Coach Class

For such a successful man, Reed Krakoff, the 39-year-old president and executive creative director of Coach, talks a lot about the things he can’t do. He can’t, in spite of a semester at the Berklee College of Music, play Jeff Beck on his guitar, and he can’t design avant-garde clothing, like Geoffrey Beene. “I have a strange kind of talent,” he says. Sitting in his spare white office in the West 34th Street headquarters of the 62-year-old leather-goods company he revitalized, Krakoff is in his element—literally. The white leather sofa upon which he is seated, the retro suede sneakers on his feet, the quilted jacket on his back, and the smooth leather tote he rifles through all bear the familiar Coach stamp. Krakoff’s talent, as he puts it, is about “knowing your limitations and working from that.”

Let’s just say that he has rather enviable limitations: In four years, Krakoff’s talent for focusing on his frankly populist taste has turned the formerly stodgy New York–based company into a style juggernaut. Last year, Coach did $953 million in sales (compared with $501 million in 1999, the year Krakoff took over), and projections for 2003 are even better.

The Coach brand Krakoff inherited was identified with the color of a tanned baseball glove, with a nod to black, navy, and the occasional burgundy. Coach goods were boxy, classic, and they’d last forever. But since Krakoff began renovating not only Coach bags but also Coach outerwear, shoes, children’s clothing, eyeglasses, and a vast collection of key fobs, the company’s 162 stores (suddenly looking minimalist-cool) have begun to enjoy a changed status in the retail food chain. What were once so-called replenishment stores, where you’d go if you needed a new calfskin wallet to replace your old calfskin wallet, are now destinations for the trendy.

This season, Krakoff gives Coach’s mens-wear, which was previously skeletal and a little bland, this same style-conscious treatment. His collection—consistent and basic but polished—takes its cues from a tailgate party at a New England homecoming game. Krakoff grew up in Fairfield County, in a David Hicks–inspired house, and he graduated from Taft, the Ur-preppy Connecticut boarding school, in the Ice Stormy seventies. And it shows: His work is preppy in the shapes, modern in the earthy palette. The outerwear—leather bombers in soft, thin calf leather, and sporty parkas that could pass for Patagonia but are more urban in their neutral colors and careful trimmings—is especially strong. There are long striped scarves and suede city sneakers in nutty brown and cobalt blue.

“I like the idea of it being traditionally American,” says Krakoff, “but I don’t want it to look like you’ve seen it before.” Perhaps the most welcome addition for the urban man is the rectangular leather tote bag that offers a sufficiently macho alternative to the tired dot-com messenger bag and the stiff, boxy briefcase. “You have a lot of active sportswear products out there, but they’re not very sophisticated,” says Stefano Tonchi, the influential fashion creative director of Esquire who’s moving to The New York Times Magazine. “Coach gives you that.”

And what timing! European streets and cafés and editorial pages may be filled with anti-American sentiment, but the runways couldn’t get enough Americana: cowboys at Gucci, Cheeveresque models at Prada, buttoned-down Wall Streeters at Vuitton, and James West dudes at Jean Paul Gaultier. “Coach is kind of the Gucci of America,” Tonchi says. “It has tradition.”

Krakoff is mindful of that tradition, even as he searches everywhere for design cues. “My inspiration is so organic,” he says. “I could literally pick up anything and start there.” That seems at odds with his self-portrayal as a man of limitations. So he allows this concession: “I know how to make things that appeal to tons of people. I’m really, really good at that.”

Coach Class