MEET THE ‘IT’ BAG SUPERHERO
STUART VEVERS DESIGNED YOUR DREAM BAG. NOW, AS CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF COACH, HE’S COMING FOR YOUR WARDROBE TOO
The Bayswater you carried in the mid-2000s, that was him. And the Emmy - oh, how we all lusted after the Emmy. And dont forget the Gisele! That was the one he designed with Luella Bartley that sparked all those waiting lists at Mulberry. And the Amazona, Flamenco and Calle that we drooled over in the window at Loewe - all him, too.
Its safe to say that we would not be sitting here in Coachs impressive vast Manhattan showroom were it not for Vevers past bag performances. He is the go-to designer when it comes to resetting storied luxury bag brands, but Coach, the 73-year-old American leather goods label, with its broad customer base and democratic pricing (bags start around £325) is a different proposition altogether. Last year, the brand turned over a staggering $4.8bn (£3bn), which puts Vevers on a new plain entirely: now his bags are even more accessible.
Vevers looks remarkably fresh, despite this being the morning after showing his second womenswear collection for Coach. Dressed in the typical designer-at-work uniform - navy sweater, indigo jeans and white trainers - hes laid-back and smart in equal measure. Thats an apt description for the man himself, but Vevers easygoing charm belies laser-like focus. As well as running his specialist teams like a military operation in order to produce and deliver a whopping 24 collections a year (there are six drops a season for both men and women, each with their own product lines), Vevers is also charged with the job of visionary; tasked with reinventing the Coach image on a global scale.
The shift has been seismic. In just two seasons, Vevers has taken Coach from classic, everyday all-American label to wear-it-everyday fashion brand. So where, I ask, did he start? It was all about the girl, he says, I had to nail her first, who I wanted the Coach girl to be. And she has to be bold. It didnt feel like a moment to just make things a bit better; I was brought in to reset the brand, thats what appealed to me.
At his debut show last February, the first time Coach had ever been presented at New York Fashion Week, he told me: This brand resonates with everyone in America. People remember their grandmothers Coach bags, their fathers Coach briefcase. Its every girls college graduation bag. I want to do right by that. And he did. Editors raved about how they wanted one of his shearling coats and a cross-body Dakotah satchel.
This spring/summer, hes ramped up the youth-cool even further: cartoon characters are splashed across sweat-shirts, parkas are made from synthetic fur fluff. Theres a leopard-print peacoat, candy-coloured micro skirts, sharp flares, sporty pool slides, frosted leather clogs and, of course, a huge collection of bags - the aptly titled Drifter, Swagger and Mini Swagger come in rainbow shades, displayed on a wall in the showroom like sweets in a candy store.
"I love youth culture and I love a brand with a heritage. The clash of those two worlds interests me."
The Coach girl is evidently young and ballsy, she practically vibrates with the energy of something new, so what inspired her? Im obsessed with youth culture and the next big thing, thats what I look at, he explains. And I love a brand with a heritage and a story - so its that combination that interests me, the clash of those two worlds.
Theres a lot of London in Vevers Coach - maybe its that, an American brand seen through the eyes of an expat Brit, that gives it its unique flavor? Its very much me looking at New York City, thats a constant source of inspiration. [The city is about] the next generation and its always moving, so I thought Coach should represent that - music, skate, surf, boyish-femininity - but with a real ease and a familiarity like, Oh, I know what that is but I havent seen it done like that before.
Looking back, Vevers has always been a rule breaker. I first came across him in 2001 in the Bottega Veneta studio in Milan, where he had designed big, boxy LP record cases in black and orange lacquered leather. Alongside designer Giles Deacon and stylist Katie Grand, he had been drafted in to reroute the Italian house, then best known for its understated woven leather handbags. To say these co-conspirators met this challenge with a roaring rebel London vibe would be something of an understatement. The next day, another member of their gang, Luella Bartley, showed her Luella collection in the Bottega Venata show-space. It was titled, Looking Hard In The Yard and featured models as skinheads in circulation-stopping striped jeans and Dr. Martens boots, carrying Vevers siren-yellow satchels slung so low across the body they bounced off the models shins as they stomped.
After that moment, there was no stopping him. He went on to work in Paris, first at Givenchy, then at Louis Vuitton with Marc Jacobs. In 2005, he was recruited by Mulberry as Creative Director, and duly transformed the dusty British heritage label into a global It bag fashion force with the Bayswater, Emmy and Gisele (the latter designed with Luella, with whom he continued to collaborate for the next decade). Three years later, LVMH, the worlds most powerful luxury supergroup, poached him to reboot the Spanish leather goods label, Loewe, so he moved to Madrid and reinvented the brands classic Amazona, Flamenco and Calle bags, as well as stamping his mark on Loewes ready-to-wear, which the company showed on the catwalk in Paris for the first time in its history.
Its a mighty career trajectory for sure, made even more remarkable by the fact that every job required a relocation - Milan, Paris, London, Madrid and now New York. So where does that kind of adaptability come from?
Well, Im from a working class Northern family. Ive got that fear, it makes me strive to do my best, I guess that's in my upbringing, he says in his soft, ever-present Yorkshire lilt. Born in Doncaster, his parents moved to Carlisle when he was 13, his mum a childminder and cleaner, his dad, now a gardener, made tractors and later worked as a probation officer. He has one younger brother, a science teacher, and step-siblings - his parents both remarried but remained friends. I wanted a different life. But its funny how you get to an age - he is now 41 – and you want to go back to your roots. He is referring to the house he bought, close to his parents in Patterdale in the Lake District. My parents are so proud, you know, they wont accept anything from me, but I just wanted them to have somewhere beautiful to go. Dad comes to the house to mend things and chop things down. But he wont go and stay there, so Im not quite sure it worked.
However glamorous his life is now, speaking to Vevers, you sense how deeply connected he is to his roots. Its not just that hes as comfortable talking business as artistic vision, its his tacit respect for the fashion consumer. I still have that connection when someone spends money on fashion, I have a huge respect for that. Of course, I want people to fall in love with a product, but if they buy it I want them to be able to afford to go out and enjoy it! Thats how I define American luxury: its not out of reach. That feels modern to me, I feel liberated by it.
You can see why New York suits him. His lifestyle here is typical of any fashion industry high-flyer. He often clocks in at 7:30am and his working day ends - well, it never ends, as socialising and work are intertwined. Its a tough schedule, but work is fun – its not like Im down a mine, he says. He managed to take a week off last summer, and recalls a packed power vacation - Charleston for a bit of American history, Universal Studios (he loves Harry Potter) and Turks and Caicos for relaxation. He also married in New York in December.
So what does it take to drive a $4.8bn brand? Im quite obsessive about my work; I work hard because I love my job, he says. A workaholic? I cant let things go, if something isnt right, I cant leave it; you have to be like that to see a big change through. And get the team around you so youre all obsessing about it, that requires a huge effort. Its refreshing to hear a designer say they think work should also be fun: If the process is enjoyable, you attract good people, which means you can get things going fast; you cant do any of it alone, its teamwork.
And with that, he leaps up to show me the new collection. The sweet-shop display of bags, the clogs with a metallic sheen, the clothes that nod to the 1960s - all crisp, cute and affordable. So has the kind of the reset found his dream job, then, I ask? We both laugh at the cheesiness of my question and he smiles, Im definitely living the American dream.