It is not easy to field media questions right before the grand reveal of a major fashion collection, but Coach New York CEO and brand president Todd Kahn and chief marketing officer Sandeep Seth make it seem like just any regular day at the office — except that this venue is as far removed from a normal workspace as it could possibly be.
A day at the armory
Just for today, Coach has commandeered the grand Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall for its Spring 2023 fashion presentation by creative director Stuart Vevers. A special set, built to resemble a New York City pier at sunrise, casts a particularly dreamy spell and a charming Under the Boardwalk feel over the soaring 55,000 sq ft space. But say what you like, there is no escaping the frenetic energy that permeates the fabric of every major fashion presentation.
Kahn and Seth are cool as can be, however, answering questions in between meeting and greeting the city’s biggest names who turned out in support of the show, including media powerhouse Anna Wintour and New York State’s first female and 57th governor, Kathy Hochul. “We make a great tag team ... the Todd and Sandeep Show,” Kahn jokes.
All around us, models troop in and out for last-minute fittings and hair and makeup sessions while fashion assistants dart about, like busy bees on a mission. An entourage clamours and hovers around Lil Nas X, who has been spotted in and about the hall. It turns out later that the music icon and superstar would be the surprise talent walking the show — making his runway debut while officially joining the brand as its new global ambassador.
It is this fresh and surprise-filled approach to fashion — where celebrity, pop culture, youthful cool and an inimitably American approach to style and design come together to great effect — that has helped Coach maintain its position in a world constantly in flux.
Of value + values
Three days prior, on Investors Day, the New York-based leather goods behemoth announced how it was repositioning itself away from its accessible luxury image and even further away from the constant discounting that seemed to be par for the territory’s course. Thus, the new term du jour was coined: expressive luxury.
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“We talk a lot about luxury and the brand pivoting but, to be honest, it has always been standard for Coach. This is what we have been doing all along, especially over the past few years”
Kahn says: “We just hadn’t coined the term ‘expressive luxury’. What we realised, in April 2020, was how we could really lean in on value as well as values with regard to Coach as a brand; to move away from pricing and promotion as a meaningful lever for our business.”
Seth weighs in, saying: “Everything we talk about is also really rooted in what we have heard from our consumers. I have met up with many agencies here in the US and one of the things that have always come up from those interviews is the need for self-expression. In my generation, it was one singular identity of who you are. But, for today’s generation, there are so many ... and each one is authentic, including one’s online avatar, right?
“We feel this is an important area we need to be more overt about. So, now, the question, how do we bring that self-expression and use our position as a luxury brand to drive that self-expression?
"The key point is that self-expression gives our consumers the confidence to be who [they] want to be and how Coach plays a role in building that.”
The power of youth
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Fashion remains one of the most highly sought-after industries in which to work, but many news reports and op-eds of late have criticised the next generation for lacking the grit needed to succeed in such a competitive arena. It is a statement that makes Kahn bristle. “You know, I don’t subscribe to that view at all,” he states. “I see tremendous growth and potential. I have two daughters — aged 29 and 25. When my younger daughter graduated from college, she took her first job in New York and, bam, three months later she’s working from home via Zoom. [She lost that] entire experience our generation benefited from when we started our careers ...of community interaction, learning from others. And she had to find other ways to create or replace that.”
Seth concurs with Kahn, saying: “I totally agree. It is sometimes very unfairly said that the younger generation has no grit. You have to also look at the context of the opportunities presented to them at a much younger age. You see 15-year-olds doing real jobs. Let’s be very clear — being a TikToker is a real job. Both Todd and I have kids, although mine are younger — my son’s turning 17, my daughter, 12. I see them putting so much effort behind what they’re passionate about. It may not be like me wanting to be an engineer but I also think there’s something there. These kids, they’re wiser than us, you know. They don’t follow things blindly, which I think is a good thing.”
Kahn, who does a lot of mentoring himself, adds: “What I often tell these young people is — and I’ll paraphrase Winston Churchill for this — ‘Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the will to continue that matters most.’ And, you know, careers are going to be long now. If you are in your 20s, you are probably going to have 10 different jobs by the time you retire. We are always anxious now for something more and quicker. But every experience gives you something to learn from, insight to gain and opportunities to go from strength to strength.”
Making brand memories
Being a heritage American brand, it is inevitable that most people have a Coach story to share. Seth’s is particularly heartwarming. Having joined the company in 2021, he has garnered a career history as a brand builder and business leader that is nothing short of impressive. He is all smiles as he talks about how he first got the telephone call from the recruiter. The new position would take him away from Singapore and his role as global SK-II CEO, Procter & Gamble’s multibillion-dollar prestige beauty business, to the bright(er) lights of big city New York.
“When I started talking with Coach, one of the things that stood out for me was how it has been part of so many people’s lives. After I got that call, my wife reminded me about the first handbag I bought her after we got married. It was 1999 and I was flying from Hong Kong to India and, of course, it was a Coach bag! So, what really inspires me is how building a brand can meaningfully connect with people and make a difference in their lives. And, essentially, this is what excited me most about this role with Coach — to have the chance to work with a global and really iconic American brand. I mean, it’s a huge opportunity to build a connection between the brand and today’s generation.”
