Coach House: Where Past Meets Present and Fashion Historians Geek Out
In the early 1950s, Coach founder Miles Cahn, was an avid fan of America’s favorite pastime and adored the look and feel of a well-worn baseball glove. Cahn was inspired to create a line of handbags using the same tanning process as the high-quality gloves. The leather he created wore well and was soft, supple, and strong. Cahn was fond of saying, “If it can withstand a 90-mph pitch, it can certainly hold your stuff!” The leather, which would become known as “Glove Tanned Leather”, helped to establish Coach as the premier American leather brand, a reputation they maintained for decades. In the mid-2000s, the company, due to various circumstances, began to experience a decline in sales and in consumer impact. The brand was seen by many as oversaturated, unoriginal, and past its prime. This decline continued until recently, when the brand has come back in a big, big way.
The New York-based company has experienced quite a Renaissance since Stuart Vevers took over as Creative Director in 2013. Much of their success can be attributed to a return to the roots of the company and to the appeal to Millennial shoppers through young celebrity brand ambassadors. The brand currently boasts brand endorsements from Selena Gomez, Chloe Grace Moretz, and James Franco. Their most recent collection draws inspiration from classic pieces in the brand, with form and function for the modern woman. The New York City global flagship, Coach House, on Fifth Avenue, serves as a testament to that inspiration.
Recently, during a strategy meeting with the Coach team, I noticed that on the second floor of the beautifully-detailed store is a mini-archive of iconic pieces from the brand’s past. There are bags from nearly every decade of Coach’s history, some even designed by the iconic first designer, Bonnie Cashin. The pieces are currently on loan from a much larger archive located at the Coach Corporate Headquarters that houses over 25,000 items from Coach’s history to be used as inspiration for the designers and creative teams. The stunning pieces on display at Coach House were hand selected for that location. As the holder of a Master’s Degree in Public History with an emphasis in Historic Costume, my interest was immediately piqued. Associate Michael Dittrich was kind enough to offer JD an in-depth look at the pieces, the details of which are still to be found in the current collection.
When I arrived at the Coach House at 10AM on that Thursday, I couldn’t help but be struck, as always, by the beauty of the store. The attention to detail that has been paid in the visual merchandising (including a giant T-Rex called “Rexy” made entirely out of Coach handbags), the window displays, and the furnishings is impeccable. As we made our way to the second floor, it was clear that no expense was spared in making this the most beautiful Coach store in the world—even the elevator is unique and stunningly constructed.
As we approached the archive pieces, Michael slipped on a pair of museum-quality, medium-weight, unbleached cotton gloves for handling the pieces. Despite his short tenure at Coach—he’s only been with the company for just over two months—the passion present in his voice as he speaks about the pieces is infectious. The first, and oldest bag Michael introduced me to was the Skinny Tote (1968). This piece features the classic “French Kiss Lock”, the coin-purse-inspired closure sewed, uniquely, onto the side of the bag. This is a signature feature found on the inside of many Coach handbags. This particular piece is extra special because it was designed by Bonnie Cashin. Cashin was the first designer hired by the founders of Coach and came on board in 1962. In the industry, today, Cashin is considered to be one of the most influential, if not well-known, designers of all time. In her prime, Bonnie Cashin worked not only for Coach, but for Hermes, Ballantyne, and her own, eponymous label. She introduced the “Turn Lock” to Coach, inspired by the brass turnlocks that kept the roof of her convertible in place. Elsewhere, Cashin invented the concept of layering—and the terminology, as well. It’s thought that almost every contemporary designer has at least something in their collection that is inspired by the work of Bonnie Cashin.
Other signature features still utilized in the current line that we saw in the vintage pieces include the “Dog Leash Toggle”, as seen on the Station Bag (1983), and the “Luggage Handles” which can be seen on the Slim Satchel (1974) and are an ode to the brand’s origins in men’s carriables. The Slim Satchel is also a prime example of the company’s famous “Glove Tanned Leather”. As we finished our close inspection of these pieces, it was hard not to view the current collection with a renewed sense of excitement. The nods to the company’s past can be found in almost every piece available today, perhaps most prevalently in the Rogue satchel. The Rogue exemplifies the high quality, vintage-inspired craftsmanship that Stuart Vevers has brought back into the brand. Comprised of Glove Tanned Leather and featuring the French Kiss Lock, Luggage Handles, and Dog Leash Toggle strap, The Rogue is a timeless, classic silhouette with many of the Coach signature markers.
This past month, Coach launched an incredible online service that merges fashion with technology by allowing Coach fans to create their own made-to-order Rogue bag. Building the made-to-order piece is a special experience, one that is unique at such an attainable price-point. The custom handbags start under $1,000.00. With all of the options available, shoppers can create a piece that not only fits their lifestyle, but their personal style, as well. At the World Flagship Coach House in NYC and the London Flagship, the in-person experience is especially exciting.
Wanting the full experience, Janel and I sat down with Michael during our strategy meeting to create two, made-to-order Rogue satchels. Upon entering the third floor, we were greeted with yards upon yards of rich, buttery leather and suede swatches, a wall covered in gorgeously-crafted, leather and exotic skin handles, and an array of hardware options. The process is also Coach’s way of integrating the past with the present--the bags are designed using an iPad app that allowed us to virtually build the custom bags before our very eyes with swatches and hardware samples we could see and touch. Fashioning the bags was luxurious, fun, and seamless. Thank you to Michael for being with us every step of the way, offering guidance and helpful suggestions whenever we became torn between choices. At the end of the experience, we departed the store feeling as if we had truly been a part of a memorable, out-of-the-ordinary retail journey.
With so much attention to detail, Vever’s vintage inspiration, passionate employees, and the seamless—and economically attainable!—made-to-order Rogue, we can’t wait to see what else Coach has to offer in the future. xx-m