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Coach: The Early Years

As a family-run workshop in a Manhattan loft in 1941, the company started with six workers who made small leather goods by hand.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/26/2011

Coach began as a family-run workshop in a Manhattan loft in 1941. The company started with six leatherworkers who made small leather goods such as men’s wallets and billfolds by hand. Five years later, Miles Cahn, and his wife, Lillian, joined the contractor, then known as Gail Leather Products. The Cahns were owners of a leather handbag manufacturing business and were knowledgeable about the leather business.

This story first appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

In 1961, the Cahns bought out the factory’s owners in a leveraged buyout.

Miles Cahn, who was unreachable for comment, had become interested in the distinctive properties of the leather used to make baseball gloves. Through excessive wear and abrasion, the leather in the glove became soft and supple. Cahn developed a process to make it strong, soft and flexible, and it was able to absorb dye well.

At his wife’s suggestion, the Cahns started making women’s handbags with this leather to supplement the factory’s low-margin wallet production. Under the brand name Coach, the sturdy cowhide bags were an immediate hit, and earned a reputation for lasting forever. Cahn built the business around offering free repairs, and its ad campaigns stressed the brand’s durability and longevity. The bags, which were classic and traditional in design, rarely changed from season to season, and were sold in major department and specialty stores, as well as Coach’s own shops.

In 1961, Cahn hired sportswear pioneer Bonnie Cashin to design Coach handbags. She worked for Coach from 1962 to 1974, and revolutionized the product’s design. Among her contributions were designing bags with side pockets, coin purses and brighter colors. She also designed matching shoes, pens, key fobs and eyewear, and added hardware to the clothes and accessories. In fact, she used industrial hardware on clothing and accessories, most famously with the brass toggle that she incorporated into her handbag designs.

In July 1985, the Cahns struck a deal to sell Coach Leatherware to Sara Lee Corp. for a reported $30 million. The brand became part of Sara Lee’s Hanes Group, which then included Aris Isotoner Inc., The Bali Co., L’eggs hosiery and most of Sara Lee’s other domestic nonfood products. Lew Frankfort, Coach’s senior vice president, administration and retail and mail order sales, succeeded Cahn as president of Coach.

In an interview with WWD in 1985, Cahn said he and his wife decided to sell the business to devote more time to their growing goat farm and cheese production business called Coach Farm in Gallatinville, N.Y., which they began in 1983. He said, “We’ve had many offers to sell Coach, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized we couldn’t continue to run both businesses.”

At the time of the sale to Sara Lee, Coach employed about 200 people in its West 34th Street offices and factory. All of the products were made by union workers. The Cahns planned to share $1 million from the proceeds of the sale with the company’s long-time factory workers.

After selling their business, the Cahns poured themselves into their goat cheese venture, which, according to the Coach Farm Web site, supplies the restaurants of Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Peter X. Kelly and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, among others. Miles Cahn went on to write a book, “The Perils and Pleasures of Domesticating Goat Cheese.”