Stuart Vevers ought to be made a cultural ambassador of the United States of America. Every collection the British designer has done for Coach since coming on board as executive creative director reveals an almost obsessive fascination with iconic archetypes from the Land of Stars and Stripes.
His F/W ’14 debut drew from seminal New York photographer Joel Sternfeld’s retro-soaked suburban landscapes for a youthful update on shearling coats, Navajo dresses and postman satchels. His latest for F/W ’16 is all collegiate chic-meets-Woodstock, mixing flirty bohemian print skirts with plaid shirts and varsity jackets. And everything else in between has paid the same zippy salute to the various sides of Uncle Sam glam.
“I’m an outsider. I’m not from America. All my cultural references growing up were either through cinema or music,” he says matter-of-factly when we meet in New York. “Now that I’m at Coach, it feels so instinctive and authentic to be referencing American cinema, culture and style.”
Three years, five collections – and that’s not counting menswear and the pre-collections. That’s a long time in the warp speed, ADD world of fashion to be playing on a singular theme. Yet, it’s been Vevers’ most confident stride in a career built on stints at revered European and British labels including Mulberry, Loewe, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton – and he’s got the results to show for it.
Under him, profits at Coach have been on the up and up. At press time, The Business of Fashion reported that sales had risen by 15 per cent from last year to reach US$1.15 billion (S$1.57 billion). What he has done for the brand’s image is even more impressive. Despite its rich heritage in American sportswear and elegant leather bags, the 75-year-old label had become better known for its canvas logo bags and outlet stores for most part of the 2000s. Enter Vevers, who swooped in with his training in traditional European luxury, easy-going disposition, and romanticised vision of Americana cool.
These days, Coach is a high-end fashion juggernaut with fully fledged ready-to-wear lines alongside its leather goods. Its runway presentation (which never used to exist) is one of the hottest tickets at New York Fashion Week. Its new signatures – cute logo knit sweaters; plush, modern interpretations of classic bags – are instant street-style bait. In other words, the man’s made Coach It, something he aims to continue with his latest rebottling of Americana: his first fragrance for the brand, which debuted here in Sephora last month and hits department stores on Oct 13.
We’re in an industrial studio overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District for the global media launch. Furnished with mid-century modern pieces in brown, beige and off-white, the expansive space looks like the set of a Sofia Coppola remake of a Richard Linklater film. Quirky retro memorabilia – a vintage radio, old photography books, a pennant with the word “Champs” in classic varsity font – pepper the area, lending a sweet, indie charm. The most refreshing touch, though, has to be the roses. In various shades of pink, they’re displayed on the floor, in an array of glass vases, and even brim from a free-standing tub at the centre of the room.
The Turkish variety, known for its rich, smooth scent, lies at the heart of the Coach EDP, yet – like in the studio – mingles with contrasting elements. To open, sprightly pear, raspberry and pink pepper and, as an ode to the brand’s leather expertise, a woody base of cashmeran, sandalwood and suede musk. At present, Singapore carries only the lighter EDT (from $62 for 30ml; the EDP arrives next year) with notes of pear, white Alba rose and cedarwood. Nonetheless, it gives the same surprising sense of nostalgia without feeling dated, and of sophistication that is rooted in the everyday.
Possibly one of the industry’s most down-to-earth star designers, Vevers is transparent about being no fragrance pro, leaving the art and science of the scent to perfumers Anne Flipo and Juliette Karagueuzoglou for the EDP, and Sonia Constant and Natalie Cetto for the EDT. What he brings to it is his millennial re-envisioning of the Coach woman, the one with which he’s transformed the brand.
Traditional luxury is not a part of the formula. “I think the idea of exclusivity just means being excluded, and that doesn’t feel modern. That belongs to another time,” he says. Indeed, while he’s elevated the brand’s offerings to include more premium-priced artisanal bags and the runway-ready Coach 1941 line, everything is still grounded in the very American notion of democratic ease. “This fragrance isn’t about a fantasy jet-set lifestyle. It’s about a cool young girl on a road trip, embarking on a new adventure. That sense of inspiration, joy and optimism forms the heart of this fragrance,” he says.
The face of the campaign is The 5th Wave (2016) actress Chloe Moretz, whose American Girl doll looks belie a whip-smart brassiness beyond her 19 years. (“It’s okay to be who you want to be. It’s okay to not know what you want, to mess up and make bad decisions,” she tells me in a separate interview.) Says Vevers: “She’s got a real strength of character… She believes in what she does, works hard, but also has fun. She’s playful, charming and makes me laugh. That’s why I wanted her to be the face of the fragrance.”
The original Coach girl is in fact the brand’s first designer Bonnie Cashin, an American sportswear pioneer known for the same breezy chutzpah, and whose practical yet stylish designs were the It bags of the ’60s. “Fashion is about looking forward, experimenting and trying new things, rebelling and challenging the status quo. For me, those are qualities that the Coach girl has,” says Vevers. “One of the reasons why many of Bonnie Cashin’s designs are still being referenced is because she took a risk. She wasn’t afraid to move the brand forward.”
One of Cashin’s most famous and enduring contributions to Coach is the turnlock closure and hang tag that continue to adorn practically every single bag at the label. Now, Vevers has adapted them for the fragrance bottle, with the turnlock as the atomiser, and the leather hang tag that sits beneath adding a rustic decorative touch. “I wanted to use Coach’s heritage as the backstory to this fragrance, and my challenge was reinterpreting all the hallmarks of Coach products for it,” he says. “My dream is that this becomes an iconic Coach fragrance bottle.”
Creating that new legacy is the man’s loftiest ambition, and his MO is simply an unwavering dedication to defining American luxury today. On what he hopes the scent will do for customers Gen Y and beyond, he says with a small, earnest smile: “To make her feel good. To give that confidence, that extra boost in the morning when she leaves the house.” Spoken like a true American.
An adapted version first appeared in Female’s October 2016 issue.