Alice interviews the woman, the myth, the legend - India Hicks.

Whether or not you believe in auras, India Hicks definitely has one - and boy is it sparkly. The first time I met her, she was promoting the very traditional attributes of Viyella, the uber British clothing brand of which she is ‘the face’ and I have to say I was wholly unprepared for the seismic shift of her arrival; a flurry of nervous activity from sound engineers, producers and lackeys was certainly no precursor to the electricity volte-facing through the air when she finally walked into the studio - why? Because (business achievements aside) there’s no getting around the fact that Hicks is hot, and I mean really hot.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman as arresting in the flesh before; a vision in a caramel top and pencil skirt; all toned, tanned and lithe with more than an air of the thoroughbred racehorse about her. This fine equation of parts, is in no small way down to her lifestyle; the wholesome clean living mantra that has become the very ethos on which her brand is based. Yes that’s what we’re here to discuss, all of a year later, her in the Bahamas (weep) me on Skype in my living room, rain dotting the window like rice at a decidedly under par wedding, though more than a little excited to get a chance to peep beneath the professional veneer.

So business woman, hotelier, mother of five, not to mention fine jewellery designer, with a new bedding collection recently launched on shopping platform HSN, as well as an ongoing collaboration with British cosmetics brand Crabtree & Evelyn; how on earth does Hicks deal with the complexities of bringing a product to market? ‘There are always a lot of people that we rely on. I find that actually a very interesting part of the process – because I may know from a gut instinct what fragrance I like or how I want my collections to look, but when you’re going into a commercial venture there has to be a balance between what I really want and what the audience is going to need. I very much learned that there’s no point in stamping my little feet and having a tantrum and saying: ‘I simply don’t want pink sheets.’ When in fact they’re saying: ‘Look, our audience traditionally has wanted pink sheets.’ As in relationships in life, it’s a compromise.’

Compromise extends to dealing with her team; an incredible rosta of female talent (‘people who you trust, who have got your back’); ‘Specifically for the website I work with girls and they’re working mums. I find great comfort in that. Of course there’s absolute maddening sides to it – we have ungodly hours to talk to each other because you have to get up at six in the morning to speak before the kids get up. But there’s a comfort in that camaraderie.’ 

Then there’s being a female boss, a much lauded woman in business - does this require a tightening of the sleeves, a grit, or is this more fallacy than fact? ‘Oh, I think it is still like that. It’s very circumstantial, but I do work with quite a few men and I think it is difficult, and I think they find it very hard to listen to a woman. Even if there’s now a seat in the boardroom for us, when we get home, you’re still starting all over again. Whether we’re in an easier place in the world of business – I just don’t think emotionally we are. We have so many balls in the air all the time, and it’s hard to keep them in the air. There is no answer.’

Dealing with the very real ‘agonies of everything’ online is another challenge. ‘For instance, on my website, when I find a new product (either that I’ve manufactured myself or I’ve fallen in love with) that product then has to arrive. It then has to be photographed. I then have to write the copy for it. The page then has to be built. We then have to get the message out to the audience. We then have to keep our fingers crossed that somebody’s going to like it and buy it. Forecasting is a nightmare. How do I know how many clutch bags from Zambia somebody’s going to really want? Is the price point good? Am I going to be crippled with the taxes and the import duties? And so I only buy two of them, and then we sell out very quickly – so why did I bother getting it photographed and writing the copy? It’s just incredible.’

‘I think it’s because I am very, very hands-on,’ she continues. ‘In a way it’s rewarding and frustrating at the same time. But I do then feel complete ownership and authorship of the site. Most of the products I sell up there have a story to them; whether women are weaving them in Africa or whether it’s a young model that I used to work with who’s now thinking of doing her own collection so I’m trying to support her – there are stories to most of the products.’

