I’ve seen the Bayswater pictured on celebrities and working women alike multiple times. I’ve considered taking the plunge on several oversized Alexas before realizing that most within my budget were either falling apart in a very literal sense or were counterfeits. I’ve read rave reviews of the brand from tPFers and fellow PurseBloggers alike. But truth be told, like most British designers such as Burberry and Aspinal of London, Mulberry isn’t the first name that pops up in our minds when speaking about luxury handbag brands. Like Polene or Hermès (or at least, its lesser-known designs), you come to notice Mulberry only very gradually. And that’s because, unlike most high-flying European fashion houses that are busy formulating the next it-combination of bells and whistles for the industry to follow, Mulberry’s emphasis has almost unfailingly been on quality and craftsmanship. One of the darling names in fashion around the mid-2010s, with the star-power of Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rosie Huntington-Whitely to boot, what was Mulberry’s position in the spectrum of purses, given its decidedly anti-traditional (for that era, at least) aesthetic? More importantly, has it maintained that position in the market to date? Let’s discuss!
A Quintessentially English Upbringing
Mulberry was conceived in the serene setting of the Somerset countryside in 1971. Founded by Roger Saul, the brand started off as a family-owned enterprise like most heritage fashion houses of today. But in Saul’s case, the meaning of “family business” was quite literal – his father, being a shoemaker for Clark’s, passed on an appreciation for luscious leather to him. His mother financed the venture with £500. At the same time, his sister designed the wholesome Mulberry tree logo that the brand continues to use today (and perhaps is an unexpected advantage given how the industry is taking a sustainable direction). In fact, the emblem was said to have been inspired by the rows of Mulberry trees they used to pass on their way to school – a sense of nostalgia few designers today can boast. The brand’s first offerings, known as the Hunting, Shooting, and Fishing collection, which mostly included accessories like belts and chokers designed on the family’s kitchen table, were displayed at London’s Portobello Road Market.
Soon, the designs gained popularity, especially their dispatch and binocular bags, leading to the opening of a factory in Somerset. Meanwhile, female emancipation in England during the 70s and 80s meant that women’s roles in the workplace and beyond required them to carry purses that were just as hard-wearing. That is where Mulberry started gaining ground, and paired with the rise of street fashion, especially in London, it quickly made its way into celeb culture and gossip columns. As Creative Director Johnny Coca tells Marie Claire, the high street remains an enduring influence for the brand:
“How are they being carried – on the shoulder or by hand? What are their proportions? Does the bag have ‘an attitude?”
It is this Mulberry attitude that continues to make the brand a distinctive powerhouse in fashion.
A Change in Creative Leads
The company changed hands in 2002, with Saul handling over the creative role to Nicholas Knightly, whose very first creation was the Bayswater. At the height of the Sex and the City-induced Birkin frenzy, this similarly shaped satchel, but one that was edgy enough to feature its unique postman’s lock closure, more convenient, and most importantly, priced under the £1000 mark, made it onto every celebrities’ hit-list and every chic fashionista’s wishlist. And the best part about the Bayswater was that, unlike the ultra-blingy and not very practical Baguettes of the era, this was something you could carry day-in and day-out. It also didn’t feature any prominent logos, and it was sure to become a classic.
Meanwhile, the brand continued churning out fan-favorite designs throughout the entire length of the 2000s, with the minimalistic Daria hobo, the mini lovers Lily, and the punk-chic (but make it functional) Roxanne. And when the house’s new Creative Director, Emma Hill (who joined in 2007), took inspiration from British media darling Alexa Chung’s obsession with Mulberry’s Elkington men’s briefcase and designed the Alexa bag, the brand had a sure-fire ticket to ride the wave of the recession while still being the hottest name around. In 2009 reportedly, 380 Alexas were sold at £750 each within a single week! Sure, it may not match up to the Paddington and Baguette-era craze, but for a brand with humble roots like Mulberry, this accomplishment was just as spectacular.
