London-based leather goods designer Isla Simpson was fortunate enough to find out very early on in life what she was passionate about and make it a career choice.

After completing a degree at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art, Isla Simpson worked for established brands like Aspinals before deciding the time was right to become a freelance designer.

How would you describe yourself as a designer?

My aesthetic is clean, pared-down and feminine.  I like to allow each component of a bag to sing: leather, colour, hardware.  I’m almost fanatical about proportion and leather too, which is the most incredible raw material to work with. The joy for me is in the detail.   

How did you get started in the industry?

After graduating and internships, I cut my teeth working for a fast fashion supplier.  I was on a plane to China every month. I got through a lot of constructions and perfected an excellent sampling hit rate.

What made you specialise in Leather Accessories?

I arrived at St Martin’s set on womenswear, but a friend got me a Saturday shop job at Anya Hindmarch and I was hooked. You can wear a pretty dress, but a leather bag has to be functional as well as beautiful.  I love that marriage of the two.

Related reading: What a Manufacturer of Leather Goods Wants you to Know?

What made you leave the comfort of 9-to-5 and go freelance?

It’s healthy for designers to move around lots, so as not to become stale.  I wanted to work with a greater variety of brands as I thrive on exploring brand heritage and DNA.

How easy was it to transition from being an employee to a freelancer?

I had always worked from home a couple of days a week even when I worked in-house, especially if I needed peace and quiet during the busy design season. So I was used to the discipline. There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!

What do you love about working freelance?

I start my day with yoga instead of commuting by tube!  I also work from an antique desk, surrounded by beautiful things where I feel very creative and stimulated by the variety of projects I now work on.

Utelier - Isla Simpson - designer interview

How do you organise your work when you work on a few different projects and clients?

My mornings are spent answering inquiries from the factories and prioritizing. Afternoons are for designing.

My undivided attention is given to one client per day.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about how I can deliver accessories which fit as closely into a brand’s DNA as possible. It is fascinating delving into the mindset of their customers.

How do you find new clients?

It’s a small industry and I’m mostly recommended, which is nice.

What are the pitfalls of being a freelancer that most people perhaps don’t know about, but should be aware of at the start?

Everything seems to take so much longer than you think it’s going to when you are freelance. So leave yourself enough time to make the deadline.

Utelier - Isla Simpson - designer interview

As a designer, you have a certain style of work and taste. Do you select clients that are in line with your design taste or are you open to challenges and work on projects even if you are not the ideal customer for the product you are creating?

Designers and brands are naturally drawn to working with those who share similar aesthetics. I’ve always enjoyed living vicariously through my handbag designs. Even if I wouldn’t wear a certain style, I love imagining what a customer wants from a bag and the design process.

Do you ever say “NO” to a new client and project?

Rarely, I like a challenge and I have a flexible approach.

At what stage do you start working on a new project – when the client already has an idea or do you help some with the ideation stages?

That depends on the client, I can work either way.  Usually, it’s preferable to start the season from the beginning and work together through initial concepts to gain a better understanding.

How do you work once you take on a client – what’s the general process?

I begin by researching trends which I tailor towards a brand. I then sketch up styles according to key silhouettes and details identified for the season.  We then have a sketch review and edit which styles will be sampled and I send the factory specifications.  At this point, I create a colour palette ready to be lab dipped and design any metal hardware. The first prototype is reviewed and amended around 4 weeks later, and then a second prototype in correct leathers usually arrives looking spot on, ready for orders to be placed.

What do you wish clients knew about the fashion industry or taking on a freelance designer prior to coming to meet you?

I’m often asked how many designs a day I can do, which is a hard one.  I strive for perfection in first samples, so my specs are thorough.

Amendments are costly and tedious.

What was a low point for you as a freelancer so far?

Sometimes the uncertainty, but my positive spin on that is you never know what is round the corner.

What are you excited about at the moment?

My new client ME+EM are redefining intelligent style for women and it’s inspiring to be creating accessories which align with their brilliant clothing and vision.

Utelier - Isla Simpson - designer interview
Isla Simpson – Aspinal of London

How do you know what to charge clients? What advice would you give others in order to find out what they should charge?

Consult your contemporaries and recruitment agencies representing you for advice.

What advice would you give someone thinking of leaving their job and starting a freelance career?

If you can accept some level of risk, ultimately it’s very rewarding to be master of your own destiny.

What advice would you give your younger self, just starting out…?

The first job (and internships) you take, establish your position as a designer in the market, be it luxury, bridge or high street.  So make sure you get it right for YOU. I wish somebody had told me that.

Isla Simpson can be reached via her Utelier profile.


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