‘I was asked recently ‘Who do you design for?’’ she continues, taking the question right out of my mouth. ‘I design for myself. For the collection I’ve just launched I really wanted to make sure that I love the sheets, that I wanted to sleep on the sheets, that I wanted to sell them in my shop and on my website and that it wasn’t just to the direct consumer on TV. That makes it much easier. I’m always standing behind my product. I can always look myself in the eye and say: ‘I really love this.’ It comes from the heart.’

Heart is, of course at the core of the Hicks aesthetic, but then so is technology; the internet for one has facilitated the genesis of a global retail brand from an incredibly isolated environment. ‘Of course inevitably I have to be in meetings face-to-face with clients or I do have to go to factories and look at stuff, so there is an awful lot of travelling, but I am able to run an office from the Bahamas which would have been unheard of twenty years ago. But again I have to quantify that by saying it’s an absolute bloody nightmare too. I’ve come to realise it’s not just because I’m doing an online venture which takes so many resources and time and just incredible amounts of effort to understand how quickly that business is changing. But it’s not even that, I think I’ve come to realise that business is tough. That’s not to say it can’t be done, it’s just to say it’s rather like getting a builder in. Double his quote and don’t believe his deadline!’

‘I’m just getting to a place now with my website where I’m feeling quite confident about it. I’m beginning to have a little audience who goes there and follows me.’ This ‘little audience’ (an understatement of course) is naturally attracted by the insightful marketing strategy of her brand; by the Hicks lifestyle; but does she ever feel compromised by how much of her life goes into this online persona? ‘Yes,’ is the immediate answer. ‘Funnily enough, I just wrote a blog about bloggers and how at first I was horrified by the idea that people would live out loud in this way. Not even just the day-to-day mummy bloggers, but even the interior design bloggers or the product design bloggers. At first I thought: ‘Why do I want to know what some whippersnapper’s saying when I’ve got the expertise of Anna Wintour or Andre Leon Talley for instance?” 

But then Hicks became more and more engrossed with blogs, ‘because I live on an island in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have access to culture. I don’t have access to museums. I don’t have access to magazine booths and bookstalls. So of course I started to turn to the internet. Then I began to understand it. I realised that in amongst a lot of bull**t, there’s an amazing amount of brilliant blogs out there. And it is comforting to find out that someone else is having a parenting nightmare… You get familiar with certain sites and you go back to them for reassurance. Because I began to enjoy it and understand it and draw comfort from it, I thought, well why don’t I do the same in some way?’

‘What’s interesting is, when I look at Kate Spade for instance, and when you see Kate and Andy as a couple and you hear about their kids, you get inside their life, you understand much more about where their design process is coming from. You feel you’re getting a real story because you can see the back-story. Whereas when it’s an unknown, faceless designer – let’s say Coach, for instance, I can’t personally get inside.’ 

This ethos is of course the backbone; the ‘lifestyle’ philosophy of Hick’s brand if you will. ‘I started by letting people in, little by little… I thought at least I can control it in a way. Yes, people are getting the inside story – and people are getting the real story; there’s nothing that I hide – but at least I’m putting it out there. I feel comfortable that when there’s a picture of my daughter, I know that she’s happy with it and I’m happy with it. Hopefully people out there think: ‘Oh what fun.’

I wonder for a moment if she ever gets sick of the labels attributed to her; bridesmaid to Princess Diana, (despite the fact she’s in her mid-forties), daughter of David Hicks, esteemed interior designer (despite being a designer herself), goddaughter to Prince Charles… Is there a recurring question; the likes of which makes her heart sink? ‘Yes. Always,’ she laughs. ‘It comes in swings and roundabouts. Obviously the ‘Princess Diana’s bridesmaid’ - that’s always there. What was really interesting is that I recently shot a video for HSN, and the crew came down to the island. The director said: ‘Okay, now let’s talk about your father David Hicks.’ And I heard one of them saying: ‘Who’s David Hicks?’- they had no idea. Isn’t that extraordinary, that time has passed so much? But it was also like ‘goodness, they really think that I’m a designer on my own now. People are actually here because I’ve now got a voice in the design world.’

