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Fashion

Coach's Stuart Vevers On America As The Capital Of Cool

Stuart Vevers, the British designer who helped make Americana great again, tells Imran Jalal what defines and makes American fashion great right now, in this exclusive interview in New York.

A lot has changed in the Land of the Free since Stuart Vevers revealed his first collection as executive creative director at Coach five years ago. Yes, Trump, but also plenty of shake-ups on the fashion front (some Trump-induced) that are revealing of the state of American style and, in turn, culture today.

While some of the country’s most well-loved clothing brands have either shuttered or seen once-lauded head designers come and go, a new generation of socially “woke” young names have ignited international buzz with their politically charged shows and collections. Industry veterans who helped define the American sportswear aesthetic have recemented their iconic status with milestone anniversaries, yet it was one supreme skatewear-turned-streetwear guru who was given the top menswear prize by the Council of Fashion Designers of America last year.

Coach executive creative director Stuart Vevers (middle) with his latest, Santa Fe-influenced vision of Americana chic.

Through all this, Vevers — British-born, largely UK and Europe-trained — has stayed true to the romantic-meets-rebellious, Americana-inflected vision he brought to Coach from day one, building upon it in scale and depth season after season. For S/S ’19, he was inspired by a trip to the mystical Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a sprawling dude ranch and famed fossil site that Georgia O’Keeffe not only often painted, but also called home.

It explains the show’s set at New York Fashion Week last September, strewn with the likes of a time- and weather-beaten vintage car and gas pump, and a giant dinosaur sculpture made from antique scrap metal to conjure a post-apocalyptic Wild West. Jurassic reptiles have become something of a house motif under Vevers, and this one has been lovingly christened “Bronty”.

The Spring/Summer ’19 show space

The collection itself features all the styles he made signature since introducing a full-fledged ready-to-wear line with his debut: the prairie dresses; baseball jackets and rugged, cowboy-inspired leather outers; a side of fun knits and sweatshirts. The Ghost Ranch influences are evident in fringing and a broodingly pretty colour palette, but the main twist lies in how everything’s more dramatic and a hint more glamorous than usual — billowing volumes; shiny, evening-appropriate finishes; ruffles that take an everyday blouse or dress into statement territory.

“I would say there’s a bit more fantasy in this collection,” says Vevers. Thinking of how to kit brand ambassador Selena Gomez out for high profile events in a “very Coach way” has gotten him exploring more about “dressing up the Coach Girl”, he explains.

Still, he readily agrees when one points out that his creative approach has been nothing but consistent. (“It’s important because ready-to-wear is still a very new direction for the brand, and I need to give people the opportunity to understand our identity and the pieces they come to Coach for.”) While many in the industry grapple with increasingly divided tastes, he’s the steady one who — for all his foreignness — seems to have figured out what people want in an all-American wardrobe.

According to the UK edition of GQ last December, Coach’s annual revenue has hit as high as £4 billion (S$7 billion) since Vevers’ arrival. A month before that, New York’s Lincoln Center honoured him with its Women’s Leadership Award at its annual fashion fund-raiser gala for the way Coach — under his helm — is “reshaping the fashion landscape”. So who better to ruminate on the US of A’s new rules and attitudes when it comes to dressing?

 

America Is The Capital Of Cool 

“At the end of the day, the French have ‘chic’ and America has ‘cool’. The word ‘cool’ is fundamentally an American word, and that cool attitude is for me what I enjoy about American style. Coach and other American labels are not the only ones breaking down luxury — traditional luxury houses (from Europe) are too, but it’s interesting that a lot of their references are American.”

Being Precious Isn’t Cool 

“What was exciting about joining Coach was how its spirit — a kind of ease and effortlessness, its New York City attitude — felt very relevant to the next generation, which is less constrained by some of the former rules of luxury, where luxury was perceived as an investment… I deliberately choose materials that have inherent natural qualities or play with textures — like not lining this season’s leather coats, or washing the fringed jackets after making them for a distressed feel — to show the beauty in imperfection… Even when we do craft, it’s less about glamorous embellishments and more about making something feel customised, as if the wearer did so herself… Ultimately, I want someone to put on a Coach piece and instantly feel a little bit cooler, and I don’t think you can necessarily get that if it’s too perfect.”

Dispense With The Formalities 

“People are (placing greater importance) on comfort and I think that (represents) American style really well. Today, a luxury piece can be a playful backpack, a sweatshirt, a T-shirt — this shift has happened very quickly and particularly in the past five years… There are certain moments when people still get all dressed up, but in general, (fashion) is not expected to be as formal as it once was. Even in the workplace, (it’s no longer about) guys in tailored suits and ties… Steve Jobs never wore a suit.”

In Fact, American Sportswear Has Gotten Even More Casual 

“(The term) used to mean a relaxed way of dressing, but now it really means sportswear — T-shirts, sweatshirts and pants, sneakers, hoodies — and it’s become more and more a part of the everyday wardrobe (as opposed to before, when it was meant only for leisure). This new definition is crucial to what we do and has been a part of our collection since I started working here — the humble T-shirt was a huge starting point for me. Even our more elaborate pieces, such as a long dress, never has fit. There’s no formality, and the materials used are always light and soft. I want to bring the ease of a T-shirt into everything that we create.”

Deviate From What’s Already Out There 

“A big part of my role is about finding the next story and the new ideas that people don’t know they want yet… It’s not about reinterpreting what exists, but creating something new. Take the last look in the S/S ’19 collection, for example: Even today, it (feels new) yet is also very Coach to close a fashion show with a combination of a cotton jersey hoodie and super long, voluminous prairie skirt… The new generation of emerging, underground-influenced designers in New York are also offering newness by challenging ideas of what a fashion house should be. I’m actually mentoring Telfar Clemens (known for his inclusive, gender-free designs), and I think he’s an example of someone who is creating new rules. Challenging (what came before) is a crucial part of fashion (in general).”