Coach's new direction

When American leather goods house Coach first debuted a line of women's bags in 1962, it hit an accessories sweet spot by providing quality leather carryalls at a price more attainable than its high-end designer counterparts at the time.

In the 70-odd years since its founding in 1941, the brand has gone through a host of ups and downs - developing iconic looks, such as the duffle bag and turn-lock hardware, and growing into a global presence.

At the same time, it became known for an overabundance of "CC" logo goods and becoming an ubiquitous presence in outlet stores.

This fall marks a new chapter for Coach, with the launch of the first collection under new creative director Stuart Vevers, formerly of Spanish brand Loewe and British label Mulberry, where the 41-year-old led the design teams.

For starters, the brand will feature more clothes than accessories for this collection - 70 per cent will be made up of apparel, while 30 per cent will consist of bags and shoes.

Previously, Coach apparel comprised a minority of the product (the company declined to reveal figures) and offerings consisted mainly of outerwear.

The stronger emphasis on clothes is part of the larger brand strategy to become a luxury lifestyle brand across categories.

The chance to do something new is what drew Vevers to Coach. "Ready-to-wear was new for Coach and in many ways that helped, because it was a blank canvas," he says.

"The idea of something different excited me. Something that was more democratic and more approachable was definitely an appeal.

"I was very happy at Loewe but I found this opportunity intriguing. And I always want to keep learning."

He was at the Spanish luxury house for six years before leaving to join Coach last October.

The British designer, who took over from American designer Reed Krakoff at the brand, says in a phone interview from New York: "This collection is definitely about rediscovering what makes Coach unique and looking at the soul of the brand. Coming from New York, there's an effortless, understated feel to Coach mixed in with something vibrant and modern. A cool girl essentially."

The collection, which ranges from $425 for a skirt to $3,500 for a coat, hits stores here at the end of next month. About seven key looks from the collection will be available here. The pieces were inspired by utilitarian workwear, with references ranging from a fireman to a sheep herder.

Ranging from skirts to sweaters, they come in rich autumnal shades including red, brown, black and mustard yellow, feature luxe leathers as well as textural details such as shearling.

In terms of heritage, the designer delved into the archives to look at the work of innovative Coach designer Bonny Cashin, who popularised the turn-lock and outside pockets of the bags in the early years of the brand.

But it was also important not to get too reverential about the past, explains Vevers. "I actually referenced some pieces from the archives when we were first starting but they didn't feel new enough," he says.

"As great as an archive is, it's a moment to research and explore and then turn away and really look ahead."

As part of the brand reset, Vevers is paring down the logo as well, into a horse and carriage symbol alone, rather than pairing it with the brand name as it was previously used.

TAPPING NEW MARKETS

Coach is still a major player in the accessories market, with a 23 per cent share of the United States handbag market, according to Bloomberg earlier this month.

But sales have been slipping. In January, the company reported a net sales decline of 3.6 per cent to US$2.57 billion (S$3.2 billion) for the second half of 2013 compared with the same period prior.

For fall, the key bag Vevers designed is the Rhyder, which features new tool belt details, such as riveting, along with Coach elements such as the turn-lock, oversized zipper and hanging tag.

It uses bolder hardware in various silhouettes and material accents, such as shearling and suede.

As the brand takes on this new look, the risk of alienating its current broad customer base is admittedly present. But Vevers says it is something he does not spend time worrying about.

"I'm not overanalysing it. I'm using my instinct as a designer to do what I feel is right and to feel the time we're in," he says.

Instead, he hopes that customers will be drawn to the new collection, which has been described by brand executives as "modern luxury" as opposed to "accessible luxury".

Vevers explains, "For me, to be modern means having balance in your life. And one of the exciting things about Coach is that you get incredible value in the product."

"For example, you can also have a great dinner out or go away for the weekend," he says, referring to how buying a Coach product will not burn a hole in your pocket.

In New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, the brand will roll out newly renovated stores designed by Vevers and design agency Studio Sofield from November.

The look of the stores, which will eventually extend to other outlets, includes New York-inspired industrial elements.

The brand's fall/winter campaign ads, which were unveiled last month, also reflect the new direction of the brand by featuring a slew of up-and-coming models such as Lexi Bolin, Binx Walton, Vanessa Mood and Harleth Kuusik.

Previous Coach campaigns were fronted by top models Karlie Kloss, Liu Wen and Freja Beha Erichsen.

"I think it represents the idea of looking ahead and looking forward, talking to the next generation," Vevers says.

"It's about a fresh start."

llim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Aug 29, 2014.
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