Anthropologie in the making

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Diana Woolf uncovers the story behind the already resounding success of soon to be international super brand, Anthropologie


For those not already in the know, Anthropologie is an American brand selling a gorgeous, rich mix of fashion and homeware. It has a very individual, almost baroque, look – part vintage, part craft, part ethnic – which Anthropologie UK Home Buyer Zoe Hodson describes as being “all about colour and print and surprise, and that extra layer of consideration that makes things different.” A visit to one of the four UK Anthropologie stores is a bit like a trip to a market or souk, where you pick your way through various displays attracted one minute by a beaded Art-Deco style clutch and the next by a row of ceramic owls, or a pile of crisp white napkins embroidered with delicate geometric patterns. And like a market, you never know what you might come across next. The stores are a browsers’ delight: last time I visited I discovered beautiful teak chopping boards from Indonesia alongside cloth-bound recipe books wittily decorated with crochet vegetables and a bright green embroidered quilt inspired by traditional Indian covers (and that’s before I even started looking at their exquisite range of clothes). 


Clearly I am not the only shopper to be overwhelmed by the variety and originality of the Anthropologie offering as the brand is rapidly growing in the UK. Its first store opened in Regent Street in 2009, followed by one in London’s Kings Road in 2011 and then Edinburgh in 2012. Last year a new store opened in Guildford and this year it will be Bath’s turn with plans for an eventual 20–30 new stores in the UK before the company turns its attention to continental Europe. And that’s without mentioning the 170 plus stores already going strong in North America, where the company first opened its doors in 1992. It’s an impressive story, and what makes it even more impressive is that in spite of its success, the company is seemingly still selling the same beautiful, quirky, handmade products it started out with. So how do they manage to sell these one-off craft items on a commercial scale?

The answer is, they don’t, and in fact the craft element of Anthropologie’s offer is just the icing on a well-mixed cake whose main ingredient is mass-manufactured pieces and specially designed lines produced both in and out of house. Also they are careful to present a crafty, individual image, which cunningly masks the brand’s commercial success. Walk into one of their stores, and you think you are walking into a charming, independent boutique, not a small outpost of a very large retail empire. Each store is carefully designed to look different from the rest as Hodson explains: “Keeping it local is really important so each store has a local element and its own visual identity.” And not only do the stores look different – the Kings Road store is in an attractive arts and crafts building previously home to the Antiquarius Antiques Centre, while the flagship Regent Street store is all gleaming glass and staircases – but they also may sell different products, often showcasing work by local artists and designers. 


The variety of the store buildings reflects the variety of the products inside. It’s a lifestyle brand – the grown-up sibling of younger, funkier parent company Urban Outfitters – so sells everything from dinky satin ankle boots to cardboard flat-packed toys and vintage mirrors. But what makes Anthropologie so interesting is not just the range of objects on offer, but the variety of methods used in making them. And it’s this variety that Hodson believes gives the stores their unique look and accounts for their success: “Our stores have always been a mixture as we sell products that we design, products that we buy from companies, products that we just manufacture, products that we buy from artisans and antiques that we find,” she explains. It’s a clever marketing concept as it means there’s room for everything (and every price) from individual pieces of antique furniture and handmade craft objects to the mass-produced, via pieces produced for the company by specially commissioned designers.

And it’s their impressive stable of designers that is one of the keys to Anthropologie’s commercial success. Their design teams seem to have the knack of tracking down designers and makers whose work is highly individual, full of unexpected detail, pattern and colour (no highbrow minimalism here) and with an emphasis on the handmade. American ceramist Molly Hatch is one such designer and as well as ceramics she has designed jewellery, glassware and even a range of alphabet coat hooks for the brand. It’s obviously a happy creative relationship and Hatch is given free rein to design pretty much what she wants and always gets her say in the design approval stage. Each piece carries her MH logo (in fact all pieces commissioned by Anthropologie are carefully credited to their individual designers) and she says, “No pieces ever go out into the world with my name on them without my approval.” 


Hatch’s style seems perfectly suited to the Anthropologie look; inspired by historical textiles and the applied arts, it’s full lively hand-drawn detail (Hatch is also an illustrator) and vintage charm. My favourites are her black and white ceramic models of historic buildings and exuberant floral tableware. And, as Hatch points out, her style with its strong craft look reproduces very well: “Because my designs are all prototyped by hand in my studio on a 1:1 scale, the marks of my hand in the making of the form and in the drawing and painting on the surfaces of the clay is retained” she says, adding, “plus all the work I have done so far with colour has been hand-painted, which helps keep that handmade aesthetic intact.”

A newcomer to the Anthropologie designers club is ceramist Anna Collette Hunt. She was delighted when Anthropologie first approached her with a commission for ceramic doorknobs (launched this March), but was also nervous as she had never designed for manufacturing before. However, after the first couple of meetings she felt like she was in safe hands, explaining, “Anthropologie was happy to listen to my suggestions and even asked me to design the packaging which was a real bonus.” The commission has now given Hunt the confidence to branch out into design work rather than just making the one-off, decorative works of art which were her previous speciality. “It’s helped me change the way I run my creative practice,” she explains, saying, “Anthropologie has taught me that things can be functional but really beautiful too.” And her final products prove just that – a series of intricate and richly coloured, jewel-like ceramic insect handles which would add an exotic touch to any interior. Hunt is thrilled with them and says, “I’m impressed how close the finished objects are to the prototypes – they look just like my originals.” 

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This ability to reproduce prototypes on a commercial scale without losing their handmade look is one of the most important elements in the Anthropologie success story. It’s obviously not commercially viable to have everything handmade, but Anthropologie carefully ensures that the illusion of the handmade is created, often mass-producing pieces which might then be hand-coloured in their factories, or given hand-embroidered detailing or embellishment in their final stages. It creates a craft aesthetic, giving an individual, personal touch to each object at the same time as keeping the products cheap enough to sell on the high street. 

However Anthropologie is not frightened of occasionally selling more expensive one-off pieces. The Guildford store is currently showcasing a collection of 12 scarily life-like woodland creatures each handmade by textile artist Mister Finch including several alarming looking toadstools and a sleek, sleeping fox. One-off works of art are also often displayed in the Kings Road store which has a special gallery area. “It’s a platform to launch work by interesting people and tells the other side of the brand,” says Hodson. 


It’s not just work by British artists and artisans that get showcased here. When I visited there were a series of handmade papier mâché animal heads peering quizzically down at me from the gallery wall. Made from recycled concrete bags and book pages and then hand painted by artists from the Haitian city of Jacmel, an area famed for its papier mâché craftsmanship, they are an example of how Anthropologie tracks down skills from around the world, in the process adding another layer of interest to their store displays. This emphasis on travel, discovery and the exploration of new cultures is a strong element of the brand so Kashmiri hand embroidered rugs, colourful Mexican glassware, elaborate Italian chandeliers and, this spring, Burmese inspired craft all have a place in the store. This hotchpotch of global influences adds to the store’s mix of products and helps contribute to its seemingly effortlessly individual, relaxed craft look. And even though there is nothing effortless about the way this look is achieved, and it’s perhaps more a crafty illusion with just a sprinkling of real craft on the top, the end result is nevertheless a brand which offers a treasure trove of the unusual, exotic and unexpected at fairly affordable prices.




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