The Cult of Coach

The magic, logic and whimsy behind the accessory leader's winning streak

Would you believe the story of American accessories empire Coach began with a baseball glove? The patina of a perfectly worn catcher’s mitt inspired the company, which was founded in 1941 by a husband-and-wife team in a Manhattan loft. Today, it has morphed into a global favourite with fervent admirers who haunt stores waiting for monthly shipments, model extensive Coach collections on their blogs and Tweet the creative team new style requests. Indeed, for many fashion lovers, Coach is their first real taste of luxury, priced significantly more affordably than its runway counterparts. It’s a formula that is working brilliantly. Thanks to executive creative director Reed Krakoff’s chic-accessibility strategy, profits soared 26 percent in the last reported quarter.

Today, Coach is as coveted on the streets of British Columbia as it is in Bahrain. Despite this international audience, company headquarters are quintessential New York: a historical fashion district building with panoramic views of the Hudson River. It’s here that a design team led by Krakoff, in close collaboration with executive vice-president of merchandising Jody Kuss, dreams up the next need-it-now bag. For spring, satchel styles in honeysuckle (Pantone’s colour of the year) and Cape Cod-weekend sea-green totes are sure to cause a tizzy—Coach fans love taking to Twitter to discuss wish lists and ask for handbag care tips, which are all answered in a personable, girlfriend-like manner. The often whimsical ideas for new collections are gleaned everywhere from flea markets to art galleries. “Over the last decade we’ve morphed into a much more playful, spirited luxury brand,” explains Kuss, a statuesque blond whose combination of glamour and disarming friendliness suggests she’s taken the Coach adherence to approachable luxury to heart. “We’re looking to delight our customers with an element of surprise.”

Balancing novelty with classic design is Coach’s current MO. Thankfully, the company’s archives are a style gold mine. They provided the spark for the label’s latest hit, the Kristin, a bag in a variety of styles including an elegant hobo, available in many eccentric iterations such as eye-popping brights, embossed python and ikat. Unlike other labels that place emphasis on just one iconic handbag, Coach flips the equation: Why not get yourself a new bag for every look? The zeitgeist has shifted away from that idea of the It bag. Says Kuss, “People are still gravitating to the great tote or saddle bag, but women want their own individual style.”

Along with its adherence to tradition, Coach is firmly entrenched in social media. Last year the brand asked four fashion bloggers to design youthful, limited-edition bags for a line called Coach Collectibles. This year, its Guest Blogger series invites online fashion minds to style Coach staples their way. “A bold sense of style, a love for the brand and an engaged readership were all important considerations when selecting these bloggers,” says David Duplantis, who heads the label’s global web and digital media initiatives. As Coach enters its 70th year, the company is in the midst of blowout anniversary celebrations, the launch of a fourth women’s fragrance late this summer and boutiques in the Bay stores across the country plus, of course, creating a slew of bags to suit every whim. When asked to sum up Coach’s winning strategy, Kuss doesn’t miss a beat. “The combination of magic and logic,” she says, “taking the heritage and DNA of Coach and marrying that with something really fun.”