Suzy Menkes’ exclusive interview with Stuart Vevers, before his very first catwalk show for the brand
Coach, the all-American handbag company, celebrated its 75th anniversary during New York Fashion Week.
For his first runway collection, creative director Stuart Vevers — in his fourth season with Coach — had to make a statement about clothes. This was his chance to create an entire universe for young women: short, swingy skirts, jackets — perhaps in ginger suede, and neat little boots patterned to compete with the tiny florals dotting dresses.
Flower Power! I felt it the moment that I met with Stuart at the Coach headquarters, soon moving nearer to New York’s evocative High Line. Everywhere, there were little flowers redolent of the 1970s, when floral designs picked up on the William Morris Art Nouveau era. But Stuart had controlled that flower-child feeling by cutting the sweetness of the patterns with geometric lines and inserts of leather and suede.
I have known British-born Stuart, 41, even before he worked at the leather accessory houses of Mulberry and Loewe. So before he sent out his Coach collection of cropped jackets, patchwork waistcoats, pleated skirts, patterned bootees and, of course, flowery purses, I sat down with Stuart to find out his master plan of taking Coach beyond handbags.
Stuart Vevers: It is still only my fourth season! It feels longer because it was such a big change for Coach. Apart from the creative direction, people are still getting their head around the basic idea [of clothing], so I want a really good sense of consistency. Reinforcing that goal, the idea is of a youthful interpretation of luxury. I feel that is really important right now — a conversation with the next generation. And I guess it’s human nature that we never want to dress like our parents.
Suzy: But we might want to dress like our grandparents!
Stuart: Exactly, and I think there’s something in that — a real desire for authenticity, uniqueness and individuality. That is why I really wanted to explore what can be unique about Coach. It is very important to me that we never present a robotic army of girls. There must be different proportions and materials — a girl who has a magpie quality and can pick things up from her grandmother’s closet on the Upper East Side, or from Downtown New York, or from a road trip.
Suzy: So it’s about a person picking separate elements and putting them together herself?
Stuart: Exactly. It’s not, “This season my shoe is...” It’s about enjoying lots of things. To me, there is something about Coach that is grounded in a certain reality and I think that’s important. I am conscious too about where Coach sits. It is older than its American cousins, but much younger than European traditional luxury. It straddles an interesting place, where you can talk about heritage but it’s a young heritage — it’s only the 1940s and 50s.
Suzy: It is also a heritage of women whose first handbag was Coach, and they have stayed with the brand.
Stuart: The value proposition that Coach stands for is also a really big part of the vision. It is crucial, because that idea of a spread of prices feels modern. You know, a $150 T-shirt, or a beautiful $2,000 coat.
Suzy: I like this idea about the “magpie picking of pieces”. But as the designer, what did you focus on? I can see a wonderful patchwork skirt coming towards me.
Stuart: It’s about picking references that have a certain tension. It is Coach’s 75th anniversary, so this collection will mark that and it’s why we’re doing a bigger-scale show. It’s a moment to be proud of. There is a certain nostalgia in terms of materials that almost feel like pieces that could have been in a Coach archive. But even if they were, they have been deconstructed and reconstructed and put together in a new way.
Suzy: Is the “making of” — the craft — important to you? Or is it just the end effect that counts?
Stuart: It’s about celebrating that tradition of craft but it’s a different approach. It’s more raw. It’s not about being perfect — and that patchwork skirt represents it well.
Suzy: It looks fairly perfect to me!
Stuart: I guess it’s because I have spent nearly 20 years in that world of traditional European luxury, where it’s all about that strive for perfection. There’s something quite refreshing about realising that materials have a life to them, that there is a natural side. That feels less precious and more spontaneous.
Suzy: Why did you want to do a different kind of catwalk presentation?
Stuart: It was about bringing joy to the moment and a sense of a nostalgia and romance. I actually referenced two Terrence Malick films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. As with the space for this show, there has to be some reference to the outdoors.
Suzy: Previously for Coach you have created these kind of road trips — small-town backdrops, autumnal leaves and all that.
Stuart: I wanted a space that felt authentically connected to Coach. We are so close to the High Line here, and it’s where the new headquarters of Coach are being built. For the show, you walk up the High Line by the Hudson River and then walk along a path and then across, like a bridge. There it is all very modern with machinery and cranes. Then you walk inside and all the materials are warm and friendly, like wood. The outside is mirror and the inside is translucent gold, to create that kind of cinematic “magic hour” light.
Suzy: How is the audience supposed to envisage the models?
Stuart: They are girls wandering through a prairie field. There is a path, but it is quite loose, and I very deliberately did this so that the guests are looking out onto the High Line. I thought it was very important that we celebrated the space.
Suzy: I love the little prairie flower patterns, but how do you stop them from feeling vintage?
Stuart: The colours are a bit heightened, they’re hyperreal, they’re not that dusty version. Then we have additional prints with a few counterculture references, like punk culture and skate culture. Or for the shoes, taking a cowboy silhouette and putting it on a skate shoe. Then there is reconstructing the archive. This idea comes from a Bonnie Cashin bag, but for a coat. It’s like taking your heritage and remixing it.
Suzy: So you don’t want to eradicate the past?
Stuart: There is a touch of nostalgia to the Coach archive here, but definitely reinvented and sharpened up. Here you see a pretty dress, but it’s got this punkier, skate sweater in metallic. That’s the main feel of Coach. A Coach woman is always grounded so she can get there fast.
Suzy: How do you define luxury?
Stuart: For me, the idea is to re-evaluate what luxury means today. I am looking for something that has a bit more spontaneity, a bit more rawness. It started to bother me that I would have a conversation with my successful girlfriends, who were partners in a law firm, say, and they were like, “Oh, I would never buy that.” And I was asking, “Who am I talking to?”
Suzy: So you want to create things that young people can actually buy themselves?
Stuart: I want things that make me smile. I think, at the end of the day, you should see the Coach girl and like her. I know that sounds kind of basic, but that’s what I feel.