To celebrate 10 years at the helm of Coach, Stuart Vevers chose the most New York of locations: The flagship location of the city’s public library.
The imposing structure on Fifth Avenue played host not just to the brand’s Spring/Summer 2024 runway show, but also a seated dinner for a slew of celebrities and fashion insiders after. It was a fitting setting for a collection, Vevers wrote in the show notes, that was meant to “capture the archetypes of New York fashion.”
The evening kicked off with the show, which was attended by a slew of familiar faces: Brand ambassadors Jennifer Lopez, Lil Nas X and Camila Mendes, as well as Lola Tung, star of teen favourite “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” actress Chase Stokes, known for the Netflix series “Outer Banks.” There were also a number of Asian stars, including Japanese comedian Naomi WatanabeK, a fitting sight as Coach continues to push further into the APAC market.
The show itself, filled with leather slip dresses, oversized blazers and totes and ultra sheer knits, was briefly interrupted by a PETA protestor brandishing a sign that read “COACH: LEATHER KILLS,” who made it down a third of the runway before being pulled by security. The incident, however, didn’t do much to stop the show‘s progression, which ended with Vevers taking a bow with his son in his arms.
Upstairs in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room, guests dined on sea bass and a salad of summer vegetables as Coach CEO Todd Kahn congratulated Vevers on a tenure that in fashion, equates to a “few lifetimes.” Vevers, too, spoke, his speech something of a verbal love letter to his team, his family and New York City.
The brand has more to celebrate than just the anniversary: Coach is in the midst of a resurgence. In 2022, the brand recorded record revenue of $6.7 billion. Last month, its parent company Tapestry announced the acquisition of Capri Holdings, owner of Michael Kors, Versace and Jimmy Choo; once the deal closes, Coach will essentially become the tentpole brand of the biggest US luxury fashion conglomerate.
It’s quite a contrast from 10 years ago, when Vevers joined Coach from Loewe. In 2013, the brand was a long way from its glory days in the 2000s, when its C-printed canvas was ubiquitous among American shoppers. Coach was still selling plenty of bags, but they were increasingly associated with outlet malls and sales events at ageing department stores.
Vevers’ tenure has coincided with a major overhaul of Coach, from its manufacturing practices to its marketing, aimed at convincing the brand’s customers that its bags were worth buying even when they aren’t 60 percent off. The designer has had a big role in making that happen, reinventing archival styles like the Tabby for a new generation, which helped return Coach’s bags to the zeitgeist.
Vevers’ other innovation was the introduction of ready-to-wear, which a decade in remains something of a work in progress. For many luxury houses, apparel is approached as a marketing exercise, with the clothes featured in fashion shows and ad campaigns designed to draw attention to far-more-lucrative leather goods lines.
In a sense, that’s true at Coach as well. Apparel is Coach’s smallest category, at 11 percent of total revenue (handbags are about half), and even after eight years of regular showings at New York Fashion Week, many customers — and even fashion insiders — could be forgiven for overlooking that Coach sells clothes at all.
But that 11 percent is a small slice of a very big pie: if overall revenue is $6.7 billion, then sales in the “lifestyle” category, which includes apparel, should have totalled about $737 million last year. (Coach did not confirm or deny this number.) As a standalone business, Coach apparel would roughly equal revenue at Ganni, Sezane and Zimmermann, combined.
“There are very few aspects of their business that they would look at as throwaway marketing when it comes to product,” said Simeon Siegel, managing director at BMO Capital Markets. “When you are a brand of their size, every area that you can touch your consumer is important.”
Coach’s ready-to-wear echoes the aesthetic its bags are known for: Classic styles rooted in Americana — especially New York City — but with a light-hearted twist: Floor-length leather trench coats, sweater dresses or T-shirts with graphic details like a cartoon apple with the letters “NY” printed on it, or the logo of iconic New York grocery store Zabar’s. Coach’s bag assortment, too, has upped its whimsy factor, with C-printed bags shaped like a bunch of bananas or the outline of Rexy, Coach’s dinosaur mascot, who was introduced in 2016.
