Designer Johnny Coca Is Working His Magic at Mulberry
The former Céline and Louis Vuitton designer is taking on a new challenge.
When Johnny Coca was studying interior design at the Ecole Boulle, in Paris, he earned extra money by working as a freelance window dresser for Louis Vuitton. While drawing the concepts for the windows, he found himself dreaming up bags for the displays. “I thought, Oh, my God, this is so cool,” Coca says. “So I called Yves Carcelle, who was CEO of Louis Vuitton at the time, and said, ‘Perhaps you don’t know me, but I’m working for you, and I have lots of sketches of bags I’ve designed. I’d love to show you what I’ve done.’ He said, ‘I’ll call you back in 30 minutes.’ ”
Precisely a half-hour later, Carcelle phoned to say that he had arranged a meeting for the cheeky young man with the heads of the Vuitton design studio. Coca went to see them and was offered a job on the spot. The only glitch was that he still had six months left of his course. “When I told my mother, she said, ‘Johnny, the most important thing for you is to finish school,’ ” Coca recounts. “So I said, ‘But mamá, it’s Louis Vuitton.’ And she said, ‘Finish school.’ ” He did as he was told, while still managing to work at Vuitton. After graduating, in 1996, he took a full-time job there.
Coca, 40, has been designing bags ever since, not only for Vuitton but for other brands too, most recently working with Phoebe Philo at Céline. (It’s thanks to his collaboration with Philo that Fashion Week front rows and art fair booths are peppered with Céline’s multicolored Trapezes and triple-zippered Trios.) But since being appointed creative director of Mulberry, Britain’s biggest leather-goods house, Coca faces the very different challenge of designing, in addition to bags, shoes, jewelry, and a full ready-to-wear collection. After flourishing in the early aughts with a succession of bags infused with a quirky English sensibility, Mulberry has floundered of late. Coca, who arrived a year ago, has been charged with redefining the brand in the hope of emulating the success of fellow accessories-designers-turned-creative-directors Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, at Valentino, and Alessandro Michele, at Gucci. The question is: Can he pull it off?
“Of course he can,” says Lisa Armstrong, the influential fashion director of the Telegraph Media Group in London. “Johnny brings savoir faire to Mulberry. He’s very impressive when he talks about his craft. There’s no convoluted waffle. He knows a lot about leather, and how to make it look more refined. There’s also huge affection for Mulberry, especially in the U.K., where it’s a bit like Coach in the U.S.—it’s the label every girl aspires to for her first major bag.”
Sitting on one of the white leather LC3 armchairs—originally designed in the 1920s by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand—that he purloined from his personal collection to furnish the Mulberry offices in Paris, Coca cuts an improbable figure as the would-be savior of such a definitively British brand. A pint-size Spaniard with a warm smile, silky black beard, and swashbuckling silver hoop earrings, Coca is a cosmopolitan creature of the modern fashion industry. He has spent his entire career outside his native Spain and speaks four languages fluently—Spanish, of course, plus French, English, and Italian. For a working day in Paris, he is dressed in his customary luxe-punk style, with a black Comme des Garçons waistcoat slung over a plain white cotton shirt from Uniqlo. “Twenty euros—why pay more?” Coca beams, clapping his hands gleefully. Today, he has added black pants by Rick Owens cut in the baggy style of dhotis, as well as a pair of Owens’s buckled black leather biker boots. Coca often wears kilts, mostly by Comme or Alexander McQueen.
Growing up in Seville, Coca (whose name really is Johnny, rather than the Spanish equivalent, Juan) was a clever boy who excelled at math and science. He was introduced to fashion by his sisters, Marie-José and Elisabeth, and their mother, María, who supported the family by running a nursery school. “I collected all my favorite fashion magazines,” Coca recalls. “And I was always watching videos of Madonna and Kylie Minogue to see what they were wearing.” Then he fell for the music and style of British postpunk bands. “I tried to be so like the Cure, with the big hair and all that,” Coca says, grinning. “All black. Same pants. Same jacket. I loved the dress code even more than the music.”
Coca was born a year after the death of Francisco Franco, the right-wing dictator who had ruled Spain since the late ’30s. The country changed dramatically during its transition to democracy, with the emergence of la movida madrileña, a creative groundswell of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and intellectuals. Even so, it never occurred to Coca that he might work in fashion. “The industry seemed so far away. I was always designing something, but mostly it would be a car, boat, or building. So I went to France to study design engineering and, later, architecture and interior design.” Then he discovered bags. “For me, Louis Vuitton was like school, not a job. I spent all of my time in the ateliers with the craftspeople, trying to understand everything about leather goods.” After five years, he moved on to Céline, as head of accessories design under Michael Kors, followed by a stint at the Swiss leather-goods company Bally, and, finally, went back to Céline under Philo. “When they first asked me to return to Céline, I said no,” Coca recounts. “But then I met Phoebe. She knows exactly what she wants, and does everything with so much love and heart. When you work with such a strong, talented person, you expect to be successful, but I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to make Phoebe happy.”
For Mulberry, Coca commutes between design studios in London and Paris, just as he did with Céline. He lives in the same Paris apartment, near the Musée Picasso, that has been his base for two years, but he camped in a London hotel for months while looking for a new home closer to the Mulberry offices in Kensington. “It’s fun to be in both cities, because Paris is more classic and conservative, and London more eccentric,” Coca says. “I’m always looking at people, trying to analyze why they’re carrying that bag or wearing that coat.” He also enjoys hunting down furniture by 20th-century designers like Achille Castiglioni, Verner Panton, and Ettore Sottsass, whose works have inspired him since his student days. The Mulberry job has enabled Coca to continue his fortnightly teaching gig at Central Saint Martins, the London art-and-design school. He has taught accessory design there for four years, impressing upon his fashion students that they need to know more about bags and shoes, which provide most of the profits for many luxury brands. “I also started teaching because it was so difficult to find assistants,” he adds. “The most talented students always seem to study ready-to-wear, which is crazy, because there are more jobs in accessories.”
