American fashion is at its absolute best when it's serving up authentic Americana. Denim, T-shirts, easy separates, functional, unpretentious luxury spun into a narrative that resonates with a country all too aware of its new-ness. This is the stuff on which the great American shibboleths are founded, from Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to Coach.
Coach has never tasted quite the success outside America it enjoyed at home, where, as the only major leather accessories company there, it's a $5 billion a year, 500-store business - albeit one that's been buffeted in recent times, and not just by the recession, but by other American fashion brands, such as Michael Kors belatedly entering the "democratic-luxury" market that Coach once had to itself.
But Coach was never just about price. It's an aspiration woven into the sensory experiences of millions of Americans. "There's a real emotional attachment to the brand in the US," says Stuart Vevers, its new creative director.
"People remember their grandmother's Coach handbags, their father's Coach briefcase. It's the graduation bag."
No pressure, then, for the 40-year-old, Westminster University educated Brit, who was appointed to his post last October and who presented his first collection recently in New York.
Yet sometimes it takes an outsider to appraise an institution's core values with fresh eyes. Vevers certainly has form when it comes to immersing himself in different cultures and filtering them through a respectful but youthful lens. He moved to Milan to work for Bottega Veneta, back to London for Mulberry, to Madrid for Loewe, slotting in stints at Givenchy and Marc Jacobs along the way.
Each of these labels was notably rooted in its respective country while seeking to appeal to an international consumer. Vevers loved them all, although he never did master the Spanish conversational lessons he took while he was at Loewe. But now he's blissfully installed in a new home in Manhattan's West Village, with an office on the 11th floor of Coach's midtown HQ, which looks out on a giant sign for The New Yorker, he's hopeful that he'll be able to converse with the natives without too many obstacles.
It won't be entirely straightforward, though. His predecessor at Coach, Reed Krakoff, saw the label blossom in 15 years from a $500 million a year company into its current super-brand status, imposing a degree of restrained Waspy taste that is unusual in a brand that size and at that level. When Krakoff took to the helm, bag mania was in its early days. The notion that a woman might buy a new one every season was still more of a tantalising promise than reality, especially for a company that stakes its reputation on durability.
That rate of growth seems unlikely in the future without a serious boost from China. True, it has 400 branches in the Far East (and only 40 in Europe). But Coach's admirable pursuit of affordable classics latterly seemed to tip into blandness. Understated, minimal design has a habit of looking boring if it's not impeccably (and expensively) produced in French or Italian factories. Coach only produces a few of its highest-priced bags there. The rest are made in the Far East.
Vevers has already pinpointed what looks like a catchy new Coach vibe - luxurious but never precious, with the kind of low-key but visible embellishment that made Mulberry bags such a hit.
Translating that spirit into ready-to-wear - a category Coach has never previously attempted, apart from some coats - is perhaps the biggest challenge. It's not as if there's a dearth of other labels out there. But perhaps there aren't that many offering quality, agelessness and functionality at Coach's prices.
Without any clothing archives to research, Vevers looked instead to America's workwear classics - the sweatshirt, the firefighter's jacket, the panhandler's work boot. "We even went to a factory in Tennessee that manufactures workwear because we wanted to see how it is traditionally constructed," he said. Most of the pieces will be produced outside the USA - mainly in the Far East, a few in Italy.
He's not planning to compromise on the design touches that render certain fashion pieces irresistible. "One early conversation we had was about price and whether we should raise it," he revealed. "But designing something that someone may fall in love with and have them be surprised by its price is what I find really exciting," he says. "It's a struggle to find a luxury brand bag for less than $2,000 now. That leaves a huge opportunity for Coach."
Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay a designer who's been brought in to reinvent a 70-year-old brand, is the "of course" reaction. Of course Coach's brand new ready-to-wear line should look the way Stuart Vevers has conceived it: a bit preppie, a hint of downtown, and wholly American. Chic and cosy duffle coats in tan, teddy-bear textured wools or red plaids, luxe-looking donkey jackets, patchwork sheepskin coats and cute short wool skirts with rivet details, all teamed with rugged sheepskin-trimmed chunky ankle boots or flat riding boots looked wearable and desirable.
"I thought about heels for about five seconds," confessed Vevers, "but then I looked around on the streets and asked girls like Cara Delevingne and Dree Hemingway what they want to wear in winter. None of them said heels."
As for those bags - they're richer in detail than has been the case recently at the label, which has tended to rely on boxy shapes and colour-blocking for impact. The Ryder (named, it seemed, after Winona), a squashy, zippy top-handle bag with external pockets, looks like an easy hit, as does the classic, newly tasselled Coach satchel. A black-and-tan leather and sheepskin oversized clutch could be the big trophy get.
"There was huge appetite for change at Coach, which makes my job easier," says Vevers, who confessed he had to pitch hard for the job. "It's an amazing place to work - this brand has resonance with everyone in America. I want to do right by that."
Take a look at Coach's presentation at New York Fashion Week:
- The Daily Telegraph