Temporarily down for spiritual maintenance. That’s the message Coach’s 2.8 million Instagram followers received on June 9 before being hit with one simple summons: “Hello… your future is calling. Are you going to pick up?” Cue #LifeCoachNY, six days of life-coach appointments, sound bath meditation led by modern mystic The Hoodwitch, tarot readings, midyear astrology forecasts from The AstroTwins and, because the action converged at the brand’s hip SoHo store in downtown New York, live graffiti and daily DJ sets.
An immersive multi-sensory experience created to “wake up all the feels”, the week was trained on helping the brand’s followers find their truest potential, live their best lives. And the people, they came. Such is the pull of the cult of Coach. And the guru spreading the message of mystical cool? Creative director Stuart Vevers, leader of a dedicated coterie of fashion disciples.
To understand this sartorial spiritual awakening we need to go back four months earlier to Pier 36 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where some of Vevers’ most devoted believers, including Selena Gomez, Storm Reid, Sasha Lane, Vic Mensa, Joey BadA$$, GoldLink, Kiko Mizuhara and Winnie Harlow gathered to witness Vevers’ darkly romantic vision of gothic-tinged Americana.
The spectral autumn winter 18-19 show was set on a moodily lit runway scattered with forest debris and shrouded in smoke that swirled overhead as models in rich, just-this-side-of-twisted prairie dresses swept by. With their eyes rimmed in kohl, talismans swinging from their neck and ears, and rings on every finger, these ghostly figures marked a turnaround from the season before, where the runway was paved in glitter and pretty pastel slip dresses stole the show. But then, that was the point.”I think sometimes you do react to a little bit to the previous collection,” says Vevers, his Yorkshire lilt and warm demeanour the very qualities every cult leader should have if they possibly can. Since landing the top job in 2014, he’s systematically won over a notoriously hard-to-impress industry, restored the house’s luxury reputation and sent sales skyward.
“When I joined Coach, it was really about introducing fashion to Coach. It’s most known for its leather goods, but I really wanted to introduce ready-to-wear for the first time. I was very deliberate about the approach, developing more categories into our repertoire from one season to the next. So really, at the beginning, it started with an outerwear focus and we’ve become most known for our shearlings, our bikers and our varsity jackets. Then the last couple of seasons I really wanted to find an authentic way to do a Coach dress. This was a big dress season.”
His chosen one: a shimmering lamé pleated dress worn by flame-haired model of the moment, American Remington Williams – black lace running down her arms and up her throat, and black stomping boots kicking up autumn leaves as she walked. Squint and your mind could be forgiven for wandering back to another time when redheads were believed to possess supernatural powers (see the Red Priestess, Melisandre, in Game Of Thrones) and women of witchcraft were the outliers of society, rebellious in their wicked ways. Only on Vevers’ runway, rebellion is celebrated. And the otherworldly dress, long on hemline and loaded with detail, is a wardrobe must. “There’s something great about the dress. At the end of the day, you can say a lot about your brand, tell stories about your brand in a single piece. It can have a certain power to it.”
It’s no question the bold young trailblazers Vevers has attracted to the brand have helped speed along the transition from 76-year‑old leather house to hot-property luxury label. There’s Selena Gomez, voice of a generation, who officially announced her partnership with the brand as the new face for the autumn/winter 17-18 campaign and a season later was celebrating the launch of her Coach x Selena Gomez collection, created in collaboration with the designer.
Strong and smart Black Panther break-out star Letitia Wright chose Coach above any other label for her first Met Gala red carpet this year – her bandana-printed gold dress customised with embroidered Ethiopian crosses and one of the actress’s favourite Bible scriptures, “You are the light of the world”, inscribed across the back. And Anna Collins, ballet teacher and little sister of artist and Gucci muse Petra Collins, who made her catwalk debut for Coach this season and has described friend Vevers as “one of the funniest people I’ve met… so sweet and caring”.