Based in Somerset, one of the quaintest and prettiest counties in Southwestern England, Mulberry manufactures its bags in factories surrounded by farmland. On most days, a flock of fashionably rare Jacob sheep can be seen grazing outside the offices. The company was founded in 1971 by Roger Saul, a hippie entrepreneur who started out making leather belts at his kitchen table, and expanded rapidly, introducing capacious shoulder bags modeled on those traditionally used for hunting and fishing. By the time Saul left, in 2004, Mulberry was hiring young British designers like Nicholas Knightly, in 2003, who introduced the Bayswater, still its best-selling bag, and Stuart Vevers, now at Coach, who launched the Emmy in 2004. In 2010, Emma Hill designed the Alexa, inspired by a photograph of the British fashion scenester Alexa Chung carrying a Mulberry men’s briefcase.
The new bags rejuvenated Mulberry while reinforcing its role as an accessible status symbol, but when Bruno Guillon, the new chief executive, arrived from Hermès in 2012, he set out to make the brand more upscale. He increased prices, unwittingly plunging a thriving business into an intensely competitive market in which it lacked credibility. Hill left Mulberry in 2013, and a year later Guillon followed. Thierry Andretta, an Italian-luxury industry veteran who had worked briefly with Coca during his first stint at Céline, was appointed CEO in 2015. Since Coca’s arrival, the two men have been working closely.
Both Coca and Andretta are determined to return Mulberry to the market niche—and price category—in which it once prospered, while expanding the business internationally. One of Coca’s first steps was to visit the factories, where the employees, many of whom joined the company as apprentices, wear polo shirts with the words craft and quality emblazoned on the backs. The factory is divided into teams, each of which makes a particular type of bag beneath a sign bearing its price. “We like to remind our craftspeople that someone may be saving up to buy it,” says Nick Speed, the group production manager, who joined Mulberry straight out of school and has worked there for 25 years. Coca understands this way of thinking. “You know, the quality here is high—really high—but the pricing is attractive. In my first Mulberry collection, I canceled one bag because it was too expensive. As creative director, I have to find a direction and vision for the brand, but I need to manage the pricing too.”
Coca’s vision for Mulberry was evident at the presentation of his autumn ready-to-wear collection during London Fashion Week, in February, in the sumptuous medieval Guildhall. The nattily cut capes, grunge-inspired slip dresses, rugged leather gilets, and biker jackets bedecked with the same studs that appear on the boots and bags depicted a tough, urban, punkish vision of British style. Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, describes the look as “grown-up and accomplished,” but others were not bowled over. Undeterred, Coca insists that the opportunity to add ready-to-wear to his repertoire is a major benefit of being at Mulberry. “Some say, ‘Oh, you’ve never done it before.’ But I’ve been working with people who do ready-to-wear for years. I know all the techniques and finishes. And I know exactly what message and mood I want to project in the next collection. Maybe one reason why Pierpaolo and Maria-Grazia have been so successful at Valentino, and Alessandro at Gucci, is that by coming into ready-to-wear from accessories, they bring new ideas.” Similarly, Coca believes that, as a Spaniard—especially one so steeped in British indie-style culture—he can bring a fresh perspective to Mulberry’s “Britishness.”
The clothes may still be a work in progress, but Coca’s new Mulberry bags have drawn rave reviews. The Clifton is a chic shoulder bag with three pockets and a chain strap. The Camden and Maple are designed in the shopper style, with punk-inspired studs. “Look at this, you can take the pocket off,” Coca says, grabbing one to demonstrate. “And you can fit in a magazine and a laptop. It’s very easy. For me, the most important aspect of a bag is its function. Everything starts there.”
Coca has also been busying himself making seemingly minor changes to Mulberry’s production process, which have had a significant impact on the quality of the bags, such as adding real leather or suede linings, and extra layers of paint to the edges. He has developed a distinctive palette for the brand, including unusually deep shades of dark red, yellow, and blue that evoke the colors of both Southern Spain and the postmodernist furniture produced by the Memphis Group in the early ’80s. But perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Coca’s influence on Mulberry is his reworking of the existing bags, starting with the Bayswater. “I wanted the leather to be more natural and sensual, so I worked with the tannery on the finish, changed the handles and lining, and made it lighter. The new version looks and feels more luxurious, but the price is the same.” Coca has also hired Coco Capitán, the young Spanish-born, London-based photographer du jour, to shoot the Mulberry campaign. Her ads reflect Coca’s love of British punk, particularly the image of the model Lina Hoss, with her shaved head, slouching beside a brick wall, clutching a dark red Clifton. He is also finessing the brand’s identity by refining its mulberry tree logo and has revived a typeface that the company used back in the ’70s.
Next on his agenda is the redesign of Mulberry’s stores. Does he plan to adopt the tried-and-true approach of handing over the task to a fashionable starchitect to see what he or she comes up with? “Now that would be too complicated for me,” Coca says with a laugh, rolling his eyes theatrically. “Of course I know what I want. I studied architecture, after all. So it will be much easier if I just tell someone exactly what to do.”
Watch all the episodes of “The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice,” a four-part film series by Gia Coppola, here. Produced for Gucci by W magazine.
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