It’s a surprisingly tricky business, being a fashion designer. Fabulous parties and celebrity friends aside, the demands on the world’s top creative directors at the biggest luxury houses are onerous. Not only are they responsible for keeping the companies they helm afloat by ensuring everything they design actually sells, but they’re also required to produce searingly forward-facing collections (for some, up to 12 or 14 a year) that appeal directly to the notoriously picky buyers and press who line the front rows at their shows. What’s more, to be a successful fashion designer, you’ve got to know how to make your brand “cool”, that slippery cherry atop the fashion cake, a sense of on-point effortlessness that can so quickly and indiscernibly set one label above another. Unsurprisingly, it’s a select few designers who’ve mastered the requisite skills.
Stuart Vevers, the Doncaster-born creative director of American brand Coach, seems to have it sussed. Boasting a CV that includes stints at Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta, creative directorships at Mulberry and Loewe and now the top job at the most valuable luxury fashion brand in the United States, 45-year-old Vevers has, in the space of five years, transformed Coach from a Middle American handbag brand into a global fashion player. When he took the reins from homegrown designer Reed Krakoff in 2013 he introduced a fully fledged ready-to-wear line (putting on the requisite runway shows to match) for the first time in the brand’s history. And over the ten seasons since, Coach’s annual revenues have risen as high as £4 billion.
But who is this unassuming fashion assassin? And how did he land the top job at one of America’s most powerful brands?
The first thing you need to know about Vevers is that, despite his vast remit and impressive network (the designer counts super-stylist Katie Grand and singer Selena Gomez as friends and he’s regularly papped with Chloë Grace Moretz and Kendall Jenner), he’s incredibly “normal”. Vevers lives in Tribeca, New York, with his fashion illustrator husband of four years (they met in 2008) and walks to and from work most days. He’s unpretentious and he’s warm. When we meet at the sprawling Midtown office of Coach’s parent company, Tapestry (which also owns Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman), he’s wearing a simple crewneck sweater in wool, a pair of dark, slim-cut jeans and his strawberry-blond – let’s call it rose-gold – hair is cut close to his head. He has wide eyes and a smooth complexion. He’s relaxed and upbeat – nice, nothing lurking behind his ready grin.
The second thing you need to know is that he’s smart. Where other designers at his level can sometimes take on the role of embattled artist fighting against the corporate machine, Vevers is chummy with Coach CEO Joshua Schulman and he won’t put a garment out on the runway if he doesn’t think it will sell. “Stuart is interested in how companies work and what makes them tick,” Katie Grand told me recently. “And he’s always developed close relationships with CEOs. He’s very interested in the business side of things.”
The third and final thing to know about Vevers is that he’s mastered the aforementioned knack of making things “cool”. At Mulberry he got Kate Moss, Alexa Chung and others to carry the British brand’s handbags; at Loewe he transformed the LVMH-owned Spanish leather-goods label from bit-part performer to hard-edged luxury player; and now, at Coach, he has given the brand a shot of adrenaline to the heart and with it a freewheeling sense of give-a-damn style.
“I actually met a professor of ‘cool’,” Vevers tells me as we settle into a pair of squidgy armchairs in his expansive steel- and glass-clad showroom. It’s the morning after his Spring/Summer 2019 show and the samples from the collection are hanging lazily on the mannequins and rails around us. “Joel Dinerstein is his name. He wrote the Coach book that we launched. He studies ‘cool’ and what it means. So, of course, I discovered him and his work. He actually pinpointed the use of the word ‘cool’ to the early Forties. And Coach started in 1941, so bells went off in my head. ‘American cool’,” he muses, his dormant Doncaster vowels lifted by a transatlantic jet stream, “implies a certain attitude. It’s about someone who takes risks, who defies conventions, but also doesn’t try too hard, has an ease, a certain effortlessness about them. It’s really helped me define the Coach guy and girl.”
The latest outing for said guy and girl, the aforementioned SS19 show, took place at New York’s Pier 94 on a muggy afternoon in September. A giant brontosaurus (called “Bronty”), made from refuse materials including car parts and oil cans was caught mid stomp in the middle of the space, while the sand- and stone-strewn floor evoked a dystopian mood: part Mad Max, part Breaking Bad. Vevers’ commercial nous, his creative flair and that elusive halo of cool he’s so adept at conjuring were plain for all to see in the washed, patchwork leather jackets and lace prairie dresses he sent down his expansive runway. Worn by a snarl-lipped army of achingly hip guys and furious girls – with razor-sharp pelvises to match – these were easy-to-wear clothes dripping with sex and they dared the attendant audience to desire them.
An Americana-infused conflation of “thrift-store” leather jackets, Revenant-style -shearling coats and hard-core denim jeans and shirts, it was the kind of stuff you could imagine Ryan Gosling wearing on a mini-break to Vermont – or Steve McQueen on a stag do. “There’s something about the ease of American style, whether it’s the varsity jacket or the biker jacket, the sheep herder, the T-shirt, sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers,” Vevers tells me of the collection. “They ultimately are the things that people wear today. So, to be able to reference them, as an American house, feels really good.”
