Stuart Vevers modernises Coach by focusing on its American roots
Stuart Vevers brings Coach into the 21st century
Coach has been synonymous with accessories ever since it was founded in New York in 1941. But that all changed during New York Fashion Week in February, when the label unveiled its first ready-to-wear collection, designed by new creative director Stuart Vevers.
Many editors considered it a watershed moment for the accessories giant, which had lost popularity because of its saturation of the market, staid designs and lack of personality.
But as soon as they spotted the first few designs, they realised that Coach was moving in a promising new direction.
Paying homage to Americana, the collection featured classics updated with cool and covetable fashion details, such as denim jackets with removable shearling collars, toggle coats and leather fishermen jackets. An oversized coat in a red-and-black houndstooth print was chic and edgy.
Each outfit was matched with killer accessories, ranging from shearling-lined rubber sole wedges and fringed crossbody bags, to oversized clutches in trendy fabrics like shearling and suede. What's more, there was not a logo in sight. It was youthful, modern, and covetable - words that haven't been associated with Coach in a very, very long time.
"The collection told the story of where we wanted to go, and created an image of the new Coach girl. It's about how she looks from head-to-toe, and her attitude. It was an immediate way to tell a story .
"It was my opportunity to say, 'Look things are changing, it's a new time and new day'," says Vevers during his recent visit to Hong Kong for a collaboration with Lane Crawford.
While many were surprised when the 41-year-old Brit joined Coach in October last year, his track record proves that he was a natural fit for the job.
Vevers started his fashion career at Calvin Klein in 1996 as an accessories designer. He had a Midas touch with accessories, and went on to create best-selling bags for various brands, including Mulberry, Givenchy and Bottega Veneta. In 2006 he was crowned accessory designer of the year by the British Fashion Council.
His first creative director role came in 2008 when he was tasked with modernising Spanish luxury label Loewe, a traditional leather goods house itching for a sexy makeover. By the time Coach approached him several years later, he was ready for another challenge.
"People ask me why I joined Coach and I tell them that what I see in Coach is hopefully what other people will see in the brand in the future. As soon as I met the senior management, it was obvious that there was this real desire for change and that was very appealing to me.
"I was also drawn to it because it was different to what I had done before. I liked the idea of working in a different part of the luxury market.
"Coach has an unusual take on luxury, because it is offering a genuine authentic alternative to a traditional European luxury brand," he says. "There's something very honest about Coach, in that you want it and you can have it, as opposed wanting it because it is out of reach.
"There's something modern about that, it makes sense today," says Vevers.
His first task was to get to know the heritage and history of the brand. This meant delving into the archives, where he uncovered the work of one of Coach's most famous designers, Bonnie Cashin, who worked at the label in the 1960s and '70s. Cashin is credited with inventing the tote bag.
"She was so forward thinking and you could clearly see her influence in the archives. Her work was very playful: lighthearted with lots of colour. She liked taking things from unexpected places - she was the first to take utility and function and bring them into the world of luxury," says Vevers.
"I noted how the juxtaposition of utility and luxury became a big part of the first collection. I brought back certain elements to the bags that fans will love, things like the quality of the leather and details like the turn lock, which is amped up, elongated and doubled."
Another element of Coach that Vevers wanted to highlight was the brand's American roots. As a foreigner he was able to view the references from a fresh perspective.
As a result, his collections reinterpret certain elements of Americana with a cool irreverence and plenty of attitude. Take creations such as autumn's bestselling Rhyder bag, a functional crossbody bag, which embodies the American Midwest and downtown New York with workwear detailing inspired by tool belts.
"Coach is a global brand, but I am inspired by looking at the things that are close to Coach - New York city, and the cultures and subcultures of the US," he says.
"I am influenced by wherever I go, but there's so much material to explore in the US. There's something about referencing America that makes it feel authentic.
"If you think of American fashion, it's very relaxed; it's all about ease, and that in itself is a new angle to luxury," he says.
With this in mind, he decided to launch a limited-edition line of handbags that combined American pop culture with Coach's fine leather.
The recently launched Coach X Peanuts collection features a series of bags and accessories made in the label's original glove-tanned leather, which is then embossed with drawings of America's beloved comic strip characters Snoopy and the Peanuts cast.
The designs are unexpected, fun and surprisingly stylish.
"Admittedly, a cartoon is not exactly luxury, but I wanted to surprise our customers with pieces that are limited and feel special. I saw it as a real challenge to put these two worlds together and still get a feeling of luxury.
"Snoopy is kind of sulky, with bit of an attitude, while the other characters have an edge. It's not all sweetness and light.
"The project is about a big brand acting with an intimate voice, and I definitely want to do more of that. We plan to release more collections in this vein," he says.
Vevers has big plans for the brand. Along with a slick new advertising campaign shot by acclaimed photographer Steven Miesel, he wants to overhaul the stores, which will feature unique elements in different cities.
China is, of course, a big part of the plan - currently Coach has 136 stores in 55 cities on the mainland, and aims to open 20 more there next year.
Vevers also plans to work on the menswear collection, which will be unveiled in January.
He is determined to bring on board new collaborators and creatives in his mission to help restore Coach to its former glory.
"I want people to say I pushed Coach forward. That is what drives me - it's about what's next. Why else would I work in fashion?" he says.