In the Bag

Coach, the respected leather-goods brand, reinvents itself and sews up a wider market

August 10, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- It's with an almost blase air that Reed Krakoff mentions his latest dabblings as president and executive creative director of Coach.

Grabbing a fistful of gloves splayed on a chair outside his office, he mutters, "We have mink-lined mittens, stripes, oranges." He casually gestures over at a nearby Game Boy pouch for Holiday 2003 that has fuchsia patent leather piping. And, during a quick tour of his floor, he stops briefly to inspect a new Coach shopping bag featuring a sharp pattern of pink and blue flowers.

Flowers? Game Boy pouch? Orange gloves? Just seven years ago, it was unthinkable that these words would have been linked to the staid, leather powerhouse.

These days, however, the unexpected has become expected at Coach, a brand that has undergone one of fashion's most dramatic and successful reinventions in recent history.

Once known only for sturdy -- but, often, unexciting -- leather goods, Coach has blossomed into the place to go for trendy clutches, hats, even dog leashes. With purse prices ranging from $140 to $400, Coach has become the working woman's Louis Vuitton, the brand they (realistically) can aspire to save up for and own. But it's also attracted high wattage fans ranging from Jewel to Julianne Moore, and it's been spotted on red carpets, in Jennifer Lopez music videos and on the stylish women of Sex and the City. As for sales? They've been stellar even in this trying economy. Just last week, Coach announced $953 million in sales for fiscal year 2003, up 32 percent from last year.

And Coach's recent success story began with the hiring of one person in 1996 -- Reed Krakoff, whose creative and commercial instincts have been guided by one simple question: What do women want today?

"Coach had an incredible reputation -- it was just a little dusty," says the baby-faced Krakoff, clad in jeans, a black Prada leather jacket and (as always) Coach shoes. "We'd never made a bag that wasn't all leather. All the bags were this heavy cowhide, unlined. That says a lot right there. It was a brand that made one kind of bag, basically, but did really well with it. ... So the idea was, 'Well, how do we make it more relevant for people today?'

"Women want something functional, they want something lightweight, they want something stylish, they want something seasonally appropriate," he adds. "All those things were not really taken into consideration for a long time."

So, one of the first things Krakoff did was, he made sure they were.

In the beginning

Long before Krakoff came along, however, Coach already had been a certified success. The company began in 1941 in a small loft on Manhattan's 34th Street, where artisans made leather belts and wallets. It quickly grew as people increasingly knew to turn to Coach for quality leather accessories.

In 1962, co-founder Miles Cahn, inspired by a luxuriously soft, seasoned baseball glove, commissioned the creation of the company's first handbag. The company's reputation for fine leather goods would steadily grow domestically and internationally in the following decades. In 1981, Coach became even more fashionable after a mention in Lisa Birnbach's popular The Official Preppy Handbook.

This, however, began to change in the 1990s, as European companies such as Gucci and Christian Dior began focusing more on accessories.

"European luxury brands were targeting both the U.S. and Japan for expansion, and we had some early indicators from our consumers that their future purchase interest was not going to be as great as it had been before," says Lew Frankfort, Coach's chief executive officer. "It became clear that we needed to rejuvenate the brand if we were going to continue to be America's No. 1 accessories brand."

To achieve this, Frankfort called in Krakoff, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan who'd designed womenswear at Polo Ralph Lauren and was creative director at Tommy Hilfiger.

The two brands on Krakoff's resume shared much in common with Coach. Both were brands rooted in a distinctively American identity that played big parts in their mass appeal and both companies had expanded their fan bases by branching out into new categories such as ties or children's wear. At Tommy Hilfiger, sales grew from $80 million to almost $1 billion in Krakoff's time there.

"Reed brought a great sense of magic to Coach," Frankfort says. "What attracted me about Reed is his natural understanding of brands, his ability to be respectful of the core equities of the brand and recognizing the need to layer on more personality."

In December 1996, Frankfort and Krakoff met. And Coach's next chapter officially began.

When Krakoff joined Coach, its sales had been hovering at about $500 million. And Frankfort estimates that the average Coach consumer was about 40 years old.

Krakoff immediately recognized the fundamental change that had to be made.

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