We have to admit that the Rodarte x Coach collaboration, in stores now, is not one we saw coming. Having covered designer collaborations for years, there are a few consistent models: designer x fast-fashion brand, designer x retailer and designer x activewear company come to mind. Designer x designer is an unusual one, even if the two brands are very different (as Coach and Rodarte are), so when we had the chance to sit down with Stuart Vevers and Kate and Laura Mulleavy at the Coach store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, we were determined to get to the bottom of how this came to be.
It began during New York Fashion Week, when Rodarte and Coach were scheduled to show on the same day, and the designers were in touch about that (we're not totally clear on why, either). "We got to know him a little bit because of the fact we were on the same schedule," explained Kate. "We asked him... logistical things and stuff with the show, and we were like, 'oh Stuart's so cool,' and in a weird way we actually had a personal connection."
"There definitely wasn't some big strategy," added Vevers. "It was more emotional; it was like I had a feeling that I'm still fairly new to America and, to me, Kate and Laura are a reference for American fashion."
The designers repeatedly stressed the lack of any strategy and how "organic" the collaboration was; they didn't address the fact that Rodarte possesses the exclusive, artistic luxury Fashion (with a capital "F") brand image (especially now that it's showing in Paris) that Coach has been after throughout its turnaround, and that Coach has the commercial insight, and expertise in leather goods, that Rodarte does not.
Still, there was definitely a mutual admiration: "I think what [Stuart's] doing with Coach is really incredible and I think bringing Coach into a new era, and for us that was really exciting," said Kate. The partnership not only yielded some awesome, desirable (but pricey) pieces that perfectly marry Rodarte's conceptual, embellishment-heavy sensibility with Coach's utilitarian aesthetic — a T-shirt with a '70s Coach ad printed on it and the beautifully embellished leather bags and jackets are highlights — but the collaboration also begat a rare designer friendship.
"Our first meetings were just the three of us at the Chateau [Marmont], on the floor with swatches," said Vevers. "It was very casual, the meetings were fit to be in L.A., which meant they were very relaxed and there wasn't pressure," said Laura. "It kind of felt like a slumber party in a weird way." The Mulleavys described the design process, which included their first-ever foray into bag design, as personal. "We had huge opinions and we've never made a bag before so I don't know where that came from," said Laura. The sisters thought about what they would want in a bag; putting leather on the inside was one personal preference they were adamant about, for instance. However, they didn't think of it as a learning experience; rather, one of the most important takeaways for the Mulleavys was their friendship with Vevers. "I really adore him; I think he's cool and lovely and it's nice to know there's someone likeminded in our industry we can talk to," said Laura.
Even when you're a duo, and especially when you're not in a fashion capital (though L.A. is becoming more of one), being a designer can be lonely. "Designers don't get to hang out together, and it was fun to be with someone that would understand, to be honest, how lonely the job can be and how isolated it is," said Kate.
One of the reasons collaborations like this might be so rare is that, as Vevers put it, "Designers are set up to be more competitive." Conversely, he and the Mulleavys felt a "camaraderie."
"With designers, there's room for a lot of people to be good and it's actually better to join forces and support each other," said Kate. "It doesn't mean that you get rid of the competition because I think a competitive nature is an internal drive for anyone, no matter what job you have. If you wake up in the morning and feel compelled to do it and do it well, you probably have some inkling of competitiveness; but in truth, you're only better when the people that surround you are at their best."
Strategic or not, that's a nice sentiment — and one we could all stand to learn from.
See the full Coach x Rodarte collection, with prices, in the gallery below.