‘People dress more casually now,’ explains Vevers. ‘So whereas in the past, people would spend money on a status-symbol jacket, they now dress in jeans and a cotton top and buy a good quality bag instead. It’s the new status symbol.’

The popularity of Mulberry bags, he suggests, is because they are not over-designed, over-branded and showy: rather, they’re understated and low-key. ‘Compared with women in the US or Asia, British women have never been so into bags and accessories. But that’s changing fast.’

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