Launched in Somerset in the West Country, U.K. in 1971 (with a £500 loan from a mother to her enterprising son), the British luxury brand and leather goods specialist Mulberry may not be as gargantuan as the designer labels grouped under the LVMH or Kering umbrellas, but it can proudly lay claim to producing one of the most famous and successful handbag designs of all time: the Bayswater. Created by Nicholas Knightly and launched in 2003, the Bayswater became a major player in the early '00s 'It Bag' era (one of the more dizzyingly hysterical recent fashion periods, and a precursor to the current 'ugly sneaker' epidemic). The first British bag to achieve such coveted status, Mulberry's Bayswater gained a strong following among A-listers and wealthy consumers, but its sub-$2,000 pricing also made it an aspirational luxury purchase somewhat more accessible to fashion fans.
The opposite of a fast fashion flash in the pan, the Bayswater has become an enduring classic for Mulberry. As later Mulberry creative director Emma Hill once put it: "I have a Bayswater, my son's grandmother has a Bayswater, Kate Moss has a Bayswater." The structured and unfussy design has been likened to old-school doctors' bags, but it manages — paradoxically — to also be soft and accommodating, with an expandable concertina structure and iconic postman's lock fastening. Its influence can easily be seen in Hill's own 'It Bag' moments: the Alexa, a school satchel style named after Alexa Chung; and the Del Rey, an old Hollywood glam style in honour of Lana Del Rey.
Every subsequent Mulberry creative director has put their unique spin on the Bayswater, and current creative director Johnny Coca is no exception. Speaking candidly about the issues he wanted to address in 2016, Coca told The Telegraph: "The [Bayswater’s] internal pocket is at the back, so you can’t reach into it so easily. The straps make it heavy and a bit clumsy at the sides… The hardware is dull looking, the padlock is unnecessary." It may seem a brutal assessment, but Coca's updated Bayswater was respectful to the iconic design, while fixing those few niggling negatives. Its launch last year caused Mulberry’s profits to rise 21% — a welcome good-news story for the company after a previous chief exec’s pivot to ultra luxury (with bags costing over $11,500) had alienated the accessible luxury market.
In 2018, Mulberry is again looking for a smash hit. When major British stockist House Of Fraser went into administration earlier this year (with store closures and an uncertain future under new owner Mike Ashley of Sports Direct), Mulberry was owed around just under $4.1 million by the retailer (which Ashley doesn't have to pay back), and it was forced to issue a profit warning. But if anyone can deliver the next Bayswater, Johnny Coca is an excellent candidate. Born in Seville, in southern Spain, Coca studied and worked in interior design before taking a job as a window dresser at Louis Vuitton, where, after just a few weeks, he was transferred to the design team, working on bags. At 24 years old, Coca had his first hit with the Vuitton Musette; later, after moving to Celine, he worked on Michael Kors' hit Boogie Bag, and the Trio (a simple, three-pocketed zip bag) under Phoebe Philo.
"A great bag needs good design, good functionality, good quality materials," Coca tells Refinery29. "The Bayswater is an iconic style for Mulberry and is a style that I really love because it’s easy, functional and has nice proportions," he explains. "I want to make things that people desire, that people use, things that they will keep and things that will be part of their lives." Enter the Hampstead, a new handbag style designed by Coca that launches this week in store and online. Debuted as part of Mulberry’s spring/summer 2019 collection, the Hampstead continues the brand’s traditional mix of English heritage and modern luxury. "Play with the classic, twist the conventional, use the familiar to make something inspiring and new," as Coca puts it.
"For this new season, I was looking at a defining moment in British culture — the Swinging Sixties, and its hedonistic and iconic imagery," Coca says. "I wanted something fun, dynamic, lighthearted, candid, graphic and pop. It’s a collection that revisits the spirit of the '60s with the attitude of today." The handbag is named after Hampstead Ponds – the historic open-air swimming pools in north London – and seeks to reflect "the hedonistic love of leisure and the easy-wear fashion" of '60s Britain. A pleasingly boxy bucket bag with a small top handle as well as a detachable shoulder strap, the Hampstead is made from soft leather and closes with drawstrings fed through an adapted rider’s lock — a recent Mulberry signature. Made from 34 different pattern pieces, each bag takes Mulberry’s craftspeople four hours to hand-make.
In an age of fast fashion and devastating over-consumption, Mulberry’s dedication to quality handmade luxury products, which are expected to last, is refreshing. "Sustainability is an essential question in all industries worldwide, and we are all responsible for ensuring that manufacturing processes evolve the right way," Coca says. "As a designer, I try and make the small changes I can for the environment such as keeping over 50% of our products to be made in England by local craftspeople rather than have them made overseas, which would have a heavier ecological impact." (In 2006, the brand launched an apprenticeship scheme with a local Somerset college, training a new generation of skilled craftspeople.)
While the heady success of the Bayswater would likely be difficult to replicate, the Hampstead is certainly a contender. With a large version retailing at $1,795, and a cute smaller option for $1,450, the bag is certainly a luxury item, but one that is in reach for many consumers who want to buy luxury but wouldn’t spend multiple thousands. With a range of playful, interchangeable shoulder straps (starting from around $125) available to buy, the Hampstead is exactly the kind of chic, fun and affordable style that can set fashion Instagram on fire.