Alice Kahrmann talks to Caoilionn Hurley about Hidee, the concept handbags with the hidden compartment for storing shoes.

Caoilionn Hurley arrives wearing heels, high ones, but, by the time she wanders back out into the dazzling February sunshine, they've er... disappeared completely. Yes the red courts with a certain Dorothy inspired aesthetic have vanished, into the hidden compartment in her handbag. Double take; this must be some spy centric wizardry of the kind that would put Q to shame. Well yes, actually it is, because Hurley is the brains behind Hidee handbags, an accessories brand (there's jewellery too) which offers up a niche range of high quality leather bags with a design patented ‘cantilevered construction' providing the wearer with an opportunity to ditch the heels, ergo eschewing the plastic bag/trainers in your handbag syndrome (think Working Girl) and replacing it with a high performance accessory that screams luxe alpha woman - from the rooftops.

But back to the beginning, Hurley is well versed in the world of business, with a seriously gilded CV of high profile roles to her name, amongst them Head of Finance & Operations at the National Gallery and Sales & Marketing Director at the ExCel Exhibition Centre; 'I think its best explained by saying that my first career choices were driven by where I came from.' Hurley is of Irish descent, from 'a professional family in a small town. I went to a catholic school and the focus of the nuns was very much three career choices; teaching, nursing or becoming a nun.' Along the way she developed a passionate love of art; 'I became fascinated by it, the first income I ever got out of Guinness [Hurley's first role as a trainee accountant], I went to an artist and I agreed to pay £100 per month for twelve months to buy the painting and I mean I had nothing; no telephone no clothes but art was what I wanted more than anything and when I met my husband I said to him I don't want an engagement ring I want a painting!'

Hurley is a passionate, engaged, attractive woman, with a tumbling head of russet hair; there's something of the Lizzie Siddal about her; a youthful jubilance that belies her age, hinted at vis a vis of the fact that she has two grown sons age 21 and 24. In fact she's a great brand ambassador; femininity married with a steely resolve, much like the hidden compartment her customers so badly covet. 'I've always had the professional side of me which is about running a business well and then the creative side of me which is about appreciating craftsmanship; but I got into it because my sons (as teenagers) bought me a beautiful handbag for Christmas one year; an absolutely fabulous Prada bag. I hadn't really been a handbag person up until that point... I couldn't take it out of the box for about six months because I thought I don't want to put my shoes into this in a plastic bag - that's when I thought I can't be the only one with this problem and that's when I thought of the answer; create a beautiful bag that can carry beautiful shoes.'

Training came in the form of courses at the London College of Fashion and Prescott McKay (the school of fashion and accessory design). 'I approached a lady I knew very well and asked her for sewing classes on Saturday mornings. I made my first few samples and they were laughable but construction wise they worked so I kept going. I think I've probably invested (I'm a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell type person) around five thousand hours.' Ah yes, Malcolm Gladwell, the ground breaking author of books on behavioural psychology such as Blink, The Outliers and The Tipping Point who espouses the theory that a ten thousand hour time investment in any given skill marks the tipping point to success.

The process of bringing the bags to market consumed many of those hours; 'I started to approach manufacturers with samples and that's when I started to get a better understanding of what they needed; patterns, leather selections etc. Then I went off and learnt pattern making. I went to Italy and trained a little bit in how to understand leather quality and just kept going back and forth and back and forth to the manufacturers, and eventually found one in London I was very comfortable with, who was very committed to quality. The construction to achieve the compartment is very different; it sort of flummoxed a lot of manufacturers… I went for unlined leather bags; I have a lined version as well, but I think if you have a really high quality leather quality I think unlined is beautiful, because you don't have to worry about linings breaking.'

The practical considerations of the Hidee bags cannot be underestimated; from saving money on taxis by slipping on your flats to avoiding the scuffing of expensive shoes in urban pavements, the list is endless. 'I had a fabulous pair of Karl Lagerfelds and the pavement was uneven and a bit came off; no one could repair them, plus my husband and my sons are very tall, over six foot, so I had compelling reasons to find a solution. I love my shoes but also you want your feet to be protected, I want to be walking beautifully when I'm eighty; to do that you don't want to be compensating for heels and putting your hips out of alignment, heels are very important to elevate your stature and give you a bit of presence, but in a certain environment...'

