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The Nostalgia of Possibility at Coach A/W17

Ben Cobb visits New York for Coach's 75th anniversary show: an occasion filled with boundless optimism and the American spirit of togetherness

TextBen CobbPhotographic EditorHolly HayPhotographyJoshua Woods

On a cold Thursday evening last week in New York, inside a giant hangar on Pier 94, Coach was preparing for a big moment. In a landmark year celebrating the American powerhouse’s 75th anniversary, a year which has seen flagships open on Regent Street in London and Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the stage was set for a climactic show. The first-time decision to merge women’s Pre-Fall and men’s Autumn/Winter 2017 into a single event, and schedule it outside of the fashion calendar, had all eyes fixed on what was about to unfold… If Coach’s creative director Stuart Vevers was feeling the pressure in the final hours before curtain-up, he certainly didn’t show it.

“Tonight is the culmination of three years of hard graft,” he beamed, sitting back on a sofa in the only quiet corner left backstage. “It’s going to be a celebration but I want it to also have a message. I want people to leave here with a sense of possibility, togetherness and optimism.” What the British designer delivered was a nuanced, smart statement on the America that he loves, and a collection that took Coach’s reinvention to its ultimate conclusion.

As the audience took their seats, in front of them, a strange, slightly eerie vision of Americana emerged: the perfect recreation of a small-town motel parking lot, complete with lamps, trees and vintage Cadillacs. The spell of this empty, late night scene, loaded with Lynchian atmosphere, was suddenly broken with a blast of lights and hip-hop.

Out they came, the Coach gang. The boys in chequered granddad trousers, cropped suede jackets, oversized shearling coats and tassled sneakers; the girls in embroidered floral dresses, fur bombers, fluffy jumpers, tan leather coats and metallic clogs. Jackets and trousers could have belonged to the guys or the girls, it didn’t matter; this band of outsiders and rebels was united, walking side by side in search of adventure. An energetic, carefree mash-up of youth cultures and their codes filed by, from surfers and skaters to punks and, Vevers’ perennial favourites, B-boys.

“There was something about an LA kid arriving in New York,” he explained. “The idea of the East Coast and West Coast coming together, that eclectic individualism, the attitude of New York City with this kind of optimism and colour of the West Coast. The Beastie Boys are always on my men’s reference board. Harmony Korine was in there. Courtney Love for the women… And Daffy Duck!”

An equally diverse range of symbols and motifs decorated the garments. Ice cream cones, a cute dog and Rexy – Coach’s now iconic dinosaur – appeared on pins, patches and sweatshirts, alongside the NASA logo, rockets and stars. Why the focus on space exploration? “It’s very nostalgic,” said Vevers. “It’s the nostalgia of possibility. I think there’s something about that time and the Space Program, the rockets, the planets and the NASA graphics, that kind of gives this feeling of possibility.”

Elsewhere, Coach’s expertise in craftsmanship and the designer’s magpie-like eye for “picking up different bits and pieces and putting them together” was on full display on the bags, with bottle top and linked leather straps, and metal eyelet decoration. Pushed to pick a favourite piece, Vevers selected the ragged shearling coats in both collections. “They’ve become a really key Coach signature now,” he nodded, “and this time we’ve taken it to the next level by leaving all the edges raw. It really celebrates the idea that at Coach when we do something luxury, it’s not precious. It’s more about an attitude than being perfect.”

For Vevers, the biggest challenge of bringing together men’s and women’s for this anniversary spectacle was less about logistics, and more about letting go. “It’s the first time we’ve presented them together so it took a lot of thought about how we approach that. I like that we’re just mixing up the clothes, swapping them around; it’s boys wearing girls’ clothes, girls wearing boys’ clothes. It’s playing with the Coach attitude, bringing some emotion. This show is definitely me challenging myself to do something that I’ve not done before.”

As the last looks walked by, the show was not quite over. Against a backdrop of huge flashing signs – ‘Drive In’, ‘Motel’, rockets and arrows – the Young People’s Chorus of NYC gathered with lanterns and, as snow magically fell from the ceiling, launched into Jay Z’s anthem to the city, Empire State of Mind. “These streets will make you feel brand new / The lights will inspire you…”

Outside, in the blustering dark, in a city still struggling to come to terms with a new leader and the regime change he ushers in, it was impossible not to read this evening’s extravaganza as a poignant rallying cry for acceptance and togetherness. Smiling, Vevers gathered his thoughts. “From the moment I first joined the brand, one of the values of Coach that I love is this idea that it’s inclusive, that it’s open. Tonight is a celebration of that. New York City is a cultural melting pot, and it’s a celebration of that too. These are things that I’ve always celebrated.”