Reed Krakoff on Brand Building, the Joys of Multitasking, and Why Coach Is Like a Code

(Photo: Sasha Arutyunova)

“Brands are like people,” Reed Krakoff has said. “They are all different and you get to know them in different ways.” The versatile designer’s observation on the diversity of brands, quoted back to him by Pamela Golbin, curator of fashion at textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, was a fitting way to begin the first in a trio of “Fashion Talks” presented by the French Institute Alliance Francaise (the chic conversations continue tonight, when FIAF welcomes Stefano Pilati, who earlier this month stepped down from the creative helm of Yves Saint Laurent). In two short years (and five runway collections), Krakoff has created a luxury brand—an American luxury brand, no less—from scratch, which in an industry that trades on centuries-old saddlery skills and wildly embellished “heritage” narratives is no simple feat, especially considering that he’s developed his eponymous label while also maintaining posts as president of executive creative director of Coach.

“When I came to Coach [in 1996], I had never done accessories. I was a menswear designer, and what I loved more than anything was starting something that was an amazing challenge, something where I knew I could learn and be on path to discovering what I could do—or not do,” he told Golbin at last week’s sold-out event at Florence Gould Hall. “I really love the idea of learning and challenges, and after fifteen years, I felt that I wanted to do more that was in keeping with my own true aesthetic.” Influenced by everything from ultimate fighting champs and vintage football jerseys to the artful aviary of John James Audubon and design masterpieces from his own astounding collection, that aesthetic is refined but flexible, as likely to embrace a sleek clutch (in matte python) as a bold trench stamped with a painterly monochrome print that only the most eagle-eyed shopper would recognize as an abstracted version of the brand’s geometric logo. “It’s a direct reflection of the things that I love,” said Krakoff. “The aesthetic is a combination of disparate ideas—things that are quite sexy and sensual and romantic, things that are quite minimal and architectural.”

Yet articulating his aesthetic proved to be one of the greatest challenges Krakoff encountered. With more than two decades of industry experience under his Coach belt, he felt the pressure of expectations as to what a Reed Krakoff collection would look like. Once he had resolved “to do what I like,” he focused on making sure he knew exactly what that was—that is, who he was. Krakoff offered the example of visiting a museum. “You’re looking at art and you love a painting but if you could have anything, would you want to live with it? And is it your taste or is it something you appreciate?” he said. “It’s incredibly difficult to differentiate, because they feel the same. You only learn to do it through experience.”

Meanwhile, back at Coach, everyone wins. “My work at Coach has definitely gotten better because of my work at my own brand,” he explained. “It has given me a place to put my creativity and not feel the need to do things that maybe don’t serve Coach that well today.” Krakoff described Coach not only as an iconic American brand but also as an enormous business that comes with its own set of hidden complexities. The secret to succeding in such an environment? “It’s not about being the best designer or the most intelligent person in the company,” he said. “It’s being the person who understands what’s going after and what came before. It’s like knowing a code.”

While Krakoff is clear about the myriad distinctions between his own label and Coach, his years at the global accessories juggernaut have taught him a lot about branding and brand-building, a rare knowledge base for someone at the creative helm of a fledgling luxury house. He compared many aspects of his work to putting together a puzzle, including the process of developing and executing his own brand. “Every time that you work on the packaging, it impacts the clothing, and then the clothing impacts the store, and the store impacts the advertising, and the advertising impacts the people that you populate your store with,” he said. “You need time to work it out, and the thing I learned over and over again is that nothing replaces time.”