The travel brand has made a comeback with a women’s ready-to-wear collection
How do you radically reposition the image of a big-name fashion brand? Swiftly, if Stuart Vevers’ approach is anything to go by. Since joining American brand Coach as creative director in late 2013, Vevers has radically overhauled everything we thought we knew about the brand: gone is the ubiquitous circular iconography and in its place discreet, cool pieces favoured by It-girls; bit by bit, too, is the redesign of its stores, replacing the stark white palette and high-gloss finishes with a more weathered, authentic interior of dark wood and steel. “The thing that I felt most strongly about was rediscovering what made Coach unique, and to me that was its [different approach] to luxury,” explained Vevers in his office, high above the Hudson River on New York’s west side. “This is an opportunity to be different to Europe rather than follow it. Coach should be genuine, authentic, relaxed and modern. It probably sounds quite bold.”
Indeed, bold might be an understatement. In a fastmoving, crowded market, Coach had largely fallen out of favour in recent years, its heavy-handed branding having come to represent Middle American mall culture. But with the trickle-down effect that exists in the luxury game, sales have been slowing there, too, with fashion moving towards the streamlined and discreet, led by Raf Simons at Christian Dior and Nicolas Ghesquiere at Louis Vuitton in recent seasons. The age of excess has, inevitably, come to an end. Beyond tectonic sartorial shifts, however, Coach, once the leader in the accessible luxury market, has faced increasing competition on its home turf, with the likes of Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade increasing their accessories offerings with vigour. Given that the US accounts for two-thirds of Coach’s revenue, it is unsurprising that, as of the close of last year, its sales had sharply declined for a sixth consecutive quarter, cutting its profits by nearly half.
But this does not reflect on Vevers’ tenure; although he presented his debut collection for the brand almost a year ago, the pieces didn’t really hit stores until September, and while it’s undoubtedly going to take some time for existing clientele to comprehend the new direction — although, as Vevers says, “I think it’s important not to underestimate the customer” — and for a new customer base to emerge, Vevers should be commended for his creative turnaround of the Coach brand. As the company’s president of international and North American wholesale Giorgio Sarne says, “Stuart has taken Coach’s tradition and heritage and reinvented it for a new audience.”
After the departure last year of creative director Reed Krakoff after 16 years in the job, Vevers was announced as the brand’s executive creative director. “I’m always intrigued by a challenge,” says Vevers. “I first met with the management team out of curiosity, but then I started thinking about it more and more, and at a certain point it became obvious I had no choice: I had to do this now because I’d gone there in my mind.” And he comes to the brand with rich experience in the market, particularly given his movement around the globe. Born in Britain, the 41-year-old got his start in accessories at Calvin Klein and then worked stints at Bottega Veneta, Givenchy and, alongside Marc Jacobs, at Louis Vuitton. In 2005, however, Vevers stepped into the spotlight as the creative director of British leathergoods house Mulberry. He transformed the label, collaborating with Luella Bartley, and Giles Deacon, and was named the British Fashion Council’s Designer of the Year in 2006. The following year he joined Spanish leathergoods label Loewe, now helmed by Jonathan Anderson, as creative director.
Vevers knew the Coach brand well before joining it, having admired its vast archive from afar at other accessory houses. “Coach has always been a reference, particularly the vintage pieces, so I had a certain knowledge of the heritage of the brand and some of its products when I got here.” And although he has spent time digging through that collection of three-quarters of a century — “you find out a lot of new nuggets of information, a lot of gems” — Vevers’ approach hasn’t been to look back, but to offer something new altogether. “Once I started to play with the archive pieces I decided that it wasn’t going to be something that I explored for the collection; it just didn’t feel new enough and I really wanted to communicate the point that this is a reset, a change.”
While the brand’s accessories have changed significantly, it’s the development of a ready-to-wear collection that has been the greatest evolution. Of course, Coach already boasted a few pieces of clothing, like leather jackets, in some of its stores, but it never seemed like a great focus, which makes Vevers’ decision all the more daring. “In my initial conversations with management I said ‘look, we work in the fashion world, we need to be part of that conversation’. Coach will always be a leathergoods brand, and it’s not about moving away from that, but ready-to-wear allows you to tell a story, to give your customer an attitude.”
Like his former boss Jacobs at Louis Vuitton back in the mid-1990s, Vevers was charged with creating a clothing collection from scratch with only bags for reference, a challenge he faced by channelling the spirit of the customer he had in mind. “Finding the starting
“I WANTED EVERY PIECE TO FEEL LIKE YOU COULD ONLY FIND IT AT COACH, SO IT WASN’T ABOUT SUPPLYING ESSENTIALS”
point was really important, and combining utility with luxury seemed very quickly like the only answer for Coach. I thought [the customer] should be cool, I thought she needed to have this ease and attitude, and a feeling of New York, because it’s so special that this brand started in this city.”
