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Q&A: Hills and West - Aisha Hillary

Hills and West founder: Aisha Hillary

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where the desire to design came from?

Absolutely… I am a Dutch-Australian who loves creating, collaborating, interiors, travelling, design and food. My mother was an interior designer; and ever since I was little I have always been a creator/designer in some way. From choreography when I used to be a ballerina, as an assistant director in film production, to creating content for SBS platforms such as film, food and entertainment. 7 years ago I designed my wedding dress and a few furniture pieces for my home and knew that this was the direction I wanted to one day go.

Before I became my own boss I spent 15 years in the corporate world, primarily in the branding, communications and the digital space. In my last role I managed the communications for 8 offices and travelled a lot. To give myself a break from work, once a year, I would challenge myself to learn a new skill like drawing, dragon boat racing, meditation, DJing, to name a few… So in 2014, I travelled to Milan to learn the traditional techniques to handcraft handbags in Milan. I was hooked and knew that it was time to take a risk and move onto the next challenge in my life. I resigned and spent the next 6 months travelling around the world rediscovering my passions and laying the foundations for the next chapter of my life. 

Today, I am the founder, designer and storyteller of two businesses, Hills & West an Australian luxury lifestyle accessory label, including bags and accessories, and now branching into interiors with Hills & West HOME. My other business is a boutique communications agency, working with inspiring businesses that want to make a difference through technology and improve the way we live and work.

My first (capsule) collection was inspired by my experiences as a busy, travelling workaholic – I was always on the go, flying from airport to airport, meeting to meeting, and dinner-to-dinner… I never felt like I had the right accessory that could transcend all of those things, with the exception of pieces that cost several thousands of dollars. 

These experiences all built the foundations for Hills & West to support my minimal, functional, always timeless and chic aesthetic however wanting the pieces to be accessible and locally made.

I am so lucky to love what I do, the people I work with and no day is ever the same or has a shortage of ideas for what to create next ☺

How would you describe your own personal style?

Classic, minimal, always functional, with a bit of something different (usually quirky and vintage) ☺

We love the clean, chic look of Hills & West pieces. Do you have a particular go-to bag for everyday?

One of my first pieces, the Morgan 3 in 1 Backpack… It’s just SO practical and the leather is so gorgeous. It’s the piece that started Hills & West and it’s what our ethos of minimal, chic, versatile and functional stemmed from. Also I never know where my day will take me so it allows me to over stuff and not look like a total bag lady. I do often also layer up with my other bags, like one of my Lenny Belt Bags or my Mini Lunar Bags. If I want to get a little more fancy then the Lunar Bag with mixed straps and folds is always fun.

What advice would you give to a young emerging designer? 

To keep on going… it’s a long journey but if you stick to it you’ll be rewarded in more ways that you expect. 

My top tips: 

  1. Go with your gut, never waiver, things may go wrong but you are following your dream and that is what will make you succeed.
  2. Ask questions – lots of them. Be courageous enough to ask the tough and sometimes stupid ones… you will more often than not be respected for it.
  3. Side hustle - it costs a lot of money and time to start and run a fashion label. Have a side hustle or at least prepare for no return for a couple of years. That is the reality.

Also, always remember to have fun, collaborate and this will keep you inspired. 

You have an ethical approach to crafting Hills & West pieces. Could you describe your process?

I am a huge advocate for keeping it local and all of my pieces are produced in Sydney. I believe in empowering local talented artisans to make exceptional handcrafted pieces that will last. In lieu of a factory made item picked off of an assembly line. Australia used to be such a hub for crafting fashion and accessories, I am really excited to see that more and more people are striving to keep things local and appreciate the quality and beauty of local talent.

We also do our best to minimise waste by repurposing unused leather for new designs and pieces. We also have a collection that’s still in its infancy, but by Christmas, you should be able to select some pieces from our ‘upcycle’ collection, which involves using materials from the cutting floor, which are all repurposed into considered and tasteful accessories. With this collection we will give back with every purchase to the orphanage and charities we support, to help change some lives in countries that are not as lucky as we are.  