It’s this ability to so easily interpret a certain kind of American cool that has thus far defined Vevers’ tenure at Coach. Where his SS16 show was inspired by the Terrence Malick classic Badlands and his AW17 offering was a grungy take on Little House On The Prairie, the designer’s SS19 collection was influenced by a trip he took to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a reservoir of all-American romance just waiting to be tapped.
“I went for 24 hours and when I woke up there it all started to come together. I went with a couple of members of my team. We crammed so much in. We flew in to a nearby airport and then travelled along the Turquoise Trail [the famously scenic highway linking Santa Fe with Albuquerque]. We went to Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe used to paint, then went to a really cool nightspot in Santa Fe,” he continues. “It was the -combination of all those places, these quite disparate references. There was something about the small communities and the salvaged way the buildings were put together that felt very Coach to me, because we have always talked about this idea of the guy and the girl being very personal and customised. You know, like collecting things on a road trip.
“I still see things from an outsider’s point of view,” he says when I ask how he so expertly accesses the psyche of America’s rebel youth. “I think [it’s] because I didn’t grow up here. There are certain references within American style or pop culture that I think if I’d grown up here I might be less inclined to reference, as they’d feel too obvious,” he continues. “But because I didn’t grow up here there’s something still quite exotic about them. Like the classic road trip, the all-American gas station, you know? Even for our campaigns we’ve shot on a suburban street – quite down-to-earth, everyday, blue-collar references. They feel very Coach, but I also think, being an outsider and not growing up with them, that they still have a fantasy element for me.
“Coach is a New York City house and, to me, New York City is the coolest city on the planet.” More so than London? “I think so. There’s something about New York that has an attitude. You walk around the city and it’s really interesting, it’s really diverse, loads of interesting characters. There’s a toughness about it, the architecture, the yellow cabs. It’s cinematic.”
In addition to having a knack for understanding the kinds of clothes that make them tick, Vevers, like many other designers of his generation, has been quick to realise the importance of harnessing celebrity when it comes to attracting the young, Insta-obsessed consumer Coach is targeting. Though Vevers wasn’t allowed to talk about it during our interview, it was announced a week afterwards that Michael B Jordan, star of Black Panther and Creed, was to be Coach’s new menswear ambassador. It’s a trick that worked on the womenswear side already: Selena Gomez, who has 144.4 million followers on Instagram, designed a collaborative collection with Coach and, although sales figures haven’t yet been released, she helped nearly double the brand’s social-media following. Vevers has started fostering relationships with other cool up-and-coming stars too, such as Olly Alexander (of Years & Years) and the actor Lakeith Stanfield (of Get Out fame), both of whom were sat on the front row at his SS19 show.
“Stuart’s work has been amazing from the get-go and I’m not just biased because he’s British,” DJ and MC Professor Green told me back in London. “His careful collaborations and personal injection into the brand has repositioned it, made it relevant and brilliant again.”
Designer Giles Deacon, who worked with Vevers on womenswear at Bottega Veneta, put it most succinctly, however, when he told me over the phone, “[Vevers is] very interested in the mechanics of modern popular culture, especially how that can work at the actor or musician level and how that can relate to getting a broad spectrum of new customers to a company and how that can be relevant to a new generation. He’s very interested in that. He’s always very good at establishing the youth.”
“It’s about building a community in many ways,” says Vevers. ”It’s not strategic as much as… you see someone’s work and what they are doing, the music they are making, the films they are making or the things they stand for, and it’s natural to reach out and see if they want to do something or come to an event or wear something. And then over time it builds.”
I’m amazed by how calm Vevers seems, particularly as he bore his creative soul to the world a matter of hours before our meeting. When I asked Katie Grand about this character trait, she said, “He doesn’t get flustered and he never gets stressed. I’ve never seen him stressed ever.” Having spoken to the designer face to face, I can see what she meant. Vevers – who is rumoured to earn one of the highest salaries of any creative director at a fashion brand – emanates a sense of such cool unflappability that it’s hard to believe the success of the collection around us is responsible in part for the livelihoods of the 15,000 employees who work beneath him.
What’s his secret, I ask. Beta blockers? “I definitely feel [the pressure], but I think a certain amount of pressure is healthy. It gets you up in the morning, it motivates you, it pushes you forward. I was determined that I was not going to play safe when I came to Coach. Ultimately, I don’t think that would be good for the house. I was brought to Coach to bring change and that’s what attracted me,” he continues. “I’m always looking for opportunities that can push forward and push our boundaries and take risks. Whether it works or whether the reaction is negative, to me, that’s OK. It’s part of our process and it’s all about learning.”
We’re about to finish up – Vevers has much work to do and I’ve got a flight to catch – but before I leave, he shares one final anecdote with me, which, I think, best encapsulates what the designer is all about. “I was having a conversation with one of my team last night, after the show,” he says, “and she was saying, ‘I know we can do better. I know we can do better.’ And I was saying, ‘I really believe that is so important,’ but I also said, ‘By the way, well done. It was great.’” He pauses. “But I know how she felt, because that’s exactly how I feel. It’s never done. Nothing is ever perfect. You always have to look for the next cool idea.”