In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
By the time Stuart Vevers landed at Coach, he'd already made a name for himself as a creative director, having led a turnaround at Mulberry from 2004 to 2007 and at Loewe from 2007 to 2013. He cut his teeth in the accessories departments of some of the most iconic brands in the industry — Calvin Klein in the '90s, Bottega Veneta, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs' Louis Vuitton — before returning to his first love, women's ready-to-wear. Really, though, his story begins in northern England, where he spent his adolescence as a tall teen making clothes for himself based on what he'd see in magazines to go clubbing.
Vevers credits many of his achievements to the initial opportunity to explore and nurture his love of fashion at university. Many of the most valuable lessons, he says, happened outside of the classroom: moving to London on his own, meeting people at school and in the club, feeling challenged by a new environment and finding his way as a young adult in a city. That's why the work Coach does to support education equity feels so personal to him.
Last week, the brand announced that, through its foundation, it would support 5,000 students with scholarships through 2025, partnering with various non-profits around the globe to provide people — and especially those from underrepresented communities — with resources and mentorship that will allow them to pursue higher education. It's Coach's latest effort under the Dream It Real umbrella, launched in 2018, which also has a scholarship for students at HBCUs with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a partnership with the China Youth Development Foundation and more initiatives with a range of organizations working in this space.
Fashionista spoke with Vevers to learn about the role his education played in shaping his point of view as a designer and a human, the "specific" way he got his first job in the industry, what drives him as a designer and more. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
Where does your interest in fashion come from? When did you know that you wanted to try to make a career out of it?
I grew up in the north of England, and both of my parents left school at 15. I didn't really have people in my life who I could learn about career or university [from]. I definitely came to fashion through nightclubs. My grandmother actually was really good on a sewing machine. I was always curious when she was making things — she would make things for amateur dramatics, for herself or my mom.
I was a little tall, so I could get into a nightclub from around 15 — I know that's not something you're supposed to do, but I could. I didn't have any money, and I would look at magazines and make things for myself. They were very shoddy, but it was fun. It was creative. I started to enjoy it. Art was always my strongest subject. I was always drawing, painting, making things. But I never thought that I'd use creativity as a career. I just didn't have the references in my vault. So it was nightclubbing. Once I started to make outfits, it was then where I started to research more about the designers. And then I started thinking, well, maybe this is something I could do.
Did you seek out fashion design as a field of study when you got to university?
I did a foundation course, which in the U.K., is a one-year course, which you usually do close to your hometown. You didn't, at that point, get grants and things if you went outside of your local areas. And it's multidisciplinary, but it was a design foundation course. It's quite short, and you try graphic design, applied arts, fine arts — fashion was one of the things. I knew I loved fashion before that, but when I did that, I was like, 'Okay, that's what I'd love to do.' And so that's when I applied to go to university.
In the U.K., you specialize right from the beginning. You start in that. When I said I want to study fashion, my father was maybe angry with me. I think he saw the opportunity he'd not had himself — that I had this opportunity, that my grades were good enough that I could go to a university. He was worried I was throwing everything, all that opportunity, away by studying something where he couldn't see a career at the end of it. Fortunately, I did what I wanted to do. We didn't agree for a while, but once he saw my passion for it, he was very quickly supportive. We laugh about it now.
Coach just announced a big investment in scholarships. What did fashion school give you? What skills that you use now that you attribute to your education? How did it shape you into the designer that you are today?
It's such a life-changing experience. For me, it was moving away from home, to London. As much as the education itself was so fantastic — I went to University of Westminster, it was an amazing course — it was the people who I met through that, the people who gave lectures, people like my tutors... They taught me skills and they educated me, but they also helped introduce me to how you go about thinking about your career, what different paths there are to go down. Then, of course, I continued going clubbing. I met people socially who would go on to start magazines... As much as you're learning, it's also about creating your network, [meeting] the people who are going to support each other in the future. So, it's everything around that.
I mean, getting the balance right — it's not always easy, and I failed at times. At one point, I was working in a bar five nights a week, going out and trying to do schoolwork. Again, it's just the things you learn as you start to become an adult, about how many things you can do. I would say, I was doing too much, but at the same time, I was taking as many opportunities as I could. And I think that's what it comes down to: Learn as much as you can during the day, but also go out and meet people. It's everything combined that helps you find out who you are, ultimately.
After college, you went on to work at a bunch of different major brands. Looking back at your career timeline, what are the big milestones that you see as the building blocks that got you to where you are today?
Your first job is so key, right? The way that I got my first job was so specific — in a way, that was a lesson for me even going forward.
