Coach Is the Ultimate Fashion Gateway Drug

And once upon a time, I was addicted.

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A Religion Is Born

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These prayer hands both pay reverence to the bag and plead with my parents to give me another.
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In high school, I worshipped at the altar of all things Coach. I coveted my classmates' totes printed in the C brocade and made Coach's leather handbags my golden calfskin idols. Quietly rehearsing a plea for a new Coach purse from my parents felt like a hushed prayer. If to enter the fashion world one had to drink the Kool-Aid, for me, that Kool-Aid was the buck demi-purse shoulder bag in hot pink. Once I had it, I was fully indoctrinated.

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My friend Kate was the first of my friends to own a Coach purse, sophomore year. It had glossy black-printed Cs, a black leather strap, and a matching wallet. She carried it with every outfit, and it seemed impossible for this bag to feel inconsistent with any look, even the dance team's practice uniform of a T-shirt and Soffe shorts.

We moved through the halls like a group of Coach evangelizers, our little handbags tucked high up on our shoulders, our keys clipped to the straps via incongruous carabiners.

This week, the fashion brand that, for me, opened the door to all other fashion brands is publishing a scrapbook-style visual compendium celebrating its 75th anniversary, Coach: A Story of New York Cool. Of course, by the time this "New York cool" reached my Houston public high school, it had been distilled to not much more than its signature monogram print.

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That now-classic stack of Cs presented a weird paradox at the time. The letters, stitched in contrasting colors across a tote or small handbag, were noticeable in a crowded hallway. Everyone could see them. Of course, everyone else was also carrying Coach. The wearer simultaneously stood out and fit in.

Look. How. Much. Coach. This. Woman. Has.

My friend Kate led the way. She was the first to get a Coach keychain, the first to get a Coach wristlet, the first to get a Coach tote. Two days ago, Kate and I were texting about her being the arbiter of the Coach trend in our group of friends. How far had her obsession gone, I asked. "I once saw a Coach-edition Lexus, and freaked out and called my mom," she said. "I wanted my parents to buy it for me." (Didn't happen.)

Another friend received a pink Coach bag with a pink iPod mini for Christmas one year. My own first Coach acquisition was also hot pink. Later, I moved on from the C print to a handbag with a green tweed, a wristlet in a patchwork of prints and materials, and a glossy keychain in the shape of an R.

This visual history of Coach's 75 years is peppered with descriptions of the cultural landscape of each decade since its inception.
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We moved through the halls like a group of Coach evangelizers, our little handbags tucked high up on our shoulders, our keys clipped to the straps via incongruous carabiners.

"You couldn't not have one, frankly," my mom told me over the phone the other day. "It's just that literally everyone had one. Everyone carried those bags. Though, Kate had like 25."

Maybe not actually 25, but it certainly seemed like it.

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Then, We Sort of Outgrew It

My junior year of college, I studied abroad in Prague through a program run by NYU. At the time, I was still going to school in the South, and it showed. My sense of style was simply several years behind. I was still wearing flares when NYU girls had progressed to skinny jeans—a few of the more sartorially advanced had even moved on to a '90s supermodel throwback straight leg. I carried a Coach bag. I was alone in this.

To carry a bag that everyone recognized was to carry the *right* brand, and openly mark yourself as belonging to whatever lifestyle that brand represented.

"They all look the same," one of my classmates said of Coach bags. "Why would you want something that looks like everything else?"

I guess I'd thought maybe that was the point. To carry a bag that everyone recognized was to carry the right brand, and openly mark yourself as belonging to whatever lifestyle that brand represented. It turns out, you also kind of mark yourself as the kind of person who wants something because everyone also wants it. Maybe I liked a certain color print or leather strap, but I never really thought about the style of the bag I had on my arm.

When designer Reed Krakoff took the helm of Coach, he shifted the stores' aesthetics to bridge high fashion and the aesthetic of the street-style blogs then beginning to take over the internet.
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This was also the semester that I saw a copy of Vogue Collections for the first time, French Vogue's enormous, seasonal guide to every single look at every runway show in New York, London, Milan, and Paris. The NYU girls studied it like it was a textbook, discussed the direction in which a particular fashion house had taken its spring 2008 collection like they were art historians dissecting the work of the Masters. Which, in a sense, they were.

We'll never escape overt branding, and anyone in fashion who tells you they don't lust after a statement bag is lying. But after coming back from Prague, the narrative of my look, the cohesion of my entire wardrobe, suddenly became really important in a way it never had been.

Dressing was no longer centered around making sure that everyone saw I had, say, a small pink Coach handbag. Rather, it became about broadcasting what kind of person I was, what my values were, what I did and didn't like, before I even opened my mouth.

This Coach ad is from the 1970s, but the bag still feels current.
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The new book charts Coach's own decade by decade evolution in personality and style. Each section, from the 1940s to the 2010s, begins with a narrative look at the changes in fashion and pop culture at the time, penned by writer Joel Dinerstein. The pages that follow are an explosive moodboard of sketches, editorials, print ads, photographs of New York City and the celebrities and fashion insiders who reside there.

Of the 2000s, Dinerstein writes, "Reed Krakoff reenvisions Coach bags through new textures, fabrics, and materials—silk, jacquard, ostrich, mink—all blended into bold color combinations…Can cool be narrowly reduced to equations like celebrity + wealth = rock star or cool = retro moves + attitude?"

In high school, my friends and I thought we looked just like this.

In other words, as I changed, so did Coach. As I overhauled my sense of what it meant to be cool, questioned whether any definitions of cool were even still valid, so did Coach. Maybe the C print had begun to feel a bit generic by mid-college, but Coach was poised to enter the 2010s with a far greater sense of sophistication. In the book, inspiration images from the aughts include an Alex Katz print and photo of Agyness Deyn posing in a black shift dress next to a Coach leather tote in a handsome brown.

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Accepting Coach Back Into My Life

A high-school obsession with one kind of bag above all others is, frankly, boring. But my love of Coach opened the door for other brands (other bags) to make their way into my life. In watching Coach change its aesthetic as I changed mine, in leafing through the lush visual history that is this book, I realized that while I was, for a time, a lapsed Coach disciple, my reverence has been renewed.

The Coach heritage campaign calls back to the history of the brand's design.

"Cool is in transition with everyone searching for new global models of rootedness and authenticity and new mediascapes…Cool can only be sustained through new cross-pollinations of genre and style," Dinerstein writes of Coach's current approach to design.

I think about authenticity daily, how difficult it is to attain, how it often must be achieved in just small ways, personal triumphs that others might not notice.

Not exactly the case I have, but similar in its minimalist aesthetic.
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For Christmas a couple of years ago, a well-meaning aunt gave me a baby blue leather laptop sleeve from Coach that actually doesn't fit any of my devices. My aunt didn't even know it was for a laptop, she just thought it was an elegant portfolio case.

So, I started using it that way. At the next season's fashion week, I carried it as an oversized clutch. When I went on a slew of job interviews in a single month, I used it to covertly carry my resumes out of the office. The Coach logo is stamped on the leather, but it's small. The sleeve is just a really beautiful object that I've adapted to suit whatever need I have for it. That's not its intended purpose, but it's more authentic that way.

Coach: A New York Story of Cool, $75, with a special foreword by Debbie Harry, is out now from Rizzoli, rizzoliusa.com.

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