Surrounding himself with a diverse group of smart, inspiring, creative people, it seems, is his raison d’être. Born in the north of England and studying in London, Vevers’ career has taken him all over the world, first with Calvin Klein then Bottega Veneta, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and Loewe. “I’ve been fortunate to live and work in so many countries, the UK, of course, but France and Italy and Spain and now the US, and I get to travel and see so many places in Asia – wherever you go you meet amazing people and amazing characters… I think one of the things I love about New York City is that you meet people from all over the world and you meet such unique individuals. I’ve always wanted to celebrate that.”
The most recent Coach collection looks to Vevers’ adopted home and represents an evolution of his celebration of all things Americana. A trip to the Southwest state of New Mexico last summer (the culmination of five summers in a row spent exploring different parts of the US), and the capital Santa Fe – designated a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art – provided a starting point. “I was looking a lot at that kind of tension between the city and the country. A lot of my references have come from the country, but I really wanted the season to feel very urban, and I think that automatically brought in a certain sophistication.” So while there was an artisanal, homespun feel to pieced-together fabrics, leather and metal work, tassels, braiding, whipstitching, found objects and feathers, it was all filtered through the one question: “How would they work in New York City?”
Just like any young protégé flourishes under its mentor, the Coach woman (and man, because for the first season, both were on the runway) is growing up, or at least dressing up, now that Vevers has truly hit his stride. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost any of her casual Coach edge. She’s still styling her look with a hoodie, she’s still shrugging on a leather jacket, and she’s still got a certain swagger, only now it comes with a more mysterious air. “I like it when she makes playful choices,” he says. “And you know, I think she can. There’s a lot of attitude, a toughness, but then there’s also always a lot of romance and femininity, so I think she plays with juxtapositions, a mix of nostalgia with modernity, with a certain sense of ease.”
It would be tempting to get caught up in all the sparkly newness of this freshly formed Coach gang, with their shared symbols of belonging in no small part owing to Vevers’ weakness for an artistic collaboration and his ubiquitous character jumpers (the “Rexy” dinosaur sweater is a street-style mainstay). But for all his efforts to move the brand forward, Vevers remains respectful of its rich past, naming his ready-to-wear line Coach 1941 in a nod to the year the house was founded, and keeping bags – the bedrock the house was built on – front and centre.
“In fact, this season we made probably the most overt reference to our archive. I recreated a bag that Bonnie Cashin [one of the pioneering designers of American sportswear who designed for Coach during the ’60s and ’70s] had created here. Like, stitch for stitch essentially, I didn’t change anything because I liked it just as it was. I didn’t want to alter her idea. And in the end we did something quite fun and we actually hung her name from the side of the bag.” The styling though, was all Vevers. A man after our own heart, he sent bags in duos down the runway, linking small purses together with massively roomy totes in homage to the busy lives we all lead. “Fast, easy, simple.”
There’s a kind of alchemy to the social media-fuelled success Coach is experiencing under Vevers’ creative direction. A well‑oiled, profit-focused machine behind it for sure (company profits were reported to have nearly doubled late last year). But the magic lies in his ability to trust his intuition. “You’ve got to keep things personal and emotional,” he says. “At the end of the day, fashion is about emotion. It’s about how it makes you feel. And so I have to trust my instinct. I always think it’s incredibly important to take risks and to push yourself because I often find the things that made me most nervous when I was doing them, they ended up being the things I’m most proud of, because I was doing something new. It’s about making sure that you’re personally courageous and then hopefully other people will see that and it will inspire them.”
It would be a rare aesthete who wasn’t inspired in some way, by those dark floral prints and paisley scarf patterns, slim trousers and hand-tooled suede jackets, supersized sweaters and slouchy bags that speak to the very soul of what it means to dress to face the world in 2018. All due to a man who has taken the time to consider the current cultural landscape we’re navigating and identified the desire for something transcendent, fashion that elevates the everyday.
“I was fortunate,” he says, simply. “I think one of the reasons we’ve been able to progress relatively quickly was because that first season people were so enthusiastic. Ultimately it gave me, and also the company, the confidence to just be like, okay, so people think this works, so we’re gonna go for it… I think sometimes the stars are aligned.”