Listening to Seth speak, it is clear that he is thriving in his new role. “One thing I’ve learnt over the years of brand work is that the first rule is to create a positive emotion in the lives of consumers. We used to say, ‘If you are making someone spend 30 seconds to watch a commercial, at least make them feel good about that.’ Don’t waste their 30 seconds. Translate that into 30 seconds for millions of people and it’s just a waste if you are not adding positive emotion, right? Yes, brands offer functional attributes, but we can and should give greater emotional value than just functionality because even a commodity, an unbranded bag, can meet a functional need. What we do is way bigger.”
The early days
Given their open and honest outlook, it is no surprise both Kahn and Seth lived very different lives prior to taking up the top jobs at Coach. A law student and a former attorney — “Don’t hold it against me,” jokes Kahn — the chief executive adopts the approach whereby all education is good education. “I’ve had legal roles and I’ve had business roles throughout my career. Like so many things, education helps you in everything. Sandeep has an engineering background and the skills do lend themselves. Sometimes, you’re put in a box for too long; so, you get labelled. So, one of the things I’m a big believer in is for all of our talent to look beyond labels and backgrounds.”
We tease Kahn a little on how his surname could almost pass him off as a relative of Miles Cahn, who founded Coach in 1941 as a simple family-run workshop in Manhattan’s garment district. “Unfortunately not,” he laughs. “But Coach is a proudly New York brand and it is this idea, this spirit that we care most about: intellect, work ethic, creativity and grit. I don’t care what school you went to or who your parents are. I mean, this is New York, right? And the ultimate New York perspective means you are never judged by where you came from or for being who you are. And this very approach is what allows us to bring the best talents into our organisation.”
Seth’s inclusion in the Coach equation is an apt testimony. A civil engineer by training, his career path was slightly more peripatetic, including selling fax machines door to door and working in a steel plant doing automation. “I can definitely fix a fax machine for you,” he laughs. “After completing my MBA, however, I toyed with the idea of being a consultant or an investment banker. And, look, here I am at New York Fashion Week waiting for the Coach show to start. But it was really after my stint with Procter & Gamble that I realised the difference brands make in the lives of people. And I want to be part of that.” Having called New York home for several months now, Seth says he could not have picked a more invigorating city. “Here, walking around the streets is what I enjoy most. There’s just so much inspiration everywhere. It shows you life in the real sense — the good and the bad. It’s not perfect but it’s amazing!”
Talking about how the retail landscape is slowly but surely normalising, Kahn also shares how the pandemic gave Coach an opportunity to move away from price and promotion as a singular lever for the business but also refocus on value and values for the brand. “It made us all appreciate our human connections in a much more profound way. Living in a world where our connections were [lived out] on a little box was very challenging and it’s very funny because, if you read science fiction stories from 20 or 30 years ago, this was the ideal,” he laughs.
“One of the things about the pandemic was that it was all about social distancing. For me, it was very different. It was about physical distancing, yes, but remaining socially connected,” says Seth. “Covid-19 has given me, especially, the opportunity to connect with more people than in the past, as life was just moving too fast then. We were just going from one thing to the other, and not having that time to pause and think and connect with people. Over the last three years, I’ve reconnected with so many friends and family members whom I had not prior [to the pandemic]. We are all emerging profoundly impacted and this extends to our thoughts on life and how our work is perceived. I am definitely more conscious of what’s important and I now prioritise things quite differently after everything we’ve seen. It has definitely been a big shift for me as a leader.”
Kahn adds: “Having lived through the past two years, what we all recognise is this need for human contact, this need for interaction, the need to walk down the hall and bounce an idea off somebody.
“A lot of people were very lonely through this experience. Speaking for Coach, I will tell you that we are creating more and more reasons to be together. I don’t see us requiring a five-day week in the office as yet, but finding the right balance is elusive.”
Back to business, however, and it is clear Coach has its roadmap outlined. On top of the list is greater emphasis on building long-lasting customer relationships and a greater global presence. “We announced a number of initiatives for the Tapestry brand, but I’ll focus on Coach itself,” Kahn says. “There are a few key areas for overarching growth. The first is brand building, and Sandeep is steward of that and my partner in creating this idea of expressive luxury and making it real through storytelling and bringing ourselves closer to the community. The second is innovation, which you will see in our core product of women’s leather goods as well as men’s and lifestyle components. And one of the things Sandeep and I are working on is our stores, which are very, very important to Coach — it is our best expression of the entire brand. Our store associates globally are our secret sauce. And I can tell you, one of the things I’ve been so proud of being at Coach for 141⁄2 years is, whether it’s in Malaysia, London, Shanghai, New York or Tokyo, if I just walked into any store, even before they knew who I was, the quality of service and the care shown to me would be exceptional!”
Underpinning that bricks-and-mortar deluxe experience is the brand’s Fifth Avenue flagship store, called Coach House. Stepping in is akin to entering C S Lewis’ legendary Wardrobe: a magic tunnel that transports you into a world of stylish wonder, complete with mechanised conveyor belt bearing a rotating selection of fashionable goodies, from skirts to handbags and jackets — and a 3.6m-tall dinosaur. “We are going to double down on that ... not just the retail experience but engaging all five senses with interesting ideas,” says Kahn.
As a parting treat, he lets us in on 2023’s upcoming re-eal, which will feature a shiny new store in Jakarta in- fused with the talent of Eko Nugroho, one of Indonesia’s most acclaimed artists. “It just made a lot of sense, as Indonesia has a massive under-25 population. We were given this exciting opportunity to express ourselves, which is something we love,” Kahn says animatedly. Coach’s new buzzword might be “expressive luxury” but, having listened to all that Kahn and Seth have talked about, it could also be flipped to include “the luxury of expression”. That works equally well.