The winter sun streaks through the window in the middle room of Three Bags Full cafe in Abbotsford, Melbourne, bringing with it a warmth that’s equally matched by the lady sitting in front of me.
Aisha Hillary is the Director/Designer/Writer and overall awesome human being in charge of Hills & West, a lifestyles accessories company in Sydney and Melbourne. Leaving a comfy and well-paid job in her 30s to explore the world and find her true calling, Aisha ended up pursuing her longstanding desire to create luxury accessories, debuting with a handmade leather handbag and accessory range.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Aisha in Melbourne recently over a coffee to hear her story of breaking through the shackles of complacency and following her heart. But even before the official interview began, the conversation naturally shifted towards the subject of travel. And that would make sense: this is a woman who grew up with travel all around her.
“I was raised between Sydney and Holland. My parents are Dutch. I was really lucky because my father had a publishing company and I got to travel a lot between Asia and Europe at such a young age. We travelled to America, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong. It was great and I just loved it: the different food, the different experiences. Oh, and then my family adopted my sister from India, and I got to go to India when I was 11-years-old.
Aisha already had a brother from India at the time, and soon would have a sister from Thailand. So it was pretty obvious from a young age that travel and different cultures would be an important part of her life. But it was also pretty obvious for Aisha, even at that early age, that giving back to the international community would be an equally important part of her life.
“As an 11-year-old in India – in Delhi of all places – my whole perspective on life shifted. Seeing all that extreme poverty, I remember deciding at that young age that I wanted to help people and give back to the world.
And that’s what she’s been doing with her company Hills & West.
“I give a part of the profits from my bags to different charities that I support. I also do fundraising activities for an orphanage in Nepal (Rainbow Children’s Home) and raise money for some other organisations. Doing Hills & West has given me the time to do this.
Hills & West bags and accessories are expertly hand-made by a couple of talented artisans in Sydney who have been creating leather bags for over 30 years in the traditional Italian style. Only premium local leather is used in the creations, and everything is designed here in Australia.
The initial inspiration behind the use of traditional Italian leather making techniques stems back to 2014 when Aisha left her job to go travelling. During her time away, she ended up signing up for a leather making course at Arsutoria School in Milan, Italy. And it was a decision that changed her life.
“The teacher who taught me worked for some of the best brands in the business (e.g., Louis Vuitton) and was one of the best bag crafters in the world. He taught from the perspective that you have to reach the highest quality and level of craftsmanship. He was all about being the best you can possibly be, and was all about looking at the details. I did that course and I learnt all about the craft, but I also recognised that making the best quality bags would take years. So that’s why I get my bags made by a local who has been doing it for years.
The course was taught in English, thankfully, and although Aisha doesn’t speak Italian yet, she may in the future: she’s crazy for Italy and dreams of spending one month every year over there to write and be creative.
“I love Italy; it’s one of my favourite places: the architecture, the food, their lifestyle – how amazing is that!
In the meantime though, she’ll have to settle for her short trips to Italy. Since completing the leather making course in Milan a couple of years ago, Aisha has been back twice, to Tuscany and Umbria.
Sounds like a case of the travel bug to me.
But apart from trying to treat her wanderlust with periodic trips overseas, which, as we all know, is pretty much futile, what else is challenging Aisha now that she has made the move to kick-start her dream life and go out on her own to follow her passions?
“Financially it can be pretty challenging. But if you love something enough, and you have that passion, it will find a way. And anyway, what’s the worse thing that can happen? It wouldn’t be the end of the world.
I agree. We also talk about the freedom that comes from being your own boss, and getting that work-life balance equation weighted towards the latter. It definitely helps sweeten even the most sour of moments, we both agree.
So after her foray into entrepreneurship, does Aisha have any advice for others keen to realise their dreams?
“Do it when you’re successful, rather than waiting until your vulnerable and burnt out. Do it when you’re at your peak because you can only grow from there.
As the waiter brings us the bill and subtly hints at the world outside that we should soon join (they were closing after all), I ask Aisha her plans for the next five years.
“I want to go into different areas, and create beautiful products. I want to go into different communities where there are artisans around a specific product or craft, and make certain products that can contribute back to that specific community. I want to leave a Hills & West footprint all around the world!
I would say she’s well on her way.
Visit Hills & West for an impressive range of handmade leather handbag and accessories.
What’s stopping you from going after your dreams? Or are you already well on your way? Let us know in the comments below.
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