Hand­bags & Hol­ly­wood: Coach’s new di­rec­tion.

Pitch­ing at the ‘ac­ces­si­ble lux­ury’ niche, Coach cre­ative di­rec­tor Stu­art Vev­ers com­bines qual­ity crafts­man­ship with a quirky vi­sion in­spired by the movies

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De­spite a price tag of $15.8 bil­lion and an­nual turnover of $6bn this year, the head­quar­ters of Amer­i­can fash­ion gi­ant Coach aren’t es­pe­cially plush. For­get high-end Fifth Av­enue, or Sev­enth — col­lo­qui­ally known as Fash­ion Av­enue — where other rag-traders send sky­scrapers soar­ing. Coach in­stead crouches on Man­hat­tan’s West 34th Street un­der the High Line, a 2.3km stretch of dis­used rail­way that’s now an aerial walk­way.

Coach’s ex­ec­u­tive cre­ative di­rec­tor Stu­art Vev­ers (that’s head de­signer to ev­ery­one out­side of a board­room) walks the High Line to work ev­ery day. He also likes to show his wom­enswear col­lec­tions atop it. The first three were rather static affairs. The lat- est, in Septem­ber, was a cat­walk show staged in­side a glass box, with a grassy prairie as a back­drop.

It was an in­trigu­ingly in­con­gru­ous spec­ta­cle, set against the grey New York sky­line, just as Vev­ers him­self is a touch out of place at Coach, at least on pa­per. He’s a 42-year-old Brit, born and bred in Don­caster, with slightly flat­tened vow­els to show for it. He was only trans­planted to New York, where he lives in a pic­ture-per­fect brown­stone with his il­lus­tra­tor hus­band, in 2013, and still dresses down in sweat­shirt and jeans.

Vev­ers nev­er­the­less knows lux­ury. He stud­ied at the Univer­sity of West­min­ster and moved up ca­reer rungs at a se­ries of lux­ury goods houses in Mi­lan, Lon­don and Paris. His last stint be­fore Coach was at the LVMH-owned lux­ury leather house Loewe, where he in­jected the 149-year-old la­bel with a glossy panache that helped shift lots of hand­bags.

Vev­ers’s gig at Coach is quite dif­fer­ent. Those Loewe bags came with a price-tag of around $3000 each; Coach pitches it­self at a mar­ket dubbed “ac­ces­si­ble lux­ury”, with its bags av­er­ag­ing $700. In a fash­ion world sat­u­rated with ex­treme lux­ury, choos­ing those price points has paid div­i­dends.

With a few days to go be­fore his spring-sum­mer 2016 show (the col­lec­tion drops in store next month), Vev­ers is head down in the Coach stu­dio as he puts the fin­ish­ing touches to out­fits and tweaks gar­ments. “Ac­ces­si­ble isn’t just about price,” he tells me as he paws through the ref­er­ences for his show. For this sea­son, he has fixed on Bad­lands, the 1973 movie di­rected by Ter­rence Mal­ick and star­ring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young out­laws on the run in the Amer­i­can West. This comes through in the show’s set and in the bleached long grass that mod­els brushed their way through.

The Bad­lands ethic was there in the clothes, too, the straight-off-Sissy high-col­lared prairie blouses, the flo­ral dresses, the leather jack­ets ap­pliqued with a desert land­scape that looked like a cross be­tween a

‘I like to be quite down-to-earth about de­sign, but I like to have fun with it’

Looney Tunes car­toon and an embroidered cow­boy suit by Nudie, the rodeo tai­lor.

Vev­ers likes films. His vi­sion for Coach is of­ten coloured by an out­sider’s idea of Amer­ica, in­formed (he says) by the movies he watched as a teenager. The run­away hit of his first col­lec­tion was a jumper sport­ing a knit­ted in­tar­sia of the Apollo space rocket, in­spired by the one worn by the char­ac­ter of Danny Tor­rance, the child in The Shin­ing.

At Coach, Vev­ers is a world away from the Euro­pean lux­ury houses he’s more used to, al­though he cut his teeth in New York as a fresh-from-col­lege foundling work­ing for Calvin Klein be­fore he had even grad­u­ated in 1996. “Af­ter a cou­ple of years I re­alised that I needed to be back in Europe, to go to the next stage,” he says. “I specif­i­cally wanted to work in Italy, be­cause I wanted to learn about how things were made.”

In 1998 Vev­ers was head­hunted by Laura Moltedo, who was look­ing to re­vive her Vi­cenza-based, fam­ily-owned leather house Bottega Veneta. The urge was to “do a Gucci”, the la­bel whose for­tunes were spec­tac­u­larly re­sus­ci­tated in the mid-1990s un­der cre­ative di­rec­tor Tom Ford (Gucci Group would pur­chase Bottega Veneta in 2001).

