FIRST-CLASS COACH

The travel brand has made a come­back with a women’s ready-to-wear col­lec­tion

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - News - STORY MITCHELL OAK­LEY SMITH

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

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