Appropriate dressing and the versatility it requires is very much at the heart of the Hidee ethos. In fact the brand has all the presence of a nascent Coach, though it’s safe to say it's at present slightly more exclusive with limited numbers of stock. 'I do between five and ten of each model and I have about twelve different models.’ The price point is £450 to £580, a worthy investment for those Hurley targeted during the initial market research stage, 'I spent a lot of time watching people on trains and I would do little bag counts - a serious number had shoes in their bags; people who commute and people at places like Royal Ascot, race goers - people who like to go out basically… I was fascinated. The Daily Mail produced an article, and they estimated (from research) that out of several thousand people, six out of every ten pairs of women’s shoes end up worn only once and they estimate that £2.5 billion are spent on shoes that are only worn once every year.'

After a sabbatical to 'push it all through' Hidee handbags now has three stockists: 'Wolf and Badger; I was tweeting and they followed me and I thought 'Oh well then maybe I should see’ - so I applied and they selected me, I literally signed up yesterday and my stock should be up within the next week. I was just totally thrilled.' The next is Pinstripe and Pearl; a website dedicated to business women and business women's clothing, 'really beautiful appropriate professional wear.' Thirdly there's Love Excellence, 'a site replete with absolutely beautiful craftsmanship and luxury products.' And let's not forget the Chinese connection; 'I've been approached by a business who are retailing to the Chinese, so I've been in touch with the UK Trade Export Commission and the China Alliance and I'll be going ahead with that as well.'

Quite a sizeable list of achievements for a business so new; one that makes Hurley well placed to offer advice; 'You've got to put the time into understanding it thoroughly, no one's going to take you seriously unless you can make your own bag. And I would say you just have to be prepared to put huge amounts of personal time and some money into it - there's no way out... I've invested in getting prototypes made, bringing at least twelve different types of leathers in from tanneries, working with them, to understand which are better for handles etc. and I did it over a period of time but I put at least four years of research into it.'

'I think probably one of the most important things people need to be aware of however; you just need to go with what works for you. I thought I might approach some of the more established retailers and but just through tweeting, being on Facebook, I've had people approach me with all sorts of interesting opportunities. There's something much more energising about it when it's a partnership, when someone approaches you and they want your stock.' Demand which naturally must put pressure on supplies; especially considering that up till now Hurley has produced just five to ten versions of each bag. Then there's the fear of someone copying such a unique concept, 'I have design rights on the actual construction, and if anyone copied it then yes I would have the right to enforce it. It's the economics of whether or not you want to spend your time doing that as opposed to running a business, my preference would be that people would respect my designs and just let me just crack on... '

Cracking on with the 'London centric' range is Hurley’s mission statement; with a view to becoming 'an established business’ which is why for the time being she’s continuing at the day job. ‘I need to be able to fund the development offer and it means I have to work around the clock but that's OK. I want to be running a business that’s thriving, London based, and giving people opportunities here, to expand the design and the marketing of a vibrant export business.' In Hurley's world, it's all about 'creating products that meet a need. I think originality is very important; a lot of people have innovation in them but they don't really know that; I think a lot of people have ideas in them, they just don't really spend time connecting with them.'

‘I just sat there for days,’ Hurley is wistful for a moment reminiscing on the early days, ‘I remember waking up at three o'clock in the morning and the idea came to me how to do it, and I thought it was the fact that I thought I'm not giving up. There were loads of other iterations before that; some interesting and I'll go back to them and others a bit cracked but it was the sense of 'I'm not going to give up' - because persistence is the root of innovation...'

So who is the ideal Hidee customer? Christine Lagarde is high on the list; 'I've always been a big fan; I think she is amazingly engaged; composed, incredibly stylish, I admire everything about her. I think she's fantastic... My husband bought me a birthday card one year and it said ‘Successful women still have their feet on the ground, they just wear better shoes.' Indeed... And with that Caoilionn Hurley laughs, slips her heels into her handbag, darts back out into Soho; and most importantly of all? Not a plastic bag in sight.

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

13 March 2014