She comes across as strong, incredibly forthright, caring, kind – but how does she perceive herself I wonder? ‘That’s really nice that you’d say that. David [her partner of eighteen years] would probably contest that and say that I sound like his nagging old mum, who wasn’t really strong at all. I’m 45 now – in a way I quite like it, because I’ve seen enough of life to be able to have a view on it, and I have a certain confidence about who I am. As a person, when you get to the lovely age of 45, you do have a fairly clear idea of who you are and what you want from life, and that makes it easier. I have a wonderful, gorgeous 18-year-old niece who I spend a great deal of time with. I’m very blessed to have her as a goddaughter. She’s just crippled with decisions; what career-move to take, what to do and what not to do. I’m just glad I’m past those terrible worries and insecurities of being in your late teens and starting your life.’

Those insecurities may be in the past; but their presence is core to her current success: ‘I rather regret not having gone on to university; I would have loved to have the chance of secondary education. That’s not a mistake, necessarily.’ Even so she remains resolutely philosophical; ‘There are times when I’ve self invested in something and spent and enormous amount of time developing something that then actually goes nowhere. You can think ‘My God, what a mistake. That was so much money.’ But I also believe they are stepping-stones. Even if possibly that product didn’t come to life or the brown book didn’t reach the light of day, something somewhere sparks another idea and you can go off in another direction.’

Education and its correlation to the success or failure of an entrepreneur is not entirely off message, considering Hick’s background; ‘I think the question of education is so unanswered. It’s also so personal. I didn’t particularly pay attention at school. I was a tomboy on the back of a pony. I loved to climb mountains. I was not an academic child by any means. I came out of school virtually innumerate. I loved school, I had a wonderful time – but would I sit back and think that is alright for my own children? Of course not.’ 

I ponder what it would be like to have Hicks as a mother, seriously inspiring, daunting perhaps. ‘I believe that a lot of what I’ve achieved hasn’t necessarily come from education. It’s come from a place that’s self-driving… I went around the world for a year after school and I found that an incredible education. Just the fact that it taught me about other places and how other people lived made me a more patient person. I think there’s a huge amount of that that we need to learn in life, and how to work with teams and how to appreciate somebody else’s point of view is also part of the education for standing the craziness of the world of business.’

Never one to rest on her laurels, there are always plenty more plans in the pipeline - but what are these grand crusades? ‘There are always lots of things,’ she says coyly. ‘For God’s sake, I’m a Virgo! We’re always craving ultimate perfection, which is just a nightmare for everybody else to live with. I do draw a huge amount of satisfaction from working and from what I do. You never look back and go: ‘Wow. Look at everything I’ve done.’ You’re always thinking: ‘I need to do more.’ I have big responsibilities now. We have five children. You get to a stage where you realise your plate’s very full, but you put it on the plate so you need to take responsibility for that.’

Her life, it seems, is pretty much sorted; it all starts with a run along a deserted beach in the morning; ‘It helps me enormously. It’s absolutely my hour of the day. We’ll have guests or friends who come and stay with us and say: ‘Oh, I’ll come for a run with you’, and I just say ‘Nooo! No thank you.’ Just because I do a lot of thinking, there’s no telephone ringing, there’s no child nagging me – there’s no decision to be made. You’re really clear-minded.’ 

And then of course there’s the warm womb-like love of a large family with all their demands, their challenges, their cacophony of laughter always in the foreground; a magical picture indeed, one succinctly summarised by Hicks herself: ‘It sounds ridiculous, but love is so incredibly important. Really virtually above everything. I’m sure it goes hand in hand with health, but if you have love – if you feel loved and if you do love, you really can achieve almost anything because with that comes so many wonderful things. Really just to feel love is so important – and to enjoy it all.’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann, May 2013.