Lillian Cahn, who founded the Coach Leatherware Co. with her husband, Miles, and whose handbags went on to become staples in working women’s wardrobes, died March 4 in Manhattan. She was 89.
Cahn was born in the town of Sátoraljaújhely, in present day Hungary. Her father emigrated to the U.S. in 1928 and settled in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where she grew up. She later moved to Manhattan to study acting, where she met her husband.
Coach began as a family-run workshop in a Manhattan loft in 1941. The company started with six leatherworkers who made men’s leather goods. Five years later, the Cahns 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. In 1961, the Cahns bought out the factory’s owners in a leveraged buyout.
At Lillian’s suggestion, the Cahns started making women’s handbags, with leather used to make baseball gloves. Through excessive wear and abrasion, the leather in the glove became soft and supple. Under the brand name Coach, the sturdy cowhide bags were an immediate hit and earned a reputation for lasting forever. In 1961, the Cahns hired sportswear pioneer Bonnie Cashin to design Coach handbags. She revolutionized the product’s design, making handbags with side pockets, coin purses and brighter colors.
Lillian Cahn, sounding like any fashion maven lusting after a must-have item, confessed to WWD in 2000 that she had an ulterior motive for hiring Cashin. “I was always dreaming after Bonnie’s clothes in the Town & Country shop at Lord & Taylor,” she said. “I couldn’t afford them, but I loved them. When we decided we were going to launch a women’s collection, I called her right away!”
Part of Cahn’s role at Coach was to develop relationships with the media and high-profile women, who frequently wore the handbags, as well as offer the female point of view when it came to design. She also raised Coach’s profile by aligning the company with philanthropic projects such as the New York Public Library and the Food Bank for New York City. 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. Lew Frankfort, current chairman and chief executive officer of Coach Inc., couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday.
In an interview with WWD in 1985, Miles 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. According to the Coach Farm Web site, the farm supplies the restaurants of Mario Batali (who is married to the Cahns’ daughter, Susan), Daniel Boulud, Peter X. Kelly and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, among others. The Cahns sold the farm five years ago.
Besides her husband and daughter, Susan, Cahn is survived by another daughter, Julie; a son, David; a sister, Judy Miller; a brother, Lou Lenart, and five grandchildren.
“Azzedine has been one of the biggest influences in my life. He has always been such a strong, loving, fatherly figure to me. I call him Papa. His designs are indescribably unique, they are pieces of art. He knew how to make the female form look its loveliest. I have so many memories of him; my favorite might be during my first show with him in Paris. He liked me and he wanted to help me get more work. He called all his friends at Kenzo and Comme des Garcons, and asked them to book me. They said, ‘But she can’t walk!’ And he said, ‘but she has such a great ass!' His friendship and support has been the great privilege of my career. I can't imagine life without him. Repose en paix mon Papa.” - @stephanieseymour tells @wwd. #wwdfashion (📷: @steveeichner) #alaia #azzedinealaia
Azzedine Alaïa, flanked by two of his closest friends, models Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell.
He designed Seymour’s dress for her 1995 wedding to Peter Brant, and treated Campbell (who famously called him Papa), like a daughter. For more on the legendary designer, tap the link in bio. #wwdfashion #alaia #azzedinealaia
Azzedine Alaïa's “I-did-it-my-way” ethos stood out starkly at a time when brands are experimenting with consumer-facing fashion shows, coed formats and trans-seasonal collections – anything to perk up lackluster sales of ready-to-wear in an age of Insta-everything. “It’s not creation anymore. This becomes a purely industrial approach,” the late designer told WWD in an interview last year. “But anyway, the rhythm of collections is so stupid. It’s unsustainable. There are too many collections.” Read more about the iconic designer’s life and work on wwd.com, link in bio. #wwdfashion #azzedinealaia (📷: @WWD Archive, 1986) #alaia
Sneaker reselling app @goat’s latest exhibit, "The Greatest: New York," tells the story of New York's sneaker culture. To celebrate the exhibit, an intimate crowd gathered on Thursday night at the pop-up gallery space, located at Platform in Culver City, to hear guest speaker and illustrator @esymai talk about her own rise in streetwear and women in the business. "For me I'm just someone who is creative. I like to create things," said Chang. #wwdfashion
Azzedine Alaïa, one of the most iconic couturiers of the modern era whose body-con designs defined Eighties fashion, has died in Paris. The diminutive Tunisian-born designer, known for his structured knitted dresses with fitted waists and impeccably cut, figure-hugging second skin silhouettes was deeply admired by his peers, and counted supermodel Naomi Campbell - his adoptive daughter - among his inner circle, one of a gang of glamazons including Farida Khelfa, Carla Bruni and Stephanie Seymour who became ambassadors of his style. (📷: Alexandre Guirkinger) #wwdblast