Most designers think global when modernising a brand. To take New York bag giant Coach to the next level, Stuart Vevers found inspiration in the least likely of places: the heart of American suburbia. Female reports from Tokyo.

When Coach announced last June that Stuart Vevers was to take over as its executive creative director, the collective response from industry players was: “But of course.” After all, the British designer’s resume is brimming with the top bag names in the business, including Bottega Veneta, Mulberry and Loewe (he held the top position at the latter two).

In person, Vevers is the quintessential nice guy – affable, with zero airs. And as creative director, his skill is in infusing a gentle glamour and subtle edge to classic designs, a formula that has kept cash registers singing. (He was instrumental in making Mulberry covetable in the early 2000s, for which he earned the Best Accessory Designer of the Year award from the British Fashion Council in 2006.) What would be his take on this iconic American label? Who would be the new Coach girl?

Coach Stuart Vevers 1
Making his debut this season, his vision has been a gutsy one, to say the least. For one, while bags remain the focus, the collection marks the brand’s first full-fledged foray into ready-to-wear: 19 looks were first revealed during New York Fashion Week in February. Rather than play up the brand’s Big Apple roots, he surprised by tapping on the louche-cool of the country’s suburbia, the heart of Americana. “It is about rediscovering what is unique about Coach and that led me straight to America,” he says. “I did not want to do a version of European luxury.”

In fashion, Coach is as American as blue jeans and apple pie. Its designs are the bag equivalent of American sportswear: smart, functional, nothing too fussy. Under former executive creative director/president Reed Krakoff, who left last April to focus on his eponymous label, it became a multi-billion-dollar accessories giant that was fashionable (cue the successful revival of its vintage designs) yet friendly in style and price. Vevers, who told Vogue UK last year that he’s always been drawn to heritage brands and the challenge of making them relevant, has his work cut out: Keep things “USA”, but take it up a notch.

His starting point for Fall was a 1979 photograph by New York-based artist Joel Sternfeld. The moody landscape image turns one’s eye to the beauty in the banality of a rural Oregon street, complete with identical mustard-coloured garages and brown mailboxes. Blown up into a backdrop, it greets me on arrival at the first Asian showcase of the collection in Tokyo in June. The venue is hip cafe-cum-gallery Idol in the Aoyama district – an underground space with well-worn wooden floorboards, raw concrete walls and mismatched industrial furnishings.

It’s the perfect setting for his designs, hitting the sweet spot between playful chic and good old-fashioned practicality. The brand’s new key stars are the Rhyder, Dakotah and Tatum, three bag lines that come in a variety of dependable shapes, from satchel to work tote. Inspired by Winona Ryder’s character in Heathers and Sissy Spacek’s in Badlands (think the ultimate indie babes), the rich-meets-rustic finishes include tan suede, shearling and bold red pebbled leather, embellished with chains and fringing. Says Vevers: “What you want with a bag is something that doesn’t try too hard, and is both urban and cool and, importantly, isn’t derivative of anything else.”

The other crucial thing: price. When Vevers’ appointment was revealed, the brand’s chief executive officer Victor Luis told the press: “You can have a $5,000, $2,000, $3,000 (in US dollars, US$1 = S$1.25)Coach bag in the future.” It led to speculation that the brand was going high-end, but the truth is not quite so. It will still carry its classic ranges that start here from $400, while the bags showcased at Fashion Week (referred to informally as the runway collection and made of plusher materials like exotic skin and shearling) go for $1,050 to $2,200. That’s still considerably less than what one would pay at a luxury house.

Coach Stuart Vevers 2
Says Vevers: “Designing something that someone may fall in love with and is then surprised by its price is what I find really exciting… It’s a struggle to find a luxury brand bag for less than US$2,000 now. That leaves a huge opportunity for Coach.”

The clothes ($425-$3,500) are a cool, youthful spin on the all-American wardrobe. One could imagine Cara Delevingne or Dree Hemingway bustling across town in any of the easy looks, from an oversized knit sweater with an illustrated motif of the Apollo rocket to a fireman’s coat made of twill. As an Englishman in the US, Vevers’ strategy was to “embrace the familiar”. He says: “I think there is something to be said of being foreign to the country that the brand is from. You see things with a different eye and are more inclined to embrace the obvious.

“I deliberately referenced a jean jacket, a sweatshirt, all those constructions that people associate with America and its cinema. That’s potentially the fastest way to reintroduce Coach – because there’s a familiarity about it.”

His footwear also takes its cues from the modern all-American girl. “It was a hard winter in New York. I was walking to work and noticed every girl wearing sneakers,” says Vevers. “So I thought, let’s just do sneakers and boots.” The key styles, a rugged urban hiker and fringed moccasins, lend instant downtown edge to his flippy leather skirts and patchwork Navajo-style dresses. Details such as straps fastened by the brand’s signature turn lock, brass rivets and whiplash stitching add a vintage yet sophisticated touch.

Vevers’ streetwise spin on the heritage American label marks a new phase for the house, now into its 73rd year. “I want to have fun all the way through, and I think it shows in the product,” he says. It’s a free-spirited, upbeat and dynamic attitude at the heart of a redefined Coach, ready to take on a new generation.

Photography Elvina Farkas/Anue Management Styling Noelle Loh Hair Peter Lee/Hairloom, using Goldwell Makeup Ros Chan Models Naya E/Ave, Katya K & Kasia T/Mannequin

Like this? See the collab between Coach and art provocateur Gary Baseman