Joshua Schulman and Stuart Vevers can each keep a poker face. Last Tuesday, the respective president and creative director of Coach sat for an interview at the brand’s Hudson Yards store. In a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed a deep lineup of initiatives, including retail moves, collaborations, digital strategy and the spring 2020 collection that Vevers will show today. Neither belied any indication of the next day’s blockbuster news: the ouster of Coach parent Tapestry Inc.’s chief executive officer — and the man who hired them both — Victor Luis in the face of disappointing execution of the group’s strategy, and his replacement by board chair Jide Zeitlin. The Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman brands are the others under the Tapestry umbrella.
During the interview, Schulman noted that Tapestry was formed around Coach. “The structure, the rationale for the group, is to leverage some of the strengths that Coach had built up over many years in terms of supply chain, distribution, real estate and so forth, but to allow Coach and the other brands to have their own customer-facing organizations, creative organizations and unique expressions to the consumer,” he said. He added that, at the same time, being part of a group has allowed Coach to be “more disciplined in our growth and not force unrealistic growth expectations around the brand. We can be focused on the appropriate type of growth for Coach.”
In the recently completed fiscal year, 2019, that growth was driven by international and digital channels, with North America outperforming the direct competition, according to Schulman. Growth has gone hand-in-hand with the deliberate, strategic elevation of the Coach image and product range from its longtime functional, mid-level positioning to the ever-growing affordable luxury arena, a nascent concept when Vevers arrived with the mandate to deliver an aesthetic and product that would facilitate the change. (This interview fell on his sixth anniversary with the brand.) Since Schulman’s arrival two and a half years ago from Bergdorf Goodman, that evolution has been deliberate and swift.
“When we launched the modern luxury transformation five years ago, it was about how to elevate Coach into having a fashion message and to be relevant in the luxury universe,” Schulman said.
While that elevation naturally centers on the brand’s core accessories, now 70 percent of the overall business — and Schulman stressed that core innovation is essential — the creation of a ready-to-wear identity was key to the strategy, and a primary reason for Vevers’ hire. “One of the things I’m definitely the most proud of is introducing ready-to-wear and fashion to Coach,” he says.
Rather than jump in with a frenetic everything-at-once arrival, Vevers opted for a measured approach, operating from a baseline belief that each category he would introduce must serve dual purposes: it must come from a place of fashion, and it must be fully serviceable. “We introduced categories gradually,” Vevers says. “The first season was focused on outerwear. We didn’t introduce dresses until the fourth season.” He wanted to ensure “that the clothes felt real, contemporary and that they were pieces I was going to see people wearing on the street.”
Despite the controlled approach, Vevers has, in a short time, created a clear fashion identity for Coach, rooted in an underlying urban sensibility infused with bohemian flair. “I had imagined the Coach muse on a road trip, picking up souvenirs along the way,” he says. “But I always imagined them putting their look together in New York City, starting and finishing their journey in New York City. Right now, and you’ll see in the upcoming show, I am really obsessed with the urgency of New York City itself.”
With the ready-to-wear component well underway, focus expanded to reimagining the brand’s network of stores, 980 deep, with a lighter hand. “In some ways this [Hudson Yards] store is a metaphor for a lot of the changes in the brand, and the new energy in the brand,” Schulman said. “It takes the original architecture that Stuart worked on with Bill Sofield to re-launch the modern luxury iteration of Coach and does it in a lighter, brighter, more transparent, more digital, more interactive way.” One of-the-moment change: a more gender-fluid arrangement of merchandise. At Hudson Yards, women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and sneakers are merchandised within the same areas.
Along with this focus on permanent stores, the brand is having a grand time with pop-ups. In the past year, it has done more than 130 iterations globally. Among the more off-beat, recent installations in Tokyo and New York’s SoHo involved different takes on the words “life Coach.” Visitors could enjoy immersive experiences and tarot readings. But they couldn’t buy anything — these were merch-less pop-ups, “probably one of the most eccentric versions,” Schulman said. In May, various pop-ups, mostly in China, featuring the work of Guang Yu, Yeti Out and other Chinese artists reinterpreting Coach’s dinosaur mascot, Rexy.
For Fashion Week, the brand installed “Coach Originals” inside its Madison Avenue store. LINK Heritage is extremely important within the Coach universe. The brand recently acquired all of the intellectual property of Bonnie Cashin, from the Bonnie Cashin Foundation. Cashin, who was hired by Coach’s founders to create bags, may have been fashion’s first creative director.
