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

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.”

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