Coach has its roots in a tiny family-owned leather good shop in Manhattan that opened in 1941, producing mostly wallets and billfolds. Miles Cahn joined the company in 1946, and by 1950, he was running the factory for its owners.
Cahn became intrigued by the workmanship of baseball gloves. It was his wife, Lillian, who suggested that if thick, natural-color leather was good enough for catching baseballs, perhaps it would work for carrying a woman's belongings, too. The result was a new line of affordably priced handbags made out of sturdy cowhide branded as Coach.
In 1961, the Cahns were able to buy out the owners, and in 1962, they hired Bonnie Cashin, who had designed outlandish costumes for 20th Century Fox in the 1940s. Cashin’s personal aesthetic, though, was much more subdued; she favored Mao jackets and slim leather. She brought this aesthetic to Coach handbags...
Her motto at Coach was, “"Make things as lightweight as possible, as simple as possible—as punchy as possible—as inexpensive as possible.” By “punchy,” she meant her utilitarian handbags came in vibrant '60s colors like lipstick red, candy pink, mustard yellow, and grass green. The interiors of her purses featured her trademark striped madras cotton. They also had sleek, streamlined shapes that reflected the optimism of Mid-Century Modern design.
Cashin, who worked for Coach until 1972, was obsessed with paring down the handbag to its most functional elements. Her first bag for Coach was the influential Body bag, which is often described as a kangaroo pouch or external pocket. This iconic shoulder bag led to the strap purses of the '70s by the likes of Calvin Klein and Halston. To make the Body bag even more useful, Cashin built a coin purse into the front of the bag, and dubbed it Cashin Carry.
Because she liked to haul books around, Cashin understood that busy modern women in the new consumer culture carried a lot more than the traditional keys, cash, lipstick, and hankie. She was also concerned with how well a bag could be packed. To this end, she introduced leather shopping bags, or totes, in three sizes, meant to be used at the same time, layered on one arm.
Seven years after Cashin left Coach, Lew Frankfort joined the company in 1979. The CEO of Coach today, he is credited with establishing Coach as the affordable luxury brand of handbags, between the high-end handbags made by European designers like Fendi and Gucci and the knock-offs of those bags. He also launched the Coach mail-order business. In 1985, Sara Lee Corporation bought Coach for around $30 million.
By the 1980s, Coach had gone back to its traditional leather looks, producing sturdy and sophisticated bags and briefcases in blacks, browns, tan, and navy. But in 1993, former Tommy Hilfiger sportswear designer Reed Krakoff joined Coach, as the company expanded to outwear and luggage. Once again, the handbag line got new, modern colors and fun, young designs that were updated every season. Within a decade, Coach introduced the double “C” logo print, produced in a wide range of styles and colors. In 2001, Coach, Inc., became independent of Sara Lee.
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