Beyond Handbags: Coach Creative Director Reed Krakoff Talks Art and Design

Beyond Handbags: Coach Creative Director Reed Krakoff Talks Art and Design
President of the French Institute Alliance Francaise Marie-Monique Steckel, fashion designer Reed Krakoff, and Chief Curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre
(© Sasha Arutyunova)

“I don’t think about fashion when I’m designing,” accessories designer Reed Krakoff admitted nonchalantly during his fashion talk at the French Institute Alliance Française Wednesday night. “I think about proportion and shape – what looks good to me viscerally.” It was a bold confession in such a fashion-centric venue. Clad in a black suit (sans tie) and thick wayfarer-style glasses, the 48-year-old creative polymath, who calls himself the “oldest of the young designers,” chatted with Pamela Golbin, chief curator at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre, about his fortuitous rise to prominence as one of fashion’s most successful designers. Krakoff took the helm as Coach’s executive creative director in 1999, and is credited with transforming a stogy luggage company (then owned by the frozen-dessert company Sara Lee) into an internationally coveted accessories brand. In 2010, Krakoff launched his eponymous line of women’s ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags, and accessories. 

“When I started at Coach,” he said, “I had never done handbags or accessories. When I was hired, no one had ever asked me if I had done a handbag before.” The handbag tsar paused a beat, giving his audience a moment to appreciate the hilarious irony of this statement.

Originally from Weston, Connecticut, Krakoff attended Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, graduating in 1986 with a joint degree in art history and economics. “Unlike Isaac [Mizrahi], I’m not one of those people who always wanted to end up in fashion. I wanted to open a gallery.” He initially flirted with the idea of becoming an artist, but gave it up. “I couldn’t live that lifestyle,” he said. “Going to the studio day after day – I didn’t have that kind of conviction.” He went on to receive a degree in fashion design from Parsons, and worked at American brands Ann Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger before being poached by Coach in 1996. Krakoff might hold the title for the world’s most successful failed artist, turning a small-time $500,000-a-year outfit into a $4 billion global enterprise.

A prolific photographer and furniture designer with a big-time man-crush on Joseph Beuys, Krakoff recently designed a collection of 100 felt-covered chairs at Salon 94’s Upper East Side gallery, a nod to the artist’s famous felted piano. Krakoff’s passion for art and design frequently surfaces in his collections. In 2006, the designer lent Coach some art world credentials by tapping Kiki Smith to decorate a limited-edition canvas tote bag. Last spring, his ready-to-wear line debuted uncharacteristically whimsical bird prints based John James Audubon illustrations, a departure from his self-described penchant for “hard edge abstraction.” This fall’s Ad Reinhardt-inspired red silk jersey dresses were a return to minimalist form. A passionate art collector, Krakoff is currently buying work by Allan McCollum, Julian Opie, Candida Hofer, Joel Shapiro, and Tom Sachs. When asked by ARTINFO which artists best reflect the identity of his brands, he instantly replied, “For Coach, it’s Robert Indiana. For Reed Krakoff, it’s Beuys.”

During the discussion, Krakoff waxed philosophically on the meaning of brand identity. The best brands don’t merely create fashion, but “a group of symbols and ideas associated with the brand.”

“Last time I was in Paris,” he said, “I saw in the bookstore at Artcurial a poster that had a list of all the major 20th-century artists, and each one had one word next to their name. Yves Klein said cobalt, Manzoni had plaster, Joseph Beuys had felt. If you can boil it down to something even close to that, you know you’ve succeeded.”

Golbein then asked, “What’s your word?” “I don’t have one word yet,” he replied. “That’s the objective.”