We all had a backpack when we were younger at school – mine was a Power Rangers backpack (I really wanted to be the red Ranger!). Fast forward a few years later and fashion has fallen involved with that utilitarian object. Proenza Schouler, The Row and MCM have all taken their hand at reinterpreting the backpack. However, it was one day in October last year that Karl Lagerfeld transformed the Grand Palais into an art gallery and sent out Cara Delevingne with one of the backpacks from his SS14 art inspired collection. The backpack went stratospheric!
Sophie Fleming of Fleming London is a designer who has tapped into the recent fashion love in with the backpack, making luxurious handmade Italian leather backpacks in London. She sat down with us to discuss her childhood, her History studies at Exeter, how she got into fashion and built up her own brand.
Hello Sophie. Introduce yourself to our readers using an extract from your favourite piece of poetry.
This extract is from Emily Dickinson’s Hope. I have always been attracted to uplifting and motivational pieces of poetry or songs and I feel like this verse makes you stop and think for a bit. I am also a big fan of visual imagery and metaphorical language – so this ticks all the boxes!
Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops - at all 
What was your childhood like?
I have very fond memories of my childhood; I grew up in a small village in Kent and attended the small village primary school before heading off to the local grammar school for my secondary education. I am also fortunate enough to have two younger sisters and we have always been very close. Almost all my memories involve them, whether we were making dens in the back of our garden or dressing up in our mother’s clothes!
You studied History at Exeter, what drew you to take that subject up at University level and what did you enjoy most about it?
I had always loved history as a subject, and although it often took second place to my passion for art and design, I knew this was the subject I wanted to read at University. The range of topics and the relevance of so much of it in today’s politics and current affairs is what really drew me to it. My favourite aspect of the degree was being able to work so independently, and the ability to tailor the course to suit my interests. It has undeniably proved very useful and I’m incredibly grateful for the analytical, written and presenting skills I gained throughout the course, transferring them onto my job at Jaeger and indeed Fleming London.
You carried out a work experience placement at PricewaterhouseCoopers. What was that experience like and what valuable lessons did you take away from it that you still use today?
I was very fortunate to get this experience once I had graduated from University, as although I had an idea that I might want to get into fashion merchandising or buying, any time spent at PwC would undoubtedly be incredibly valuable. The main lesson I learnt from my time there was the importance of organization and professionalism at all times, and the value of being able to work well in a team as well as taking the initiative to work independently. Most interestingly, I realized that what I enjoyed most was interacting with clients and the research aspect of the role. I still use each of these skills today and they are a great basis for any sort of job, whether accountancy or building a fashion brand!
From a bachelors' degree in History how did you then become interested in fashion? Was it something you always loved from the beginning?
I had been interested in art and design from an early age and always had somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit; I was forever making greeting cards and jewellery, forcing family and friends into buying them! My love of fashion developed alongside this and I spent hours tearing images from glossy magazines whilst trying to recreate pieces on my grandmother’s sewing machine as a child. By the time I got to university I knew I wanted to pursue a career in fashion, but I needed to explore the options and look into head office type roles which combined both my creative and business interests.
In January 2013 you created Fleming London. How did you decide to create it?
My father is an entrepreneur himself and runs several companies that operate on an international level. I have grown up around this and have always felt incredibly inspired by what he has achieved and wanted to build something similar myself. After graduating, I worked at Jaeger’s head office in the merchandising department for a year. I gained invaluable experience working within a luxury British brand, and became involved in the various processes that bring a product to market. This was inspiring and has evidently proved very useful for my current venture!
Talk us through the design process of creating one of your designs from sketch to final product. How hands on are you in each process?
There was a long process of design and development before the current Fleming London backpack was born. Brainstorms and mood boards were the starting point, where I merged images of existing backpacks and other bag styles and accessories. I didn’t focus on current trends so much as I wanted to design a bag that was both traditional and contemporary, creating a modern classic for men and women. Once initial and detailed sketches were complete, I began sourcing suppliers for the leather and fittings, and also a British owned and based manufacturer. This was probably the most time consuming part of the whole process, but definitely worth the investment to ensure the integrity of the final product. I have been involved in every aspect of building the brand; designing product, buying materials, merchandising stock, website design, marketing the brand and even packaging and dispatch. I try to do as much of everything as possible, which is possible whilst we’re still small and starting out. It’s certainly a steep learning curve, but an exciting one!
Like Cambridge Satchel Company has done for satchels, you've turned something humble like the backpack into fashion's current "IT" item. What drew you to creating a line of backpacks to begin with?
I had actually contemplated designing some sort of bag or accessory for a number of years but I never reached a design or product that I felt was quite right. It was only when I mentioned to a friend the idea of a luxury leather backpack in January last year, that her excited response encouraged me to look seriously at developing this possibility. The idea for a backpack was really inspired out of my own personal need, firstly when I became an avid cyclist at university and then when I began the commute to London. I yearned for a backpack that was both practical and stylish, but the only ones available were casual canvas rucksacks that were generally unattractive and misshapen; they certainly didn’t suit more polished outfits or formal work wear. I decided to take this gap in the market and run with it!
The rise of the digital and social media has opened a lot of doors for designers. What are you feelings towards it? How does it assist you in your process as a designer?
The new world of digital and social media has undoubtedly assisted the establishment and growth of many new designers and brands, including Fleming London. It has made starting your own company a lot easier financially, since you no longer need the investment for a physical shop front on the high street, and it allows you to engage with customers from all over the world at any time of the day. Whilst this means you are competing with more people trying to achieve the same thing, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. The important thing is to keep your audience and customer base interested by using these channels and keeping content varied but relevant – visual images always get the best response.
If you weren't doing Fleming London what would you being doing now?
If I hadn’t established Fleming London, I imagine I would still be working in fashion, either in merchandising or perhaps jumping across to buying. I love the processes involved in creating and selling collections and would certainly still be working in the fashion industry whether in product development or even PR and marketing.
What are your plans for the future? Have you got any plans to expand your line of bags to include satchels or messengers?
We are hoping to extend our range with further colour options, sizes and styles to become available. I am particularly interested in developing a satchel style bag with multifunctional straps. We are also looking to add a few small leather accessories as well, which will probably come first. There are lots of ideas so we are very excited for the future!