In the world of fashion, it’s highly unusual for a top designer’s name to be relatively unknown, especially when that designer has created some of the most popular and iconic bags of the last fifteen years. But such a designer does exist, her name is Katie Hillier.
A British Fashion Awards winner, Hillier’s past employers including Gap, Luella Bartley, Victoria Beckham, Jonathan Saunders and Stella McCartney. Like most success stories, Hillier’s journey was long, with many ups and downs along the way. She dipped into almost every aspect of the fashion industry, before ending up in her role as the UK’s most exciting handbag designer.
Luella Bartley’s label was just taking off when Hillier got her lucky break and the job of Bartley’s assistant. “I learned so much. We did the press together, the sales, I even produced the shows” says Hillier. Thankfully, she also seems to have learned from Bartley’s errors – the label had to close with financial trouble in 2009. Thankfully not before she created one of my favourite bags of all time, the Gisele (more on this gorgeous creation next week). Hillier says of her years with Bartley: “We had an amazing time of growing and making terrible business mistakes because we didn’t know any better.”
Hillier then went on to work for Marc Jacobs. In 2010, Hillier launched her own jewellery line; and in 2015 she joined up with Bartley once again, this time the pair launched their own line of luxury ready-to-wear and accessories for women under the brand name, Hillier Bartley. Two of the best handbag designers working together, no doubt more iconic bags are in the making.
However, it seems no amount of work is enough for the ‘handbag genius’. She has just collaborated with Sacai founder, Chitose Abe, who recently expanded her fashion cult label to include handbags. And who better to call on than Hillier herself.
Chitose Abe and Katie Hillier. Photo: Victor Demarchelier
This first handbag collection consists of six styles in a range of colour and fabric combinations. Abe has combined recognisable handbag shapes and styles using her signature deconstruction technique. Pieces include a canvas and leather hobo tote inspired by a camping dry bag (“it’s a new way of holding or using a handbag” says Abe); and a vintage style coin purse reimagined as a shoulder bag. Hillier consulted on manufacturing and development of the line. Hillier says: “The main focus was to create something from the designs that Chitose gave us… to make these incredible looking things work on an everyday basis. So it could look like it was not necessarily a bag, but it has to function.”
Sacai bags. Photos: Colette
Sacai was founded 18 years ago in Japan and has taken longer than most ready-to-wear brands to expand into handbags and accessories (items which are an important source of revenue). Abe, however, decided to do it in her own way and in her own time, creating something that would be able to stand out in an incredibly crowded market – women want something unique.
Creative Director of Colette, Sarah Andelman, believes Sacai bags will compete with brands like Mansur Gavriel more than Gucci or Valentino. The challenge, she says, is “to create bags we’ve never seen before, with a strong identity.” Only time will tell if Hillier has another winner to add to her C.V.
Do you know of any other incredible handbag designers that work behind the scenes? Would love to hear from you if you do.