COACH BEGAN AS A MANUFACTURER, NOT AS A FASHION CONCEPT. NOW MORE FIFTH AVENUE THAN GARMENT DISTRICT, AND CHASING YOUNGER BUYERS AND BRAND ACQUISITIONS, COACH HASN’T FORGOTTEN WHERE IT CAME FROM.
You always worry that you’re not going to service your existing customers, but I don’t believe you should overthink that. It’s worse to realise that there’s a need to change, but you do so in such an incremental way that you don’t bring people on a new journey.”
That’s how Coach CEO Victor Luis describes the process of transformation the storied American leathergoods house has undergone in recent years, one that has seen a complete overhaul of its brand image, product offering, retail design and market positioning. When WISH first reported on the change in Coach’s direction back in 2015, newly installed creative director Stuart Vevers said: “The thing that I felt most strongly about was rediscovering what made Coach unique ... This is an opportunity to be different to Europe rather than to follow it. Coach should be genuine, authentic, relaxed and modern.”
In the two years since, the brand has lived up to Vevers’ best intentions, with its runway shows some of the most popular on the New York and London Fashion Week schedules, customers jostling at the customisation bar of its new flagship store on Fifth Avenue, and effortlessly cool superstars, such as Drew Barrymore, Chloë Grace Moretz, Hopper Penn and Mark Ronson seated front row at its 75th anniversary event late last year. The celebrities, with about 1000 editors and other assorted guests, turned up to Pier 94 on the West Side Highway of Manhattan on a frigid winter evening to view the brand’s combined men’s and women’s pre-autumn collection and, to tunes mixed by Ronson, celebrate the 75-year journey of one of the country’s most iconic homegrown brands.
What differentiates Coach from its American competitors, particularly in the accessible luxury market, says Luis, is that it was born as a manufacturer and not a fashion house. Established in 1941, Coach began as a family-run workshop on 34th Street of six leather workers, who made wallets by hand. “I think there’s a great difference in being born as a concept and being born as a manufacturer,” says Luis. “For us, it has always been about the product. Of course, we’ve grown to be something much more than just that – Stuart, and the creative teams before him, have turned Coach into an entire world – but it’s where our story begins and what we maintain as our point of difference.”
Indeed, while Coach has made perhaps the greatest splash under the creative direction of Vevers, it boasts a rather storied history of designers who have evolved and added to its global recognition. In 1946, several years after Coach was established, handbag manufacturers Miles and Lillian Cahn joined and, shortly thereafter, took over the business, taking inspiration from the ageing properties of baseball gloves so as to offer products in the softest, strongest and most flexible leather. It’s this little known point in the history of leathergoods that changed the industry entirely – indeed, this new approach to treating leather meant that it absorbed dye better than before, opening up radically more diverse colour and pattern options, not only for Coach but for brands that would follow suit.
The Cahns subsequently purchased the company, in 1961, and hired Bonnie Cashin – who, having won her first Coty Award in 1952 under her own name, was considered a pioneer of American sportswear (she also designed for Hermes, Ballantyne, Aquascutum and American Airlines, among others) – to head product design. Under Cashin’s direction, which lasted until 1974, Coach grew significantly, bringing to the market such innovative designs as a shoulder bag, clutch purse and eyewear in bright colours, and added features, such as silver toggles, that would become brand hallmarks. Many pieces from Coach’s extensive history are housed in a brand-owned archive at its new Hudson Yards, New York head office, providing a physical touch-point for Vevers and his creative team today. As he told WISH, “Coach has always been a reference, particularly the vintage pieces.”
While Vevers and Luis have had a modern idea of luxury in mind in their reshaping of the Coach brand, it hasn’t stopped them looking back, either, with the seasonal collections – now expanded to comprise readyto-wear in a significant way – referencing a multitude of 20th-century American subcultures and styles. That has included, for example, looks inspired by “Kennedy boys
meet Beach Boys meet Beastie Boys”, 70s bohemia, Elvis and Andy Warhol, all of them channelled through wearable wardrobe staples – denim jeans, embroidered bomber jackets, leather biker jackets, lacy slip dresses – that perfectly frame the core accessories offering.
