In the Defense of Coach

Coach gets a lot of hate these days.

It’s been a huge fall from grace for the brand that was once the “must have” item of the 2000s. I can remember being in high school and the multi color canvas Coach logo purse was a status symbol amongst teen girls. Everyone had one and everyone wanted one. This was the peak of Coach’s popularity… and proof that what goes up must go down.

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The Coach Scribble print.

(At the risk of totally showing my age here, this was “the bag” in high school. You wanted to be carrying this on your shoulder while recapping the latest episode of “Laguna Beach” with your friends at Starbucks afterschool.)

Unfortunately, Coach is no longer seen in the same lens amongst the fashion community or even mainstream American consumers for that matter. The brand became oversaturated and quickly expanded its development of outlet stores in little strip malls off lonely highway exits. Coach was no longer “cool” – it was “desperate.”

I’m here to make a suggestion – and I realize my plea will be ironic as I’ve been one of the most vocal critics of Coach – but let’s give them a chance to rebuild.

Here’s a little history lesson.

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(for real, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to use a Kevin Hart GIF!)

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Coach started in 1941. Inside a tiny little loft in Manhattan, six leather workers came together to begin creating wallets. Five years later, the company’s founders Miles and Lillian Cahn began to notice the leather workers’ designs. The Cahns were somewhat famous at the time in the leather industry and owned a leather purse manufacturing company. By 1950, Miles Cahn took over Coach’s operations.

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Miles and Lillian Cahn

Miles Cahn’s influences for Coach’s wallets were unusual. As a baseball fan, he noticed that baseball gloves became softer with use – it became his goal to recreate this effect in leather. Through trial and error, Coach was able to develop a way to process the leather that would allow it be softer, but hold its strength (much like a baseball glove).

When Cahn’s wife, Lillian, discovered that her husband’s company was creating soft and supple wallets, she came to him with a request: begin creating women’s handbags. The first Coach handbag collection featured a dozen purses. One of the first designs – now a signature style for the company – was a shopper tote. Lillian Cahn suggested a leather bag similar to a shopping bag, drawing back to her roots as a delivery girl for her family’s business during the Great Depression. This style, among others, was an immediate hit. The success of the Cahn’s leadership led the couple to purchase the Coach brand in 1961.

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Bonnie Cashin

The Cahns hired Bonnie Cashin as its first creative director. Cashin, previously known as a pioneer in sportswear design (one of the first designers to utilize leather, wool and jersey fabrics in this category), served from 1962 to 1974. She is credited with the development of several Coach trademarks: the brass turn lock and toggle hardware featured on handbags, the bucket bag and the “tongue” bag.

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“Bucket” bag

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“Tongue” bag

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Classic Coach hardware

Cashin took Coach from its small Manhattan loft roots and began experimenting with her designs. She added side pockets, coin purses and – most shocking – bright hues. The transformation of a women’s purse from something of practicality to something of creativity and fun drew notice. After Coach ran its first national advertisement in the New Yorker, Cashin began creating shoes, apparel, and accessories for the brand.

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Cashin’s reign as Creative Director ended in 1974. In the years that followed, Coach experienced the start of many changes over the next few decades. Lewis Frankfort joined the company in 1979 as Vice President. The first Coach store was opened on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in 1981. In 1985, with the company reaching $20 million in sales, the Cahns sold the brand to Sara Lee Corporation because the couple decided they wanted to focus on their goat and cheese farm (yes, really – I can’t make this up). The Sara Lee Corporation deal was worth a reported $30 million (which is a lot of goats). Following Sara Lee’s acquisition, Frankfort was named President of Coach.

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Now – this is where things start to take a turn for Coach – the Sara Lee Corporation decided to capitalize on the popularity. Within a year, they began putting Coach boutiques inside Macy’s department stores – while continuing to open retail establishments (remember, prior to the deal there was only one location). By November 1986, there were twelve Coach stores and 50 boutiques nationwide. The company began global expansion in 1988 with its first store in Toyko.

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As Coach continued to grow, it hired Reed Krakoff in the 1990s. Once Frankfort was named CEO in 1996, he made Krakoff the official Creative Director. Krakoff served in this role until 2014. He is noted for the trendy styles we saw from Coach in the late 90s and throughout the 2000s – Krakoff emphasized the “hip, stylish” vibe and also tried to develop a variety of new accessories (such as cell phone cases, dog carrier, and wristlets) that were relevant to the consumer’s needs during this time period.

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Frankfort stepped down as CEO in 2013 and was replaced by Victor Luis. Following Krakoff’s departure the next year, Stuart Vevers was named Creative Director. In the last two years, Coach has purchased both the Stuart Weitzman and Kate Spade brands. The company has more than 1,000 retail stores in North America alone.

The biggest criticism that I hear about Coach is that it’s everywhere. But when you look back at the growth over history, it’s actually pretty amazing that a company can go from six leather workers in a tiny Manhattan loft to one thousand stores in just over 75 years.

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I do think Coach realizes that it needs a major PR boost – which is likely why they hired Selena Gomez for an exclusive partnership. The company has also tried to drift from the multi color logo craziness of the 2000s with its designs – they seem to be going in the direction of Celine and Saint Laurent (I know some people compare Coach’s Swagger bag as a cheaper version of Celine’s Trapeze but this is still quite a stretch for me – the two bags look too different in my opinion). They even currently have a collaboration with Rodarte – one of the ultimate American fashion partnerships.

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The biggest indication of Coach’s desire to change is the rising price point – bags are now solidly in the $400 to $800 range, with some designs topping out at $1500. This is a company screaming “WE ARE NOT A MIDDLE-AMERICA MALL BRAND ANYMORE!”

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While I have been a vocal critic of Coach, I believe it’s time for us to give them a chance. This is a company that rose against great odds and – if nothing else – developed a way to process leather so purses are soft, rather than stiff. I do think the acquisition of their direct price point competitors in both the handbag (Kate Spade) and shoe (Stuart Weitzman) markets was a smart move. Ideally, we’ll see these three brands develop in three separate directions as they each find a new niche.

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So can Coach rise to the top again? I will admit that, after looking this over, I’m more optimistic for Coach rather than Michael Kors. While I’m hesitant for Coach to compete with mid-range luxury brands (Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs, Mansur Gavriel, etc.), I’m not going to count it out yet. Rather than berating a company for exponential growth, let’s cheer on a comeback for an American brand instead.

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Freelance writer. Equestrian. Fueled by coffee. Lover of luxury fashion, college football and used bookstores.

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