“From my point of view, it was never an exercise in marketing or just brand storytelling,” Vevers said. “It was about creating clothes that people will wear, and that is now proven by the business.”
Coach’s relatively quiet entry into ready-to-wear is partly down to the brand’s long history in leather goods: it was founded in 1941, giving bags a 70-year head start over clothes.
Vevers’ challenge was to create a brand-new ready-to-wear line that felt like a natural extension of the Coach’s brand. For the bags, he could draw on seven decades of history; the archives include accessories designed by American sportswear designer Bonnie Cashin, who was the brand’s creative head in the 1960s. With apparel, he was essentially starting from scratch.
“In some ways, that there wasn’t a history, there wasn’t anything to reference, was liberating,” he said. “Of course, I also knew that there was a challenge because people don’t always accept a new fashion proposition, especially right away.”
That first collection, which debuted with a presentation in February 2014, had only 18 looks. The outerwear-heavy offering included both bomber and jean jackets and a variety of coats, featuring toggle buttons or a shearling lining. The latter, in particular, he said, was a hit.
“That first season was a freezing cold week in New York, and people left saying, ‘I wish I could just wear that now,’” he remembered. “It was a perfect start. In a way, it gave me the confidence to build on that.”
It’s been a slow and steady build since. Categories have been added at a meticulous pace; what began with outerwear has now expanded to sweaters, dresses, skirts, tops and more. Vevers waited until September 2015 to stage Coach’s first runway show at New York Fashion Week. (It’s since become a fixture on the schedule, with the exception of this season, which saw it show the night before the event’s official kick-off.) Today, its shows are among the most well-attended and elaborate at NYFW, renting out large-scale venues like the New York Public Library this week, or in the past, at spaces like the Park Avenue Armory and Pier 76 — a reflection of the resources available to a Tapestry-owned brand.
“There’s a consistency, but we’ve allowed ourselves to change,” he said.
The Spring/Summer 2024 collection has 59 looks, over three times what it showed back in 2014. Last season, he said, was a “pivot collection,” that represented the brand going in a new direction, and this season is something of a continuation of that. There are several recurring motifs: Ruffle-trimmed silk slip dresses, cropped jackets paired with low-rise midi skirts, full-length sweater dresses.
New York City, the brand’s birthplace, has served as a consistent inspiration for Vevers. This collection, in particular, takes its cues from his personal experiences with the city: The slip dresses, for example, are a nod to the dresses he saw women wear to the now-shuttered Pyramid nightclub in the 1990s, the decade he moved to New York. The strong-shouldered blazers in the collection, a reference to the “young female executives getting out of the town car” he saw on the New York City streets.
Looking ahead, Coach’s ready-to-wear business will continue to incorporate sustainability, three years after it came under fire for the environmentally-unfriendly practice of destroying damaged merchandise. The Spring/Summer 2024 features all regenerative leather bags, as well as regenerative knits, lace and more. The brand also launched Coachtopia, a sustainability-centric, Gen-Z-focussed sub-brand, this spring, though its assortment is predominantly bags. The move towards embracing sustainability took hold during the pandemic, and now, is something that is top of mind for Vevers in designing collections.
“In the past, I felt it was more the responsibility of the back end of the business,” he said. “It was during the pandemic, when a lot of us were digging deeper, it struck me: ‘Actually, it’s my responsibility.’ It was a mindset shift.”
As Coach looks at a future as part of what will become the first major American fashion conglomerate, for Vevers, 10 years in, he’s at a place where he’s deep enough into Coach that he’s leaning less on the brand’s heritage, and more on gut instinct.
“This is the first season I’ve not referenced the archive at all, which is interesting, given it’s a milestone,” he said. “Maybe it’s that I’m comfortable with the heritage at this point, and I’m more just creating what I feel a Coach bag should be.”