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.