I really wanted to work in New York after school. It was the late '90s and there was a real buzz about city. There's always a buzz about New York, but then in particular, there was something very much happening, especially in fashion. I heard that Calvin Klein, the company, was interviewing people; I asked to be put forward and I wasn't selected. I was stubborn. My friend was someone who had been selected and I basically asked if she'd let me know where it was, and I just turned up. I knocked on the door of the person interviewing, and she was a little confused, but she was kind of, I think, intrigued by the fact that I was being so cheeky. She looked through my work and she kind of agreed with my college, like, 'Your work is not right for Calvin.' My work was never minimal. She basically was like, 'I'll put you up for a job in someone else's department.' And she did: I did a project, and I got the job. I missed my own graduation because I was already in New York.
I guess that was a lesson in, sometimes, you've got to ask. I think to some extent, I've always had that, maybe because of my working-class background. I always feel like I have to fight for everything.
Tell me about how you worked your way up the ladder. You went on to work at Bottega Veneta, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs' Louis Vuitton — how did you keep moving forward and advancing your career, eventually to becoming a creative director?
Every one of those, I kind of bowed to the opportunity. I bowed to the knowledge of the people I was working for. I was just like a sponge. I just wanted to learn. But I also took every opportunity. I didn't think twice about moving from New York to Italy to France. I was very driven and ambitious, and I just went where the opportunity was, by the things I was really excited by.
I think the biggest thing was, I went where the opportunity was. If something excited me, I didn't think twice about moving country. It does open a lot more doors to you, if you're prepared to do that.
How did you end up specializing in accessories? How did you continue to develop those skills?
I studied women's ready-to-wear in college. When I went for my first interview [at Calvin Klein], that was the role I was interviewing for — when the person I met said she'd put me forward for a job in another department, it was actually in accessories. When I did a project and they got back, it was, to me, a foot in the door. I was like, 'This is a place I want to go. This is a brand that I think will be inspiring to work for. At some point, I'll pivot. I'll go back into what I did, womenswear.' And I just... I really enjoyed it. I saw an opportunity there because it was a time when accessories were becoming more important, particularly bags. I thought, 'This is fine. This is design. This is creative. It's exciting. It's a fast-evolving area.' I just kind of embraced it and went with it.
Maybe because I started as a womenswear designer, I think I have that bigger perspective. I was still very passionate about the world of fashion and the complete look, and how that all works. So, whilst I was focused on designing accessories, I was always intrigued by seeing the styling process and all the other processes, observing what happened in a fitting for clothing, which I would often attend, so that when I did have the opportunity to be a creative director, I feel like I had learned a lot along the way. But of course, the houses that I've been creative director for are almost known for their leather goods. So, it was a natural fit, in that way.
Right. You look back at your design career, and it can feel like a story of phenomenal handbags — especially your time at Coach, but also Mulberry and Louis Vuitton under Marc Jacobs. How did you develop your point of view in accessories?
It's what I love as a designer and a creative, and I think it's why I gravitated to the houses that I have. I love a story. I love the history of a brand. I love hearing about how these design icons or clothes came to exist. I find that really fascinating, but at the same time I also personally love counter-culture, youth culture and the next generation pop culture. I'm a huge fan of pop music, pop art, pop anything. It's that combination, juxtaposition of storytelling and heritage and craft with pop culture, counter-culture — those two things that I love coming together is, ultimately, my design and creative sensibility.
Thinking back to your first creative-director role, where you nervous to step into a more public-facing design job? How did that first experience shape how you approached future creative director opportunities?
I think more than anything, I was naive. I remember at the time, when I decided to leave Louis Vuitton and move to Mulberry, a lot of my friends in the industry... I think they really thought I was crazy. They didn't really understand. It was such a creative time for Marc, and it was such an amazing team to be on. I learned such an incredible amount from him — I'll never forget what he taught me — but at the same time, at the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to do that myself. I knew I had something to say. I wanted to have the opportunity just to see if I could do it. That's what I saw as an opportunity at Mulberry. And, again, a great story and interesting history — so many things that I knew that I could bring my sensibility to and do something disruptive and surprising. And I always had fantastic partners.
At that point, it's when you start to find the people that you're going to work with, whether it's designers or stylists or photographers. I also had an amazing mentor in the CEO of Mulberry, Lisa Montague, who I then also worked with at Loewe. That partnership was really critical. She taught me so much about the business, and she was always very supportive of my vision, helping me learn in this very new role.
How have you continued to develop as a designer, having reached the "top position"?
