In the Bag

Reed Krakoff makes it chic to go Coach

A shiny-haired young saleswoman greets Reed Krakoff the moment he enters Coach's flagship store on 57th and Madison. She could easily pass for Ali MacGraw ca. 1973: an all-American sun-kissed beauty with just the right rebel vibe about her.

"Reed," she says, grabbing his arm, "we have one light-blue tote left. When can we get more?"

Krakoff smiles and tells her a new shipment should be in the store by early the following week.

"Everybody wants one," she tells him.

These days it does seem that everyone wants a piece of Reed Krakoff's Coach. Before he took over as the company's first creative director in late 1996, people didn't expect much except the familiar and never-changing line of chunky leather bags, belts, and wallets in shades of black or brown. Krakoff changed all that, jolting Coach into a new era. Sales have skyrocketed since his makeover, with 100 new stores to be added over the next four years to the 426 worldwide, 226 of which are in the United States. But the surest sign of Coach's newfound chic was in June 2001, when the Council of Fashion Designers of America named Krakoff Accessories Designer of the Year. This October he and Coach turn the tables: Krakoff, who serves on the board of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, will be presenting at the Coach-sponsored Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards.

Which takes us back to that Ali MacGraw-esque saleswoman. This all-American beauty with a contemporary energy, even a bit of an edge, is key to Coach's success. "Everyone has a link to a Coach product," Krakoff explains. "When I got here I realized that's the foundation. But I had to update the image. And when I thought of updating it, I thought of that classic girl with the Coach bag. I had to think, Who is that girl? We had to hold on to the core of what makes Coach great."

The store display reflects only a sample of the thousands of items Krakoff has introduced—all reflective of his desire to keep Coach classic and to make it new. The once-frumpy purveyor of purses is now featured in music videos and produces everything from embossed-leather PDA cases and leather jackets to trendy wedge-heel sandals. And just about every piece comes in vibrant bursts of powder-blue, red, grass-green. Color, it seems, is something of an obsession for Krakoff, a collector of colorfield paintings by masters such as Helen Frankenthaler.

From a business perspective, Krakoff was a natural choice to resuscitate Coach, a company founded in 1941 as a family-run workshop. He comes with quite a bit of American design history of his own. He was an illustrator and a designer at Ralph Lauren and served as chief marketing officer at Tommy Hilfiger. "I got a great education at both places," he says.

Take a deeper look at the 39-year-old Krakoff's life and he seems groomed for his current position. "I grew up with Coach," he says. "Everyone in Greenwich, Connecticut, had one of their bags or belts. They were even made near where I lived. It was almost in my blood."

But back then he had more pressing concerns. "For years I wanted to be a pro hockey goalie." He was so good that he was recruited by a New England boarding school and starred in the New England teen hockey league. During summers he played in a prestigious Canadian-American teen league, a legendary breeding ground for the future stars of the NHL.

It's difficult to imagine this soft-spoken man patrolling a hockey net, stopping screaming slap shots. "Well, as a kid I was always doing disparate things," Krakoff says. "I loved sports, but my mom was a decorator and turned me on to painting." He studied it seriously in college but realized soon after that he was not suited to painterly life. He decided he was more interested in the business side of creativity and went to Parsons School of Design, then got an internship in 1988 as Narciso Rodriguez's assistant at Anne Klein. After that Krakoff was off and running at Ralph Lauren and Hilfiger, eventually arriving at Coach when CEO Lew Frankfort hired him to operate an image overhaul.

"It's a long way from hockey nets," Reed Krakoff says. Indeed. "I have no idea what's next. I just keep following my instincts"—and a vision of that new kind of classic girl in his kind of Coach.

Information: 888-262-6224; www.coach.com.