In sartorial terms, Vevers looked to the hallmarks of American style — leather jackets, denim jeans, and sneakers — and reinvented them for a contemporary audience. For his debut autumn collection, the first complete ready-to-wear line for Coach, the brand’s offering read as a best of American fashion, with covetable, wearable pieces like varsity jackets, shearling-lined rubber boots and knitted sweaters, all crafted from high quality fabrics and finished free of overt branding and in an understated colour palette of black, beige and burnt orange. His spring collection continued that story, offering a 70s, mid-west-inspired collection of pastel-hued shaggy coats, platform slip-ons and flared pants that took cues from street tribe cultures, such as the surf and skate scenes. “I really wanted every piece to feel like you could only find it at Coach, so it wasn’t about supplying wardrobe basics or essentials,” Vevers says. “Our stores at that time didn’t really have room for much clothing so every piece had to count. Developing the collection is giving [Coach] a personality, a point of view on style.”
While Vevers has presented three women’s collections, the menswear side of the business remained relatively untouched until January, when he presented a fuller collection with a significant overhaul of its accessories styles. And like the womenswear collections, Vevers looked to American icons — Steve McQueen, The Beastie Boys and Gus Van Sant included — for inspiration, delivering a well-received range of camouflage-printed leather sneakers and tote bags, leather backpacks, shearling-lined motorcycle jackets, and padded bomber jackets. “The collection reinforces the story that started with the women’s collections last fall, elevating the familiar, exploring the tension between utility and luxury with craftsmanship that’s driven by functionality,” Vevers said following the presentation. “[These are] pieces that you know, reinterpreted with a new hand … with a luxury perspective.”
Rather than just offering a new take on product, Vevers wants to shift the entire perception of the brand through that 21st century retail concept: experience. Late last year the brand unveiled Coach Backstage, which, like the Burberry Acoustic project, promotes emerging musical talent on the Coach website. It is, Vevers says, a way of giving back to the creative form that inspires much of his work. Another project is a series of collaborations with artists, reproducing illustrations on Coach products. Coach has done this before, with New York artists James Nares and Hugo Guinness, but Snoopy and Charlie Brown are more universally recognisable when splashed across leathergoods, and making Parisian boutique Colette the sole stockist gave the release a sense of exclusivity. “I like the idea of an intimate voice from a big brand, of having special, limited edition pieces only
available in certain stores, the idea of discovery,” Vevers says. “We’re going to have many projects like this in the future.”
In tandem with his debut womenswear collection, Vevers’ first order of business was a redesign of the Coach retail environment, for which he engaged New York architecture firm Studio Sofield. “The store is one of the most important elements of a strong brand,” says Vevers, “You can do incredible product but if the store environment doesn’t tempt you, doesn’t inspire you to walk through the door and part with your hard-earned cash, then all of that work is for nothing.” William Sofield is perhaps best known for his work with luxury powerhouses Tom Ford, Bottega Veneta and Gucci, all of which boast warm, textural interiors, with ebony wood fixtures and rich grey carpets. Given his exclusive portfolio of clients, Sofield was initially reluctant to take on Coach, but Vevers had his mind set. “I knew exactly who I wanted to work with when I arrived here. I was an obsessive of Tom Ford for Gucci when I was a bit younger, and with William being based in New York City it seemed like a really obvious choice to me. But I really had to pitch for him to feel good about being part of this, which made it even more worthwhile in the end.”
The rollout of new stores began with the Los Angeles flagship on the luxury strip of Rodeo Drive, and, as with the subsequent stores, such as those in New York and Tokyo, revolves around what Vevers describes as “honest materials”: tiles inspired by those of an old carriage house, pine flooring, glass brick facades and exposed steel beams. “The stores reflect all of the references that we played with in the first season. We asked what luxury meant to an American brand, and wanted to created spaces that felt luxurious and plush but offset them with industrial codes that give them a rawness, an honesty.”
According to some of the brand’s managers in those revitalised stores, foot traffic is on the up as a result, but cleverly, Coach is rolling out the new design concept steadily, a conscious approach so as to not alienate its existing customer base. “It’s definitely a challenge coming into a new brand, but there’s no reason why the new product that we’ve created for Coach that has a fashion point of view can’t be inspiring for our existing customers. It’s just that you need to be aware that not everyone wants to go through a seachange as quickly.”
Boasting nearly 20 stores in Australia, Coach recently opened another in Melbourne’s Emporium. In Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building, Coach has annexed its menswear offering into a separate space, introducing the brand’s permanent shoe collection, with classic loafers, double-monk-straps and Chelsea boots.
According to Sarne, Coach is a top-five brand in most Asian countries where the company directly operates its business, and he believes Coach can become a mid-level luxury market leader, increasing its international sales, which currently account for 35 per cent of the company’s total sales. “Introducing new categories, solidifying our position in the fastest-growing markets and entering new markets is important,” Sarne says.
Such desire for change is rare, Vevers says, “and that’s really exciting. People are already coming into the stores expecting it, buying it, so we’re off to a good start.”
“YOU CAN DO INCREDIBLE PRODUCT BUT IF THE STORE ENVIRONMENT DOESN’T TEMPT ... ALL OF THAT WORK IS FOR NOTHING”
Vevers created a womenswear collection from scratch based on his idea of the Coach customer: ‘she needed to have this ease and attitude, and a feeling of New York City’
From Vevers’ spring-summer 2015 womenswear line, and the autumn-winter menswear shown in January