There's no question that, as I've moved creative director roles, the companies have been bigger. Ultimately, it's about being hungry. I still have a hunger to understand what makes the next generation tick, what's going to continue to make me relevant as a designer or the house that I work for relevant as a brand. It's always about listening and researching and thinking.
As an example, the last year and a half — if you didn't know how to pivot, to shift, to think about things differently... that seems so crucial in my position and my role within Coach. I was searching for what would make us relevant in these changing times. That was really what has driven me over the last year and a half — just digging emotionally: Why are we here? Why do we exist? Why are people going to care about us? That's the thing that has always been really important: As much as great design, beautiful design and inspiring fashion, it's about why we exist.
That's a really interesting point, especially considering how, in the last year, Coach has begun exploring sustainability more deeply — and explicitly — within its collections. What has prompted the brand to delve into this, and how is it affecting the way that you continue to build your era at Coach?
I think giving back and doing the right thing, it feels natural, right? It's important to me. I guess in some way, I didn't necessarily think it was the role of a designer to create the change that was necessary. It was often, I thought, the job of product development and production, to choose the correct materials... Encouraging those things within the company, being part of creating these goals — that's what I felt my role was: encouraging, pushing, being a champion for those things. But I didn't necessarily see my role as a designer in that way. And that was the big change. I realized that, actually, I had to, as a designer, make different choices, right at the beginning, and that the production is very important because that's, ultimately, where a lot of impact is. If I, right at the beginning, am making different choices and approaching things in a different way, it can really change things. That was a big realization for me.
Once I changed that mindset, everything changed. Then I was like, 'Okay, I have to approach how I choose colors and approach materials at the beginning of the season, but I also have to think about what the impact of what I'm creating is going to be later.'
I started to realize the people within my design team who were already really passionate about this, [they] understood. It was such a breakthrough because if you start to bring together people who are really passionate about sustainability and being more responsible to the planet, so many ideas come up. That's what I continue to do today — tap into the people, ask the people who actually already really care about this. It doesn't matter, necessarily, what level they are or what position they are. The fact that they're spending their time researching that, it means you get so much information, and then when you come together as a group, your ideas go so much farther. You're much bolder with the way you approach things.
Especially with runway: Runway is an opportunity for us now to experiment with new ideas. Some of those ideas might not work. Some of those ideas might start off very small. But even in this space of time, I've realized that sometimes an idea can just continue to build and grow and grow. A very small idea can become really impactful in two, three, four seasons.
Especially considering, as you were saying, the scale of the company and the reach of a brand like Coach.
One example was for our Spring 2021 collection. We set off a challenge of making something from 100% post-consumer waste. It was difficult. We were almost there and then we couldn't quite make it, so we pushed again and we found solution. Going through that process, we learned how we could do that on other things. That one small idea in that runway collection has become multiple different ideas within the collections today. It's really having that test-and-learn experimental openness.
How would you describe Stuart Vevers' Coach? And what's something you still are working to achieve, a goal that you have for yourself as creative director?
That's always the hardest question... I think, ultimately, it's that vision of the powerful heritage of America's house of leather, with great story, great design. And bringing that together, with my vision of the future, the next generation, possibly being ready to try something new, to do something surprising and unexpected — that tension, that's what inspires me. That's what gets me up in the morning and gives me the energy to look forward.
What are the biggest challenges facing designers today, especially young designers?
I do think that a more responsible approach to fashion is so crucial. In some way, many of the processes we've learned as designers don't sit well with a more responsible approach, and I feel like rewriting that is so critical because, otherwise, that can be a frustration. 'Why can't I do things the way I've done them before?' You can sometimes feel like you're giving something up — you're giving creative freedom, because the choices you make when you want to be more responsible, perhaps you feel that limiting your choices as a creative.
That all has to be rewritten, because the creative minds of designers, it's how we solve these issues. It's how we feel good about what we do again. I think there can be a certain amount of guilt about what we do, about what we're creating. The current working generation of designers and the next generation, it's about how we flip that, how we change that, so that we do things in the right way. We don't see it as a restriction. We see it as just another creative opportunity.
What's exciting to you about the fashion industry in this moment?
It always concerns the people. It's the excitement of getting in a room with people. The people I've worked with — Olivier Rizzo, who's our stylist, [hairstylist] Guido Palau and Pat McGrath working on the show, Renell Medrano shooting a campaign... It's that conversation, when you come together and you share ideas. That's what excites me, being able to work and play, honestly, with just such talented people. I can go into a situation with one thing in my head, but when you're working with really good people, it's about being open, it's about letting people play, it's about letting people do what they do. And I love that. I feel very privileged in that way, that I get to learn — still continue to learn and challenge myself by being around such talented people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.