“I wanted it to become a desire, something that was emotional, something that you just had to have.”
So says Reed Krakoff of Coach, the brand he, together with chairman and chief executive officer Lew Frankfort, turned into one of American fashion’s most powerful names.
Krakoff had his work cut out for him when he arrived at the leather goods house in 1996. At the time, Coach was a big — tallying $500 million in annual sales — but dusty American brand owned by Sara Lee, admired but lacking the kind of spark needed to propel it into a global powerhouse.
As president and executive creative director, Krakoff is a brand architect, and his creative control extends from product design to advertising and store concepts. At the time that Krakoff joined Coach, it was rare for a creative director to be given such control of an existing brand.
It almost didn’t happen that way.
Before joining Coach, Krakoff had accepted a job as creative director of Trussardi, and relocated to Milan.
“I came home to start gathering my things, and I was working on casting an ad campaign, which Mark Borthwick was shooting,” Krakoff recalled. “I picked up the phone at home. It was a friend of mine who said, ‘I really want you to meet Lew Frankfort at Coach. He’s just amazing and a visionary. He is someone you’d really get along with.’ ”
Krakoff was instantly intrigued by the idea. Growing up in Weston, Conn., he was familiar with Coach and identified with it.
“I had always admired it,” Krakoff said. “Even then, it was really part of the American landscape. Everyone had a personal attachment to Coach. So I said, ‘Well, I’d love to meet him. It’s a brand I’m really interested in, but I’m going to Milan next week.’ ”
Working against time, Frankfort cleared his schedule to meet with Krakoff.
“I came in, I met with Lew and something just clicked,” Krakoff recalled. “We had an immediate rapport. It’s nothing you can replicate or develop. Most people in this industry want someone whom they can trust implicitly, and who understands them. We spent eight or nine hours together, and that was my first and only interview. I never thought about doing anything else again.”
Frankfort took a gamble on Krakoff but trusted his instincts. Krakoff had studied fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design before working alongside Narciso Rodriguez at Anne Klein, and, later, at Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. He had an interest in art, architecture and industrial design but absolutely no background in accessories.
“Lew told me that this was going to be a journey, and he had real faith in our partnership,” Krakoff said. “It was a very structured company. I was Lew’s partner, and the head of the creative side of the business.”
“Lew was prescient enough to realize that the world was about to change,” Krakoff added.
“Lew saw the model of a creative partnership with business: a creative person who could speak the language of the businessperson, and a businessperson who could understand the language of a creative person,” Krakoff noted. “He said he supports creativity appropriately, which means responsibly. He was a real visionary in seeing that relationship as the success of Coach.”
Arriving at the company, Krakoff saw that the brand assortment was narrow and deep, and sensing the accessories craze over the next few years, he knew that changing that was the first order of the day.
“They would have a few dozen bags in 10 or so colors,” Krakoff recalled. “It was a very different time, and the pace of newness was fractional compared to today. People didn’t expect seasonal handbags; they didn’t expect deliveries every month. It was very much the sentiment that ‘this is my bag every day, all day, and I’ll have it until I need another one.’ ”
With Frankfort’s support, Krakoff amped up the fashion factor in the collection and set out to mimic the frequency of new designs in ready-to-wear “to create multiple visits by consumers,” he said. Krakoff set out to reimagine Coach beyond its classic Duffle, with hopes to bring it to the broader context of the customer’s entire wardrobe. He wanted Coach to become the go-to brand for accessories to carry to work, during the day and into evening, and for shoppers to be drawn to the brand not because they needed a new bag but because they desired a particular style he created.
His biggest challenge was to further develop an already-powerful brand by cultivating a new set of customers without alienating the existing clientele — and he knew the process wouldn’t happen overnight.
“The biggest gift I got is something I think a lot of designers don’t get,” Krakoff said. “It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to figure out what you want to do. It’s not a linear process. There’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of failures. I had many times where I was sitting on the ground before a presentation, with boxes and bags that just looked awful, and thinking to myself, ‘What am I going to show everyone?’ Lew really believed in me enough and encouraged me to stay focused on what I was doing, until I was 18 months into it.”
During those trial-and-error months, he was already working on sharpening the Coach message in areas like advertising and store design.
Three months into the job, he oversaw his first Coach ad campaign — with product that was designed before he got to the house. He decided to place a puppy inside a men’s travel bag. “I tried to do something that was emotional, that was resonant with the brand — warm, American — and suggestive of what the brand was going to become.”
