No question, Coach is the all-American brand of the moment, but the fall ’16 collection includes a not-so-subtle nod to Canadiana: old-school iron-on hockey logos are featured prominently on slouchy varsity jackets. “I honestly know nothing about hockey,” says Coach creative director Stuart Vevers, who loves the patches because they’re graphic and colourful. But if the 42-year-old Englishman is lacking in jock credentials, he does know cool. Brought in three years ago to revamp Coach’s image and to create the brand’s first-ever complete clothing line (with a New York Fashion Week debut), Vevers sees the gig as an opportunity to redefine luxury for a new generation.
This year, Coach celebrates its 75th birthday. But really, there is so much more to fete: a new flagship store on Fifth Avenue; the ready-to-wear line, dubbed Coach 1941; a 15 percent increase in sales; and a distinct feeling of fashion-world relevance following the most successful style makeover since Kim met Kanye.
When he first started in 2013—coming off stints as creative director at Mulberry and Loewe—Vevers toured through Coach’s extensive accessory archives. There he discovered the sleek neutral pieces of the post-war era, when Coach began as a men’s range that included billfolds made of cowhide, inspired by a well-worn baseball glove; the explosion of rainbow-coloured leathers in the ’60s; the larger compartmentalized bags of the ’70s and ’80s (signalling the rise of women in the workplace); and the logo mania of the ’90s and ’00s (heralding the rise of one of fashion’s more regrettable chapters). “I looked and studied some of the story, and then I very quickly walked away,” says Vevers, whose challenge was figuring out how to weave the best parts of the company’s history into something that felt more today. The through-line he chose was American youth culture—the aesthetic and, even more so, the attitude—that came about in the ’40s, around the same time that Coach was founded as a family business in a Manhattan loft. “I always had this idea of the Coach gang—this group of kids hanging out together, personalizing a uniform to make it unique,” says Vevers, whose ethos is easily spotted in spring ’16’s prairie girl mix-and-match floral dresses and separates, or this season’s patch- and logo-embellished jackets and bags. “When I joined, people assumed I’d been brought on to do a really traditional European version of luxury,” he says, but Old World couldn’t have been further from his actual plan.
While fashion is often about exclusivity, Vevers is excited by the idea of attainable extravagance, or what he calls an “anti-status” statement. Fashion, he feels, may never escape today’s post-normcore reality—“if we say that T-shirts and sweatshirts and sneakers are acceptable to wear, it’s really hard to get people back into formal shoes and tailoring”—but Coach is well-positioned in it. “We can create a new paradigm, where a lower price point becomes positive—maybe there’s an appeal in that.”
His success so far is particularly impressive, given that Coach and cool parted ways around the time that Paris Hilton ditched Nicole Richie (or was it the other way around?). In the late ’90s, the label exploded along with it-bag culture. A Coach purse became an essential part of an ’00s power ward- robe that also included a Juicy Couture track suit, a trucker hat and a teacup dog. With increased popularity came rapid expansion. Initially good for sales, the aggressive retail growth cut into Coach’s cred, just as buzzy designers like Tory Burch and Michael Kors were upping the competition in the mid-level luxe market. Coach responded by leaning into its mall MO, with outlets, second-party licensing deals and fire sales. “When you market a luxury brand in the mainstream and oversaturate, then everybody has it and it’s not so luxurious,” says luxury retail analyst Sandy Silva at research firm NPD. “Coach has done a good job of pulling back and re-entering the market by increased attention to little details, subtle branding and craftsmanship.”
At its core, Vevers’ version of cool is about not trying too hard. See his affinity for unfussed construction and materials, in particular the suddenly chic shearling that has been a constant of Coach’s outerwear over the past few seasons. See also his use of bordering-on-basic cultural references like the Peanuts characters for a past accessory collab; and films like Rebel Without a Cause for the Gary Baseman–scribbled ’50s prints on the leather biker jackets in spring ’17’s menswear range. Growing up in South Yorkshire, Vevers’ early understanding
of American culture came by way of its movies and music. (He’s a big fan of Springsteen and has an un-ironic Disney obsession.) Vevers’ outsider status allows him to draw on American pop culture in a way that might seem corny from a homegrown designer.
He took a similar, let’s-not-overthink-this approach to all matters of the Coach reboot, from casting for campaigns to retail strategy. Recent advertising features faces like Chloë Grace Moretz and Kid Cudi, shot by Steven Meisel. Coach CEO Victor Luis recently announced plans to axe 250 of their 1,000 North American department store locations and expand and renovate others; Vevers insists that Coach boutiques should feel fun and relaxed—not the sort of museum-esque environment where you’re afraid to touch the bags. As for the purses themselves, in just a few seasons, Vevers has achieved the near impossible: turning the previously ubiquitous C-bags into an increasingly distant memory (logoed merchandise now makes up only five percent of sales). Instead, he has introduced instant classics like fall’s Rogue bag, a slouchier satchel with a python handle detail. This summer, Coach’s limited, wait-listed Disney collab—wristlets and shoulder bags with Mickey Mouse ears—was seen on Kate Moss (who sat front row with new boyfriend Nikolai von Bismarck at Coach’s recent Men’s Fashion Week debut).
Toronto-based fashion bloggers Cailli and Sam Beckerman are into it. “The energy around the Coach brand resonates because it’s filled with a lot of soul and a tad of badass,” say the stylish twins, who signed on as brand ambassadors last year and sported Coach dinosaur-motif bags on their site in July. Celebs, civilians—right now, everyone seems to be hankering for the simple pleasures of a hockey jacket, or a smile-inducing dino bag. “It doesn’t feel like a moment for overcomplicating and overdesigning,” says Vevers. “There’s a lot of noise out there, and I believe sometimes you need to be really obvious and get to the heart of the matter.”