Johnny Coca leads British label Mulberry’s comeback with bags of attitude

Spaniard behind some of Celine’s best bags has added sophistication, and studs, to floundering brand’s classic shapes. He explains his focus on production techniques, attitude and pricing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 9:00pm

Until two months ago it had been more than two years since Mulberry last staged a fashion show. The British fashion and accessories brand was left rudderless when creative director Emma Hill departed; then a new CEO, Bruno Guillon, made the ill-fated decision to reposition the brand with rapid expansion overseas – at a time when the Chinese market was looking especially lucrative to European designer brands – and then raised the price of its handbags. It was a disaster.

The brand ignored its core customer in Britain, where the receiving of one’s first Mulberry handbag is a rite of passage for a teenager, and 2015 pre-tax profits plummeted 87 per cent.

Now Thierry Andretta (formerly of Gucci and LVMH) has taken over as CEO and the talented creative director is Johnny Coca, the man responsible, alongside Phoebe Philo, for all Celine’s most successful bags over the past few years – notably the Trapeze and Daria bags – and the posh skater shoes.

Mulberry set to flourish anew under its new creative director Johnny Coca

His 15-year track record in prestige leather goods, which includes long spells at Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors (when the American was designing for Celine), emphasises Mulberry’s desire to win back its position as Britain’s premier accessory brand.

The 40-year-old Spaniard arrived at Mulberry in July 2015 and has been shaking things up ever since. Coca, a diminutive figure in a kilt and Doc Martens, made his catwalk bow in February. The first Coca-designed handbags and shoes hit Mulberry’s 122 stores worldwide in April.

We meet, just as the collection goes online, in a vast, characterless studio high up in Mulberry’s Kensington headquarters, but Coca more than fills the emptiness with his passion for his work. Quietly spoken, but very clearly switched on, he speaks enthusiastically about the brand’s heritage (it was founded in Somerset, southwest England, by Roger Saul in 1971) and about giving the bags a specific attitude. It is his job to translate that British heritage and attitude into something that will appeal to women across the world.

The Maple (a tote), the Clifton shoulder bag, the Chester city bag and revamped Bayswater have all been produced in the brand’s quaintly named Rookery and Willows factories in Somerset. Coca admits: “If the brand didn’t have factories I wouldn’t have accepted the job.” He has spent a long time over the past few months working with these craftsmen.

“It is important for me to know who is making my products and how they are doing it,” says Coca. “I explain to them my vision of the modernity in the construction of the bag, the selection of the leathers and the way it is stitched. I am trying to merge their experience and my own experience of making bags in France and Italy.”

One of the bags that came under his scrutiny was the Bayswater. “You can look at an old Bayswater and a new Bayswater and they look the same but are completely different in the way they’ve been constructed, the stitching [and] the edging. I am using a more contemporary way of construction.”

Construction, proportion and attitude are words that constantly pepper his conversation. At times Coca sounds more like an architect than an accessories designer, but there is a synergy between the two disciplines. “I love architecture, and furniture because everything about the construction and proportion has to be perfectly right.” That is a view he’s transposing to bags and clothes as well.

The new bags and shoes are more polished, refined and a little more sophisticated than the soft boho “It” girl vibe of the Alexa and Roxanne bags – traditional big hits for the brand. Punctuating the Clifton and Chester bags and the Marylebone ankle boots with studs gives them attitude. “I love bikers, I love tartan, I love so many British references,” enthuses Coca, who put models in sharply tailored wool capes and studded military coats over whimsical pleated dresses for his catwalk debut. The tough platform shoes ooze attitude with their shiny dark leathers, studs and rebellious use of neon yellow and orange laces. “They are hard, strong, punk rock colours,” explains Coca.

He has been living in London for the past five years while working in the Celine studio so is very in tune with British tastes. When he first came across Mulberry, it was at Barneys in New York several years ago: “I never saw so many girls with the Bayswater and thought it looked cool, well done and not too expensive.”

Given that Mulberry’s misfortunes were partly a result of mispricing, it is refreshing to see how knowledgable Coca is about different leathers and hardware, and the costs of the time spent in production, on packaging and even on the advertising. It turns out he was a dab number cruncher at school in Seville, where he was raised along with his two sisters, and led in maths, physics and biology rather than having the artistic education of most creative directors. So he ensures there are good- quality bags in the £500 to £1,000 (HK$5,500 yo HK$11,000) price bracket. “Pricing is important, as I don’t want to design things that stay in the boutique,” Coca says pointedly.

He is reluctant to predict what will be the next Mulberry icon. “Women in Asia might say they love this and in the UK they may love that. A handbag might be successful in one country and when you change the proportion and make it smaller it might do better in another country.”

However, we already know that the Maple tote bag that opened the February show has had strong feedback. With such a response, Mulberry hopes it has found a safe pair of hands in Johnny Coca.