“She wanted a big change,” Vev­ers re­calls of Moledo. “I don’t re­mem­ber ever be­ing given a spe­cific brief, but I re­mem­ber be­ing told, ‘Just do what you want to do, go for it.’ ” He did — as did the rest of the Bottega Veneta team, in­clud­ing a now stel­lar list of Bri­tish fash­ion names: de­signer Giles Dea­con manned the wom­enswear; Katie Hillier dealt with some ac­ces­sories; and stylist Katie Grand, now cre­ative di­rec­tor of Marc Jacobs and editor-in-chief of Conde Nast’s Love, pulled the whole look to­gether.

Vev­ers cracks an in­fec­tious grin talk­ing about those times and the hand­bags he de­signed. Th­ese in­cluded a sil­ver record case too heavy to be lifted, a gui­tar case in Bottega’s sig­na­ture wo­ven leather, and a $30,500 blue crocodile brief­case that took its cue from the an­ti­hero of Amer­i­can Psy­cho, Pa­trick Bate­man (who car­ried his knives in a Bottega at­tache case). “We all kind of clicked as a group,” Vev­ers says. “We all started go­ing to the same bars and clubs. It just seemed like an in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity and we did have so much fun.”

Bottega Veneta was Vev­ers’s break­through: the work got his name no­ticed and led to stints de­sign­ing ac­ces­sories for Givenchy and Louis Vuit­ton, and even­tu­ally to the role of cre­ative di­rec­tor with Bri­tish brand Mul­berry, where he added cloth­ing to his re­mit. That led to Loewe and fi­nally to Coach, where Vev­ers re­calls that his orig­i­nal pitch for the top job in­cluded the ad­di­tion of a men’s and women’s ready-to-wear line, the first for the la­bel, which turns 75 this year.

Vev­ers is over­see­ing the whole she­bang at Coach but it’s bags that he’s re­ally known for. He won the Bri­tish Fash­ion Coun­cil’s Ac­ces­sory De­signer of the Year award in 2006. You’re el­i­gi­ble for this only if you’re based in Lon­don, which is the only log­i­cal rea­son why the for­merly France and now New York-based Vev­ers has not swept the board since.

He re­vived in­ter­est in Bottega Veneta’s in­tri­cate, in­ter­wo­ven in­trec­ciato leather, a 1970s relic brought bang up to date in neon colours, with, mem­o­rably, a slash of spray-paint. While at Mul­berry (where he picked up that 2006 ac­co­lade), he re­tooled the brand’s Bayswa­ter tote, adding a cage of leather around it for de­signer Luella Bart­ley’s cat­walk show: it sold by the shed­load. He re­designed the Ama­zona bag for Loewe, and sold a load more. At Coach, he’s added a slew of bags with names like Ace or Swag­ger, the epit­ome of girl gangs. His lat­est bags are quirky but af­ford­able, patch­worked totes and chain-strapped shoul­der-bags. At around $1200, they’re set to fly out ahead of ri­vals that cost 10 times as much.

All that talk of sales and num­ber-crunch­ing is of­ten con­sid­ered slightly dis­taste­ful in fash­ion but Vev­ers is the rare in­stance of a de­signer gen­uinely in­ter­ested in what sells and to whom. “I think — es­pe­cially in the last year or so — there’s a de­sire for re­al­ity,” he says. “It’s very ex­cit­ing for me to see a great edi­to­rial in a mag­a­zine, but it’s also su­per ex­cit­ing to see some­one walk­ing down the street in a coat or a jacket or a bag or a shoe, and you can’t see that un­less you get it at the right price or get it into a store where peo­ple can buy it. I’ve of­ten gone up to peo­ple at par­ties — when I’ve had a few drinks — and said, ‘I did your bag’ or, ‘I worked on that dress’. I think that’s as much a thrill as any of the rest of it.”

Vev­ers’s is a di­verse, in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal CV, mov­ing from a rel­a­tively niche world of Euro­pean lux­ury to an Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion with al­most 1000 stores in the US alone; in Aus­tralia it has seven ac­ces­sories-driven stores and five con­ces­sions within David Jones, with ready-to-wear avail­able via its store at Mel­bourne’s Em­po­rium flag­ship. Nev­er­the­less, Vev­ers in­sists that his at­ti­tude to the la­bels he’s led hasn’t var­ied much. “I like to be quite down-to-earth about de­sign, but I like to have fun with it. I think I ap­proach things in quite an un­pre­ten­tious way. If we end up cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful, I don’t think peo­ple nec­es­sar­ily need to know the process. It’s more, ‘Is there some­thing good in front of you?’ ”

So what’s good, for Vev­ers? “I think my own aes­thetic is very much about that com­bi­na­tion of some­thing sexy and cool and youth­ful, mixed with real proper crafts­man­ship,” he re­sponds. “You can’t have one with­out the other.”

It’s that mix that has won Vev­ers’s Coach not only crit­i­cal ac­claim but le­gions of new fans. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see where he steers it next.

MITCHELL SAMS

Clock­wise from main pic­ture, three de­signs from Coach’s Bad­lands

in­spired spring-sum­mer 2016 col­lec­tion; some of the la­bel’s hand­bags from the same show; de­signer Stu­art Vev­ers

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