Back in June, when I went to New York for Coach’s summer party on the High Line, I also got to check out the archives. As it turned out, it was my first archive visit of any American brand actually. The American thing is worth hammering in. “Coach is really America’s house of leather,” said Stuart Vevers. And as a Brit, I don’t have that contextual background of childhood memories and heritage nous. If you’re old enough, you might be familiar with Coach’s combination of form and function pioneered by their first creative director, renowned American designer Bonnie Cashin, who helmed Coach from 1961 to 74. If you’re coming at it from a second-hand/vintage perspective, then even after Cashin’s departure, those classic shapes established in the 60s and 70s bled on into the 80s and 90s until the arrival of Reed Krakoff.
And that noughties period thereafter, which gave way to the logomania-fuelled ‘C’ monogram, is how I first became aware of Coach. Of course, since Vevers took over the creative direction of the brand, it’s been a deeper immersive journey for me. But still, my own scanty knowledge made the archive visit, guided by Coach’s senior archive manager Jed Winokur, extra enlightening. Set up in the mid 2000’s, the formalised archive is primarily a design resource for Coach’s design team to dip into on a regular basis. Wonkier joined Coach in 2009 and has since been tirelessly filling in the gaps, constantly scouring for Coach specimens to add to this collection of 20,000 pieces dating back to the beginning of the company, when six leatherworkers got together to make wallets in a workshop that was on the site of Coach’s current headquarters (they will be moving into a new building as part of Hudson’s Yard next year).
In 1950, Miles Cahn and his wife Lillian took over the business and began to use glove tanned cowhide leather for their men’s accessories and their newly introduced women’s handbags, inspired by the leather used to make baseball gloves and the way it softens and becomes weathered over time. “Glove tanned leather feels quite American to me,” said Vevers. “The fact that it’s got a weight and a heft to it.”
That hefty and durable leather became Coach’s signature well into the 70s. It had also acquired its horse and carriage logo in 1959, just before Cashin joined. That was perhaps when Coach really begun to blossom into the brand it is today. “She had such a big impact on shaping the company,” said Vevers. “The part that resonated with me was the 60s and 70x and that was the era was the golden period for leather brands in general.” Vevers noted that in every leather brand he has ever worked with (the list is exhaustive… Bottega Veneta, Loewe, Mulberry…), a vintage Coach bag would be loitering around in their source of inspiration. Looking at the Cashin-era of Coach, it’s easy to see why. Her “Cashin-Carry” collections for the brand were forward thinking in many respects.
“Make things as lightweight as possible, as simple as possible—as punchy as possible—as inexpensive as possible.” That was Cashin’s motto at Coach. Whilst she pared things back for simplicity’s sake, as seen in the utilitarian leather shopper totes and the one-handled sling bag, Cashin would also introduce design elements such as contrast piping, poppy colours and metal purse frames that meant Coach transitioned from being a men’s accessories brand to a fully fledged women’s one. Any element of whimsy was always anchored by function – as seen in the signature turnlock closure, which debuted in 1964 and was inspired by Cashin’s convertible top attachment. The array of shapes from this part of Coach’s archive is quite extraordinary. No wonder then that they’d inspire Vevers’ own work. Cashin’s “Courier Pouch” is the latest source of inspiration that gave way to the new Saddle bag, featured in the S/S 16 show, dubbed Coach 1941 as a way of marking the brand’s 75th Anniversary.
Cashin’s famous leather shopping tote, combining form with function.
An attached mini booklet telling the story of Coach’s leather tanning process
A lady’s flask purse sold in Coach’s shop-in-shop at Liberty in the 1960s
Cashin introduced high contrast bold colours, that were a departure from Coach’s previous tan and black offerings
The mono handled ‘Sling’
The ‘Bucket’ with a limited edition hang tag celebrating Bonnie Cashin’s award in 1968
The introduction of contrast piping in the 1960s
Cashin’s penchant for the purse metal frame
The ‘Double Entry’ bag
Self-branding of Coach was only introduced in the 1970s
Original Made in NYC embossed patch
The collection references to 1970s prairie girls chimes in nicely with the archive specimens we saw like the Duffle and Swag. Bags were becoming roomier and more carefree. More likely to be slung across the body (incidentally Cashin was the first designer to elongate straps and transform shoulder bags into cross body ones) than toted on the crook of the arm, this more casual attitude finds its way trickling into Vevers’ own point of view of the brand.
“Growing up in Doncaster, I experienced the American dream through film. There was a sense of positive and freedom that definitely affected how I see Coach. As an American brand, it’s already different from its European counterparts. It’s about a hand that’s more honest, less precious. There’s an ease and an effortlessness, as well as a playfulness.”
The ‘Duffle’ debuted in 1973 which was an instant hit for Coach
The 1973 ‘Courier Pouch’ that has been reinterpreted for S/S 16 as the ‘Saddle’ bag
The ‘Swag’ satchel
Strangely, it was Vever’s collaborative project with Junya Watanabe, one of the last projects he oversaw at Loewe, which really planted the seeds of change in his approach. “That really opened up my mind. I was always trying to make things perfect because that was my training in all the traditional European luxury houses I had worked at. But then Junya was like, “Leave it! It looks cool like that!’ At the same time, I had just met Coach and that project lingered on in my head. I thought to myself, it could be really interesting to do something that’s more free.”
That freedom can be seen in Vevers’ fashion language for Coach, specifically in its ready to wear, which has become a way of re-introducing a younger generation to the Coach brand. The bags however continue to retain the cornerstones of Coach’s archives, as Winokour bears witness to the design team coming in for inspiration. What comes around does seem to always go around. “When I first came to Coach, nobody wanted to touch the stuff in the 90s,” said Winokur, “Now they can’t stop going in there and looking at backpack styles.” As the archive shifts into Coach’s more recent history such as the aforementioned ‘C’ monogram styles and noughties bags that are heavy-on-the-hardware and dripping in exotic skins, it was funny to see how dated they look. And yet, you also wondered if that ostentatious style of accessory will have their moment in the spotlight again. Thus is the cyclical nature of fashion. “I’m a bit of a believer that ALL of your history is relevant,” said Vevers. “I wasn’t scared of the more recent things that Coach had done. It is something that enters people mindsets when they think of Coach. All of those moments are important.”
Coach classics in miniature made for a limited edition Barbie