Much of Vevers’ work can claim Cashin-designed antecedents; when he arrived at the house, he threw himself into the archive, and had some help from the outside. On his first day at work, his now-husband gave him a vintage Coach bag with a photograph of Cashin inside. “She’s like a guardian angel of Coach,” Vevers says. “She introduced a lot of the elements that we recognize as signatures of the brand today.”
The pop-up also offers a take on the zeitgeist-y notion of fashion rental, allowing clients to borrow archival bags using a “library card.” While the returns on the long-term impact of rentals on fashion brands aren’t in, Vevers and Schulman both feel that the pop-up library concept will only add to the Coach ethos. Schulman notes that it will help “emphasize the longevity of the product…these bags can be loved by many people over time.”
Yet these days, heritage is best served with a dollop of currency, and if it’s major celebrity currency, all the better. Coach has forged relationships with a number of brand ambassadors, each serving a different purpose. To that end the range is vast, from Disney, Michael B. Jordan and Selena Gomez to fashion-insider pairing with Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte and, new this season, with Tabitha Simmons.
The collaborations are an exercise in driving excitement, which “can mean many different things and different scales. Our expectation for Rodarte is different than our expectation for Disney or for Selena or Michael B. Jordan. For us on a business standpoint, there are some that are big, traffic-driving exercises,” Schulman notes. “So whether it’s Selena Gomez or Disney, those we go out in a really big way. And then there are others that may be more at the top of the pyramid or with a particular appeal, like Rodarte or Tabitha Simmons, which brings in a level of fashion authority and fashion establishment.”
Similarly, linear thinking has no place in digital strategy. While the company doesn’t break out the percentage of business generated from e-commerce and remains very supportive of physical retail as a key part of its strategy, Schulman said that for the 2019 fiscal year, Coach “drove strong digital growth through the e-commerce channel.” It’s clear that, for Coach, digital means more than just sales through a dot-com. Schulman enthuses over a recent trip to the Oak Brook Mall where one of the company’s sales associates had recently been given the blessing to drive sales through his personal Instagram. Schulman now follows the associate and is inspired by watching how the social media platform aids him in working with new customers in his market. “The Oak Brook Mall is my Disneyland,” he makes the analogy to one of Vevers’ favorite epicenters of inspiration. “His obsession is Disney and mine is going to department stores and shopping malls around the world.”
Schulman stressed that in-market adaptability and online nimbleness are crucial to the brand’s success. “It’s not one-size-fit-all in terms of either the technologies or platforms within one geography are not necessarily the same in another geography,” he says. “So we may excel at WeChat and Weibo in China, but it’s important to be present online in Japan. We just amplified our presence on Kakao in Korea. Of course, Instagram is in the forefront in North America.”
In terms of international markets, despite recent volatility and ongoing tariff fears, China remains Coach’s fastest-growing market. Schulman considers its customer being the most elevated in the world, and the one who most fully embraces Coach’s full product range. “Of course leather goods are our core, but the perception of the Chinese customer is that we are a full lifestyle brand. So much higher penetration of ready-to-wear in that market, our highest in the world,” Schulman, said, noting that the trajectory is expected to continue. “The opportunity there really is boundless as we think about the urbanization of the middle class, the number of cities with over a million people.”
Europe, too, remains an area of opportunity, the business there spiked by the relaunch of Coach Signature about 18 months ago at retail.
Yet for all its global reach, Coach is a New York-based brand, a point it is highlighting in the Coach Foundation’s current “Dream It Real” project, an initiative launched last year that supports young people in achieving their dreams. Despite its timely ring, Schulman swears the title is not inspired by the current immigration situation. When he arrived at Coach, Vevers sent him a package of various of his inspirations, and referred to those he worked with at Coach as “the dreamers.” The handle resonated with Schulman, who describes the brand’s founders Miles and Lillian Cahn as “second-generation immigrants but first-generation American dreamers who turned a small leather goods private label factory right here in Chelsea into a global brand.”
“I think that dream has changed and evolved,” Schulman said. “But the idea, to leave the world a better place and make an impact on your community, has stayed and really been amplified in these last years.” As such, it made perfect sense for Coach’s youth-oriented campaign.
“We see our community as a community of dreamers, of New York City dreamers who see their version of the New York dream, the American Dream as not about gratuitous wealth necessarily, but it’s about leaving the world a better place.”
And, he adds of the campaign’s international casting, “Stuart and the team have done a great job of finding people around the world, not just here in America, but who share those values. It’s a story that’s as relevant in St. Louis as it is in Shanghai.”
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