Krakoff also set about revamping the store concept for a more modern look that respected the brand’s heritage and functional aspects without being nostalgic.
“Every campaign, every store, every story in a magazine, every customer experience was a way not only for us but also for the consumer to start to see Coach in a new way,” Krakoff said. “There was no detail that was too small. We redid everything.”
Then came the Hampton collection, a colorful, updated, striped bag Krakoff described as the first complete iteration of the new Coach.
“I could finally say to everyone, ‘This is Coach, today,’ ” he said. “Everyone got it, and I didn’t have to tell them why.”
It paved the way for later collections like Poppy, Legacy and Madison, and the phenomenal growth that Coach has been experiencing in the U.S. and internationally.
Now Coach, and Krakoff, have another string in their bow. In 2010, Krakoff launched a line of luxe sportswear under his own name, a wholly owned division of Coach. Krakoff said his namesake brand was as much a way for him to continue to challenge himself as a designer as it was about a new avenue of growth.
“One of the strengths about Coach is that I believe we can be anything, but you don’t want to try and be everything,” Krakoff said. “We don’t want [Coach] to end up being so diffused in terms of our offering that people don’t know what we stand for. In addition, we have seen that there’s an amazing opportunity in a different segment of the market with a different point of view.”
He said that in creating a brand from scratch, “we were able to start with an aesthetic that was our own, my own, which is extremely different from Coach. We were able to position the brand exactly where we wanted it to be, as opposed to acquiring a brand and being saddled with a network of stores, brand equities, personnel and geographies that maybe didn’t work that well with who we are.”
Krakoff’s references can range from his interest in industrial design and architecture to Bonnie Cashin to the work of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne.
“[Reed Krakoff] was a way to build a very substantial business in another part of the market in a very genuine way, in that my personal aesthetic has always been what my brand has become, and is becoming,” the designer said.
With Coach funding its growth, the Reed Krakoff brand has been able to expand quickly, and within a year of the launch, it already offers an extensive assortment of accessories, including handbags, shoes, sunglasses, jewelry and watches, and a limited edition $695 fragrance. The company also operates freestanding stores in Manhattan; Short Hills, N.J.; Las Vegas, and Tokyo, and has a wholesale-store network including Saks Fifth Avenue; Neiman Marcus; Richards of Greenwich and Mitchells of Westport, Conn.; Hirshleifer’s in Manhasset, N.Y., and, globally, Colette in Paris; Harvey Nichols in London, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, among others.
As for the Coach brand, if Krakoff is at all anxious about the pressures of keeping up its momentum, he doesn’t let on.
“I find it very challenging, but we have an incredible team here, and people are about being successful,” he said. “Lew has created a culture that is very much a meritocracy. A lot of people are very dedicated and very proud of their work, and it makes it easier.
“The longer I’ve been here, the more interesting I find the work,” he added. “We always have new challenges. I never find myself feeling like I’m revisiting something the same way. I always want to create a new idea. I want to always see and challenge myself and the team on what Coach can be. Each new category, each new collection opens up a new view to what Coach can be.”
When Coach expanded into eyewear, for instance, it brought a sense of femininity and sexiness to the brand, according to Krakoff, while jewelry added a more delicate sensibility. Meanwhile, a special collection of handbags inspired by Bonnie Cashin, who innovated with women’s accessories at Coach in the early Sixties, injected a sense of heritage into the lineup without looking old.
“Each time we add a major new collection like Poppy, Legacy or Madison, it shifts the brand entirely so that, in my own mind at least, it stays very fresh,” Krakoff said. “Each of these things changes the brand enough that it keeps me engaged and excited about what to do next. I’m always trying to juxtapose things that don’t necessarily make sense. A lot of times, I say to my design team, ‘What would you never do? What would Coach never do?’ Because a lot of times, it’s what you should do.”
This philosophy has helped him collect many honors through the years, including two Council of Fashion Designers of America Accessories Designer of the Year trophies. As for what else he can achieve in the future, Krakoff admitted that he is not a long-term planner.
“I always believe if you do a good job, you have options,” he said. “That’s my simple way of looking at work and life. I know that if we continue to surprise people and continue to develop the brand, we’re going to be successful. It’s really limitless. The reality is that we all believe that we can do anything. It’s my job to keep it exciting and unpredictable but never lose sight of what Coach is.”