Designer Stuart Vevers channelled everything from Elvis to moccasins to give a down-New-Mexico-way feel to the brand for summer 2017
Trashed cars heaped up, their once shiny surfaces worn and grimy. Studs gleaming on leather jackets, shoes and purses. Could this really be Coach 1941, the brand that was once known only for its bags gifted to young girls on graduation day?
Designer Stuart Vevers had taken Coach for a wild ride, using his British background as an opportunity to take a fresh, and not-so-innocent-innocent, look at America.
This journey was not quite a trip to the badlands, but an opportunity to match the smashed cars with tough young women marching purposely forward in heavy boots and grounding semi-sheer dresses. Flesh was just about covered up by floral shorts and the fringed, studded leather jackets.
It started in Santa Fe — Stuart's summer vacation destination — hence the mash up of studded boots with Mohican fringing, sweetly pretty flowered dresses, leather jackets with heart and star studs framing images of wild cats and the word "rebel.
And don't forget Elvis — his chubby yet sculpted face outlined on t-shirts, his soft, deep voice on the soundtrack and his granddaughter Riley Keough front row.
Coach has certainly come a long way. It is hard to find out how serious the clothes are in the overall figures, but the brand has opened up under Vevers, creating the image of a pretty, young woman with a rocker edge.
At its best that meant a biker jacket patterned in strips of tiny florals edged in lace. On the wild side, the "Bobcat Rebels" looked like they were trying too desperately to be cool.
As with any brand - and there are many from Gucci to Prada — who grow from accessories into clothing, is the runway show meant as a backdrop or as the full fashion item?
There was such an amount of fine handwork in the Coach dresses and jackets that they will surely sell at an elevated price, suggesting that the accessories — and of course the bags —might be more alluring to the customer.
But from the prairie of an earlier show, to this season's New Mexican bandits, Stuart Vevers is making a statement for Coach that has planted the house in the New York fashion arena.
I sat down with Stuart and asked him about the collection — and the direction he has chosen.
Suzy Menkes: What is behind this Coach collection that seems to be inspired by big country America?
Stuart Vevers: I am very inspired by New York, so I am always looking at the girl going on a trip and then coming back to the city. A lot of American culture, whether it’s art or not, is this mash up of different cultures and references from all around the world.
I was in Santa Fe earlier in the summer and it struck me how you had the cowboy who then became the biker. You had the Hispanic culture in New Mexico, you had Native American culture, you had the high art culture of Georgia O'Keeffe and the socialites like Millicent Rogers.
On this road trip, I was going a bit deeper into the source. I think it helped me to push the extremes of what I had been studying at Coach, taking some of the references we’ve been working with and pushing them.
SM: I can see that you take elements of colour and texture, but doesn't it have to be processed so that you could wear the collection around the world, rather than shouting "this was inspired by New Mexico"?
SV: That is what the filter of New York City always gives me — how the Coach girl has picked up these souvenirs and is putting them all together in the city which is Coach’s home. The Coach girl is always walking fast, she always wears an easy shoe. It has that grounding because New York is about flair, individuality and character, but it’s also really practical.
SM: Can you give me an example from this collection?
SV: So she’s got a biker jacket, which has got a cowboy reference, but she has customised it with patches. We imagined a gang and they are rabid Elvis fans. So she’s taken this little biker vest, she’s covered it up with patches, little feminine bows. Or her dress is quite homespun, as if she’s cut up pieces from her mother's, or grandmother's, wardrobe. So it might be rick-rack cotton, quite naïve American dress making - and all those things take me back to a different approach to what craft is.
Craft is not about perfection. It is quite naïve and homespun, and I’ve always felt it’s important for Coach to have a different standpoint of what luxury can mean. It's not about it being perfect, it’s about it feeling personal. That American craft in Santa Fe is quite spontaneous and not about precious materials. It's about ingenuity and being immediate.
SM: But when it comes to the accessories — and especially the bags — you’re not talking about something that is hand spun. It has got to travel on the Subway for a year without falling apart. So how does this "naive" idea translate?
SV: It's the idea of something personal, a feeling of the custom-made that for me feels very important today. For example, in our SoHo store, during Fashion Week and to celebrate the launch of the collection, we took 50 of our varsity jackets from the Fall collection worked on with one of our makers for three months, making every piece completely unique and special. Coach doesn’t do couture, couture is French. But that is our version of it: unique pieces.
SM: Let's move onto the shoes — they are pretty rugged.
SV: They are moccasins. Again we took it to the next level and it felt like something that was customised by the gang. We’ve got a lot of embroidery, floral patches and the studs are important. Again, it is taking an American staple and making it for our gang. It really is all about that idea of something that’s been customised by the Coach girl.
SM: Coach figures are looking good compared to many fashion companies. Is this primarily on accessories — handbags and shoes? Or is it all-over sales?
SV: I welcome the fact that our client is responding to the re-set and that it’s working across the brand and so far we are getting a good reaction. It helps me by giving me confidence.
SM: When you talk about changing direction, how do you define that? That you are a brand that is now creating items that are genuinely unique?
SV: The top of the pyramid for us is becoming a fashion brand. Before, Coach didn’t participate with a ready-to-wear or a seasonal collection to take part in Fashion Week. The show gives me a chance to say, "look — this is a new day". Coach is now a fashion brand because we’re engaging in seasonal collections. We've had a good response to it and it’s brought in a new client, for sure.