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Flying Coach

Creative director Reed Krakoff is piloting Coach from fusty leather goods to hip fashion accessories.

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It looks and feels like a blazing June afternoon, but for Reed Krakoff, president and executive creative director of Coach, it is Christmas Eve. He is halfway through the second day of shooting Coach's holiday ad campaign, which stars actress and Sprint muse Sela Ward; Eddie, the famed Jack Russell terrier from Frasier, who's just finished working a doggie raincoat; and Marisa Tomei, who is draped across a couch as if taking a champagne-induced time-out from a Yuletide extravaganza. Swarms of stylists in yellow-tinted aviators are making themselves useful, re-glossing Tomei's already shellacked lips and re-parting her perfectly parted hair as she dangles a black evening bag (a pearlized mini-Girlie Hobo with a rhinestone Swarovsky buckle, to be exact), snuggles up to a Coach Mongolian-lamb pillow, and angles a Coach watch in the direction of photographer Mikael Jansson.

In other words, all the players in this Philippe Starck-esque Watermill rental look like they're in a photo shoot of a photo shoot. All but Krakoff, who is quietly standing in jeans and a white T-shirt on the sidelines contemplating Polaroids of sultry Katie Holmes -- yesterday's subject -- in a tan leather duster, resting on her elbows in the Napeague dunes.

Not so long ago, when and if style arbiters thought of Coach, it was not a tanned, busty co-ed that came to mind but a beat-up leather Bucket bag someone's mother clutched for twenty years. Which is exactly why Lew Frankfort, Coach's chairman and CEO, pursued Krakoff, 36, a Parsons grad who'd clocked time at Narciso Rodriguez, Ralph Lauren, and, most recently, Tommy Hilfiger, to infuse some sexiness into the slumping American icon. With an all-encompassing post akin to Tom Ford's at Gucci, Krakoff began a multi-front assault. He whitewashed the mahogany-paneled stores, where bags had been displayed library-style, as well as the West 34th Street headquarters. "Turns out they had just finished restoring the bricks," he says.

Next, he hired celebrated fashion photographers like Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, and Jansson to shoot sleek portraits for Coach's ad campaigns and dramatically "dimensionalized" its repertoire -- the spectrum now stretches from alligator clutches to denim baguettes -- to compete with the Fendi-and-Prada revolution. "It's very easy to verbalize it; people throw around words. We have to be 'modern' and 'updated' yet 'classic,' " he mimics. "What does that mean?" Krakoff began the overhaul three and a half years ago, rolling out in addition to the new bags a critical mass of eyewear, shoes, watches, and home furnishings in conjunction with Baker. But it's just this season that Coach and therefore Krakoff have exploded on the radar screen of the city's fashion elite.

"Coach is a huge engine to turn," acknowledges Wendy Hessen of Women's Wear Daily. "But American women are starting to know more about what makes a good bag, and Coach has this history of quality. So it's kind of played into their hands." "It's light-years ahead of where it was in terms of design," adds Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice-president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. Last month, for the first time in Coach's history, its product made the cover of WWD and a full page in Vogue. The Hamptons tote, its best-selling satchel, is rivaling Gucci's Jackie bag for ubiquity. Fashion editrix Elizabeth Saltzman, Angie Harmon, and TLC's Chilli are devoted fans. "I ran into Lisa Atkin, who runs Fabien Baron's studio. She was carrying it," Krakoff delights in saying. "And she was in Gucci."

His ultimate goal, however, is farther-reaching: to expand the label into a global lifestyle brand. (Coach underwear, anyone?) To that end, parent company Sara Lee is spinning off the business and taking it public. Pegasus Apparel, LVMH, and Gucci were all reportedly interested in the house. By growing the company, Krakoff insists, Coach is simply satisfying customers' desires. Knowing just how much and at what pace customers are willing to absorb those desires is his specialty. A recent test-launch of a demi-zip satchel in a jacquard of adjoining C's -- Coach's contribution to the logo frenzy, which Krakoff spent two years perfecting -- sold out in five days, helped along by a Japanese woman who bought twenty. When a pair of $800 leather low-rise jeans was fastened to a mannequin in the flagship's window, a waiting list eighteen deep resulted. "They want fashion from us," he says.

Krakoff admits to having toted Coach wallets and travel bags growing up in Weston, Connecticut. It's the nostalgia factor that made him accept the job even though he was en route to Milan as creative director of Trussardi when offered it; and it's the nostalgia factor that forces him to act like a candidate running for office who must expand his base without alienating his core constituency. "Coach has amazing equity," he explains. "Coach was in The Preppy Handbook. There was a Bucket bag in Love Story."

Forgoing pop culture, Krakoff prefers to cull his inspiration from the art world. He's an avid collector of forties French and American furniture. His two-story townhouse apartment, which features a newly purchased Donald Bachelor canvas, was recently photographed for Elle Decor. In his office, a postcard of the Picasso museum in Paris, an invitation to a twentieth-century-furniture auction, as well as a tiny clay handprint filled in with hot-pink sparkles (a present from his 5-year-old daughter) were part of a recent collage -- a "cultural map" -- he constructs in his office as he fleshes out the look and feel of a line. When the season is over, he tears it down. "Even if you love it, you have to cleanse," he notes. "I'm a big proponent of throwing away and starting again."

Back in Watermill, Krakoff wanders down the gravel drive to one of the wardrobe trailers parked at its end. Towering stacks of samples surround Sela Ward, who is getting her ebony hair blown out. "Um, what is a Hamptons tote, exactly?" she asks in a slight southern drawl. "My friend said I had to bring her one. You've done an amazing job with the company," she tells him. "It's become, like, hip to wear." "Thanks," he offers awkwardly.

Outside, Tomei has changed her pose. This time, she's lounging on the grass while her agent is pacing and shouting into her cell phone. "John Travolta and who else?" she barks. Again, Krakoff is circulating on the perimeter as stylists sweat over which Fortune Cookie bag deserves the limelight. "The way I see it is that we have really gotten into the game. I'd love to do a hotel," he muses, "all in Coach leather." (Prada, are you listening?) "There's only so long people can say to you, 'Wow, it looks so good -- for Coach.' "


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