In the 75th anniversary show – a combination of autumn 2017 menswear and pre-autumn womenswear, as is the new custom for combined shows – Vevers presented yet another vision of America, this time tapping into the unique nature of Coach’s home. “New York City is a cultural melting pot that embraces individuality and celebrates togetherness,” the designer said after the show, which featured the Young People’s Chorus of New York City in an a capella arrangement of Empire State of Mind. “It welcomes outsiders, like me, in a way that’s honest and uncontrived. Those values are more important today than ever as well as being relevant to our goal of making Coach the authentic, modern luxury alternative.”
The result was a 70s-tinged collection (the set was lined with classic cars) that will find broad appeal: silk bombers emblazoned with “Harlem”, sequinned T-shirts, spaceship intarsia, suede sneakers and shearling parkas. Ready-to-wear is still secondary to accessories as a business for Coach, but it’s worth noting the speed at which Vevers has developed such a successful line of clothing to accompany the bags. “There’s no better space for us to be in than the handbag and accessory categories,” Luis says. “It’s still one of the most important investment decisions consumers make for their wardrobe. There has been this cyclical shift from apparel to accessories ... fast fashion [has been] able to offer very accessible alternatives, which frees up more spend for investment pieces that they can wear every day and that are season-less, and certainly one of those decisions is a handbag. But as well as this, we’re excited by the footwear and outerwear categories, too, all three of which represent an $US80 billion [$10bn] market.”
But where other accessible luxury fashion brands, such as Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, have moved into the accessories market, Coach has been steadily expanding its offering in line with a growing skill set. In 2015, Coach Inc., the brand’s parent company, purchased high-end women’s footwear brand Stuart Weitzman, which boasts more than 100 company-operated retail stores and a wholesale footprint in more than 70 countries, for a reported $US574 million. (“We’re good at making handbags, and they’re very good at making shoes, so it’s exciting to leverage that expertise,” says Luis, who is also CEO of the parent company.) In December the Financial Times reported that British luxury super-brand Burberry had turned down repeated takeover offers from Coach. And just last month the brand acquired competitor Kate Spade in a deal reportedly worth $US2.4bn.
The label’s transformation is perhaps most evident in what it has dubbed Coach House, its newly unveiled flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Just south of the metal barricades and crowds milling around Trump Tower – where Gucci and Tiffany & Co. languish behind layers of police security – stands the brand’s 2000sqm retail space, designed by architect William Sofield in collaboration with Vevers. It seems perhaps redundant to make such a significant financial investment in bricksand-mortar retail in an age of e-commerce – particularly for a brand that appears to be targeting the children of its existing clientele – but Luis sees the strategy as sound.
“It’s a wonderful paradox,” he admits. “I consider the digital world, e-commerce and social media to be a very relevant way for us to sell product to consumers who choose that channel, but there is something unique about telling a brand’s story in a physical space. Obviously we wouldn’t reproduce this in 1000 locations around the world, but to have a laboratory like this where we can engage with our customers, where it’s about touching and feeling and seeing – the live experience – where our customer can understand our history and experience our collaborations and see the collections in full, that for me is often very foreign in retail. We want people to experience the warmth of what Coach is.”
Referencing Coach’s original store on Madison Avenue, which in turn referenced the New York Public Library, Sofield – known for his work with Bottega Veneta and Tom Ford, among others – has turned away from the bright, white interiors for which Coach had become known in favour of more warmth: yellow light, tactile materials and unique artwork fill the multi-level space. A blackened steel and concrete steel staircase, a glass-enclosed vintage elevator, bespoke cabinetry, wool carpets and leather finishes are all housed within a glassbrick façade. And as with Vevers’ collections, there’s irreverence: in its centre atrium stands a 4m sculpture of the house’s new dinosaur mascot, Rexy, created by artist Billie Achilleos entirely from Coach bags.
A key feature of Coach House in both New York and London is a made-to-order workshop, an innovation that capitalises on the brand’s history of leather craftsmanship. Customers are offered monogramming and personalisation, an exhibition of the brand’s vintage product, and the opportunity to create a bespoke version of Coach’s “Rogue” bag, selecting from nine points of customisation with more than a million possible combinations. You might put your initials on a wallet, or have a metallic Empire State Building hot-stamped on your overnight bag. “This is all about redefining luxury, which for us is about quality craftsmanship and authenticity. This is the best way to offer a new and modern view of fashion that is, above all, approachable, one that’s not stuff, but represents our values.”
“New York City welcomes outsiders, like me. Those values are more important today than ever.”