We are on a journey to being more sustainable and always looking at ways to minimise our footprint. It’s all about conscious decision-making. This is one of the reasons we have moved away from mass production, more towards limited collections and a made to order model, to minimise waste. Everyone can make a difference. We may think it is small but as a collective we can improve things.

Do you have any mentors?

Yes, I think having mentors, people to ask questions or bounce ideas from is so important. When starting Hills & West I approached Inspiring Rare Birds who connected me with Isabella Queen, a made in Britain bag designer whom was such an honest and insightful mentor.

I too have inspiring leaders from my corporate life who I often ‘check in’ with where I take on learnings from different industries and apply to my current approach.

I also have friends who are in the industry that I will often send concepts, or a press release or idea for feedback. 

Finally, I wouldn’t consider my husband a ‘mentor’ but he is definitely someone I’ll run something by. Poor him… he has become very knowledgeable on female fashion (lucky he had six sisters and was already used to it).

Actually, when I write it all down, I have a wonderful network of people/friends I can go to. This is just so important when building a business, especially when you are on your own. 

We know you do custom made pieces. Has there been any bespoke-made pieces that you’ve particularly loved?

It’s like you’re asking me to pick a favourite child! 

I love working with people and bringing their vision to life. I have loved the journey, especially the pieces that have pushed boundaries in design and surprised me. What I love is getting someone else’s creative input and assisting in making their dream piece. It’s surprising the colour-ways, shapes, materials, textures etc. that can be played with. 

Collaborating is just so inspiring. This is actually what has led to the ‘Styled By You’, made-to-order direction we are taking. With our new website… launching in the next few weeks, you can select one of our core shapes and select leather colours, hardware, lining, stitching and accessories. It is going to be so amazing to see what people create.

What sets Hills & West apart from other leather goods brands?

I would love to think it is our elegantly understated designs, our handmade quality, functionality and the sheer love that goes into every piece. I am very involved with the design and production of each piece from the first sketches to the prototypes, production, packing them up with a personalised note and then sending off to their new home. All pieces are designed and handmade here in Australia and that is becoming very unique in itself. 

My ethos for all pieces at Hills & West is that the customers aren’t merely purchasing an accessory; they are making a long-term investment toward a timeless piece that will last across outfits and trends.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as an entrepreneur so far?

Ah, this is the reality of a start up in the fashion world, cashflow. Self-funding Hills & West, using our house deposit cash does add a layer of pressure, however I see that as a competitive challenge and it drives me to make conscious decisions with everything I do.

My advice to anyone starting is being smart with your investments and be conscious of your cashflow. Try and keep a side hustle, have some cash coming in as it takes 2-3 years to get into your groove. Cashflow is a challenge so keep on top of it always.

Lastly, where do you see Hills and West going in the future?

The future is so exciting with so many new designs in the pipeline, collaborations with stylists and offshoots. I originally created Hills & West as a ‘lifestyle accessory’ label for people who strive to be stylish, who love a minimal, classic aesthetic and appreciate functionality and handmade, that makes their lives easier.

Our Gentlemen’s Essentials Collection is about to launch in the next few weeks, you can see a sneak peek on my website. Fashion Boundary will be one of the first to stock our duffle bag, backpack, messenger briefcase, passport holder and cardholder. All two toned in premium navy and black leather and can be ‘Styled By You’ or as a gift. They are crafted for the dapper, modern gentleman.

Another growing part of our repertoire is Hills & West HOME, which we started over two years ago creating luxury pieces for the home and has since grown into a styling and decorating service. After I did the Coco Republic course in 2018, I have loved how many people have reached out for assistance and some Hills & West styling into their home. We want to bring spaces to life and work together to create a home that enriches you, and the people in your life, as you live, work and play.

From the beginning my mission has been simple - create exceptional pieces and experiences, while doing what we love and make people happy along the way. I hope the future holds a lot of that ☺

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