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Reed Krakoff sits in the art- and book-filled office he uses for his new namesake brand, and reflects on the last year.
This story first appeared in the February 13, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It’s been a busy few months. In a relatively short period of time, Krakoff created the concept for his new brand, which will be unveiled with a runway show on Wednesday; designed the line of utilitarian sportswear, luxurious leather handbags and shoes, and oversaw the production process, which is now culminating with first samples arriving at his 516 West 34th Street base. Krakoff has done all this while fulfilling the duties of his other job as president and executive creative director of Coach, the iconic American brand he helped reinvent into an accessories giant over the past decade.
Where other designers may show signs of stress or runway jitters, there is little room for such sentiments chez Krakoff. On this day, and several days later during the blizzard that brought much of New York City to a halt, Krakoff is the picture of calm.
“There’s an expression: ‘Water finds its level,’” he says. “If it’s something you really feel passionate about, you find a way.”
Passion is something Krakoff has exhibited over the last 13 years at Coach, where he, in tandem with Lew Frankfort, chairman and chief executive officer, has played an instrumental role in transforming a dusty, $500 million American leather goods label into a $3 billion powerhouse — in the process, creating a business model that many peers looked to emulate, but to which none have managed to come close.
At Coach, Krakoff describes his role as a brand architect, successfully filtering his design vision for the accessible luxury brand through the Coach lens and its needs to address a geographically and demographically diverse customer. For the first time in a career that took him from Parsons School of Design to Anne Klein with Narciso Rodriguez, and then to Polo Ralph Lauren and to Tommy Hilfiger, Krakoff is able to express his own vision, pure and unadulterated, and, better yet, with Coach’s financial prowess behind him.
The Reed Krakoff company is a wholly owned division of Coach and, as such, represents another avenue of potential growth for the parent group.
To those who know Krakoff and his affinity for art, architecture and industrial design, it comes as no surprise that his vision is built on the utilitarian ideals of American sportswear. He hopes to evolve the Seventh Avenue ideal with an injection of sensuality for his new designer brand.
“To me, it’s very much a reembracing of American sportswear and the heritage of American design, but reimagining and reinterpreting and looking at it in a new way,” he says of the collection. “I love American sportswear and grew up with it. I think, for me, it’s always a very fertile place for utilitarian-inspired ideas that come out of construction, and materials, details and surface decoration. Everything is an outgrowth of this utilitarian chic.”
As the first samples started to trickle into the showroom Wednesday, his vision crystallized. Outerwear plays a key role in the collection, with constructed coats loosely culled from military styles, but more refined and abstracted in their execution. Working with his design team and stylist Melanie Ward, Krakoff balances the structure with a soft, silk wool top and an alpaca and twill skirt, and he tops the look off with a cool take on the beret in mohair and napa.
“Between the concept in your mind and what it actually looks like, there’s a lot of room,” Krakoff says. “It’s been a real journey, in a way, to get to the place where the clothing and the woman are starting to become a reality. The words always come easy. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of trial and error, a lot of refining and kind of standing back, taking another approach, getting to the idea of this woman that we are trying to portray.”
The woman is likely to be well versed in Krakoff’s frame of references, which developed over the years, whether it’s sportswear references such as Bonnie Cashin, a collaboration with artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne or his photography of Ultimate Fighter martial artists.
His inspiration board ranges from Patti Smith — “When I think of Patti, I think of a masculine-feminine take on clothing and of a uniform, the way she wears tailored clothing and puts things together with a mannish boot and a more tailored jacket,” he said — to Walker Evans’ “very American, simple but quite refined images,” stainless steel works of Ron Arad and Joseph Beuys’ felt suit. The German artist, in fact, serves as a major inspiration to Krakoff, for “the way he looked at his art. It was extremely organic and natural — the materials, his approach, his involvement of science and theory.
“At the same time, there was something sensuous and organic to what he did,” he adds. “I think that mix of those two things — the intellectual side and the organic and tactile side — is something I really react to.”
Krakoff said reimagining American sportswear in such a strong, almost workwear way is less about the time than his personal evolution.
“It’s more about, ‘What is my personal aesthetic?’” he says. “What do I feel is natural and believable, and something that I believe in? I do think that American design is incredibly important in the world of fashion and the world of design and architecture. It’s very inspiring and fertile, and that’s really more the reason.
“The real excitement for me is that I’ve really been able to focus in a very narrow way on ready-to-wear and on creating a real holistic approach to how that woman looks in terms of the cross-categories, like what is evening in this world and what is day? And what do we want to stand for? What is really the look of the collection?”
The brand is positioned at the designer level, and in addition to targeting upscale specialty and department stores, Krakoff will open his first freestanding store at 831 Madison Avenue between 69th and 70th streets this August, with plans for several more units nationwide and internationally.
Graziano de Boni, president of the Reed Krakoff business, said the company is looking at the new brand as an opportunity from the consumer point of view. He declined to make first-year sales projections. “We will be bringing a new, design-driven collection with a lot of innovation, craftsmanship and quality and price,” says de Boni, who joined from Prada USA. “We know that, over the last 10 years, between the boom and the deflation of the Great Recession, there has been a whole new market created in the luxury world. The retail world is looking for new opportunities and new brands, and novelty and newness, and we want to be one of them. We want to be a very important brand in this new decade in this new millennium.”
In addition to its own freestanding retail, de Boni says the distribution strategy calls for wholesale accounts strategically selected in the beginning, as well as e-commerce.
“We want to be strategic in that respect, and make sure that the brand and the business are cultivated in the right way, capturing the new consumer need in the designer world that is out there,” de Boni says.
As for Krakoff, some may wonder why he would want more — particularly with an already healthy career at Coach that has garnered him the respect of industry peers and made him extremely wealthy.
“My career has been a really organic experience,” Krakoff says. “For me, it’s important to continue to grow and challenge myself, and be inspired and explore new areas. It’s also a much more focused and pointed experience for me. The other experience is more about brand architecture and being able to holistically manage all these variables that make something successful.”
Coach and Reed Krakoff are being kept completely apart with separate teams and offices, and Krakoff says working on both has helped each.
“When I’m on one side, I have a little distance from the other,” he says. “It really keeps it very clean in my head. It’s helpful for me to go between the two. I think they inform each other. They help give me a little distance and keep me inspired. But it’s a very different experience, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed.”
The new brand is likely to expose a new side of Krakoff that few have seen before — one he says is completely different from his work at Coach. Unlike most of his peers, who create a designer apparel line first before moving into a more mainstream realm, Krakoff is all too aware that he is on a reverse course, and he likes it, not least because it has given him an insight into designing as a means to sell.
“It has to be real. It can’t be clothes just for the runway,” he says. “I find it is a real trap to do clothes just for image. You have to create things that help you start to explore what the brand is about. People are so smart and so sensitive to what’s out there. People are so informed that everything you do has to be real.”