But fortunes change, and in Mulberry’s case, it came in the form of the very unlikely ex-Hermès executive Bruno Guillon, who joined as the CEO in 2012. Now, before we get into Mulberry’s impending spiral, it’s worth noting the parallels it shares with Hermès. With most of the production done in the brand’s two English factories, Mulberry reportedly engages over 600 leathercrafters – many working alongside their families. On average, 30 of them are behind the construction of one purse. Marie Claire even reports that the Mulberry Amberley Hobo takes an astounding 396 minutes to make entirely by hand from start to finish! And when Guillon noticed these virtues in the brand’s production process, he attempted to move the products to a price point similar to that of Hermès. What followed was unfortunate, to say the least. First, the brand’s long-time fans were driven away by the increased prices. Next, its design mastermind, Emma Hill, resigned over alleged disputes with the new CEO, launching her own line, Hill & Friends. In the interlude that followed, Mulberry continued launching newer styles, many of them trying to replicate the formula of the Alexa by naming themselves after high-profile muses, like the DelRay and the Cara Delevingne backpack-tote. But between the higher prices, an alleged drop in quality, and of course, lesser attractive designs, the brand continued in a free-falling trajectory, swiftly fading from public view. Bruno himself resigned in 2014.
The Road to Recovery
In 2015, Johnny Coca of Céline was recruited as the brand’s new design director. His subsequent collections, which featured designs like the Amberley and the Iris, were dubbed by the fans of old Mulberry as “too similar to Céline.” However, a new, younger crowd loved them, especially because of the remarkable craftsmanship and quality at a price point much lower than that of Céline. And to keep former enthusiasts of the brand interested, Coca retained the brand’s most iconic design, now named the Heritage Bayswater, and introduced updated takes on the style, made more functional via shoulder straps, mini versions, and zippers (like the Double Zip Bayswater). In 2020, he announced the revival of the Alexa, a move that couldn’t have been more timely given the resurgence of the 2000s.
Another notable achievement of Coca’s included taking the brand towards a more sustainable future with the launch of the Portobello tote. The tote is made entirely in the Somerset factory using carbon-neutral, zero-waste processes. The tote is styled like a basic shopper and devoid of any lining or extravagant details. The processes used in the manufacturing of the Portobello are also used for the sustainable manufacture of other designs, such as the Bayswater and the Alexa.
Mulberry’s Standout Styles
Mulberry’s story is a fascinating one. Did you know it was also the first brand to sponsor Luella Bartley’s Gisele at the beginning? Or that it recently did a collaboration with Alexa Chung (who’s basically earned the title of “Mulberry girl” by now given her deep affiliation with the brand), producing two delectable styles called the Little Guy and the Big Guy? However, my favorite style, and one that continues to still enamor me, is the original Alexa. While I love the new patent black one, it’s the iconic heavy-grain, or perhaps the edgier shrunken calf, that I continue hoping to add to my collection one day despite its similarities to the PS1.
The Bayswater is also something that’s recently caught my eye. Yes, style-wise, it’s relatively neutral. But the sheer variety of colors, materials, and embossed exotics it’s available in is tempting to check out. And when it comes to totes, the one I love the most is the Willow. Released around 2013, right amidst the most turbulent era in the brand’s history, the Willow couldn’t pick up as much steam as it should have (in my opinion) because of the simultaneous price increases and other drama the brand has had to cope with. But guess who was one of the first fans of the style? Kate Moss, no less! In fact, the Willow is one of the few purses of its type that’s able to incorporate the 3-in-1 element (zipped clutch, just the tote, and the clutch and the tote together) without seeming too gimmicky or flimsy. It also features the classic postman’s lock, so if you’re looking for a reliable work bag from Mulberry that isn’t the Bayswater or the Alexa, the Willow is for you.
The last of the designs from Mulberry that I’m currently loving is its most recent – the Softie bag. Very much in line with the current advent of pillow purses (it’s made of Nappa calfskin actually stuffed with feather down!) and featuring a paper-clip chunky chain, the Softie might be the brand’s first foray into a really on-trend bag. And already, it has become my favorite pillow bag in the market, overtaking the Coach Pillow Tabby and the Maison Margiela Glam Slam.
Mulberry’s history suggests that a successful formula for one brand might not necessarily work out for another (especially the Hermès formula, that many brands, in fact, are trying to imitate, Chanel included). Its loyal fan base has always been working women looking for a relatively incognito purse in the medium-price range but who also don’t want to compromise on quality. With their support, the brand has become the biggest luxury fashion house in the UK. That is unsurprising, given how much it has to offer, from the variety of styles to the sheer range of colors and the star power.
It seriously deserves more attention within the US consumer base. I’m particularly looking forward to how the Softie performs – I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been seen on every influencer out there already. But perhaps in that sense of slight obscurity lies Mulberry’s biggest charm – it’s recognizable, but not so much that everybody around you has one, like a well-kept secret among chic professionals!