It’s long been said that in fashion, God is in the details. So when it came time for iconic British brand Mulberry to find a new creative director, it’s no wonder the victorious candidate would be someone who really knew bags inside out. After all, 70% of Mulberry’s business revolves around their bags, which first surfaced when the company was founded in 1971. Welcome Johnny Coca, arguably one of the hottest accessories masterminds around, especially since giving fashionistas the coveted “Trapeze” bag when he most recently worked at Celine. Coca, a cool and diminutive Spaniard who’s usually clad in kilts and hails from Seville, first moved to Paris to study art and design, creating window displays for Louis Vuitton to make some money. But bags got the better of him, and Coca soon found himself working alongside Marc Jacobs, and later Michael Kors and then Phoebe Filo at LVMH, dreaming up “it” bags and other accessories that turned heads and made cash registers sing. Based on all the kudos for his recent London runway debut—a vision rife with British references from royalty to punk—it looks like the 40 year-old Coca has found his perfect perch, concocting a fall ready-to-wear collection for Mulberry that promises to lift the beleaguered label back up where it belongs, since the abrupt departure of its head designer Emma Hill a couple of years back. I spoke with Johnny Coca from Paris about understanding Mulberry’s DNA, his meticulous eye for detail, and how he aims to design bags for every purpose.
JEANNE BEKER: Was it a tough decision to come over to Mulberry or was this something that you’ve had your eye on for a while?
JOHNNY COCA: I had thought about Mulberry for a long time. For years, when I was working for LVMH, I watched the brand and I knew it was very strong and popular in the UK and that it had a very strong heritage. My question was whether I was right for the brand or not. But after, when I was working with Phoebe (Filo) at Céline and I was living in the UK for five years, I started looking at all the girls in London with all their Mulberry bags, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! That brand is so popular in that country!’ In the meantime, I started to meet all the people in the company and I tried to understand the value of the brand. They told me they have very strong retail distribution, and then I learned that they have two huge factories in Somerset. That really helped make my decision because to be honest, it is really important for me to be sure that every thing I expect in terms of design, creation, and quality can be properly resolved with the people I worth with. I went to the factory and I saw all these people—about a hundred craftspeople in production, and I saw how the product had been crafted since 1971. In the UK, people had fallen in love with the brand. It was really something quite special for them because it was really the only good leather brand in that country. So then it was important for me to think about what my value could be and what I could bring to the brand. I knew they needed to be more international and bring more design and more desire in terms of the products. So I thought that it would be a really strong, interesting project for me to start and to bring something strong and new to the brand, and to give it more lifestyle direction in terms of products, like ready to wear, shoes, jewelry and of course, bags.
JB: I find it interesting that here you are, a guy from Spain who worked in Paris with American designers… and now you’ve become a creative director for a British label. It’s all so international. How does that level of international cross-referencing work for you?
JC: In terms of design, to bring something quite strong and to be more international, you really have to think globally, in terms of attitude, in terms of production, in terms of treatment, in terms of colours. Because, as we know, each country loves really different, really specific things. Whenever I was designing, I was always thinking about making strong products that would really work for everybody. I was never focused on one specific style. But my desire was always to try and make something strong in terms of construction and attitude, and always try to bring something quite contemporary and quite modern to everything that I do, and try to make sure that there is value in terms of design, in terms of attitude, and in terms of pricing. So it’s a combination of a lot of things involved in making the product successful in all countries.
JB: It’s interesting that you ended up becoming an accessories designer in the first place. You were designing windows for Louis Vuitton in your early days in Paris. How did you fall in love with accessories?
JC: My background was architecture and product design and I was always thinking about duty, function, and construction. And because I grew up with my mother and my two sisters, I was attracted to fashion and style. As soon as I started to design furniture and architecture, I was always trying to think about proportions. Then I started to work on a project with Louis Vuitton designing windows. That was interesting for me because I was trying to come up with environments to give more value to the products. But while I was doing the windows, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is so fun! I’d really love to design these accessories too…’ So I got to design and present a project to Louis Vuitton when I was twenty-two years old. That was when my career started going in that direction.
JB: The fashion business has become such a monster. It is is such a big business and there’s so much pressure on designers. What is it that keeps you in there?
JC: With everything I do, I just give a lot of love. And in the meantime, I try to make sure that everything I’m doing is top quality. I know there is so much competition. But I think that what’s most important is to make sure that what you’re doing is different compared to others. You have to make sure there’s value, there is a strong style, a strong attitude, a strong treatment and strong fashion design in order to be different. It’s really important that each brand keep it’s own DNA and tries to respect its environment, where it comes from… For example, with Mulberry, it’s a British brand. So I’ll try to understand all the cultural references, like the music and the fashion. That makes the British very special and very desirable because there is a mix of classic and eccentric. It’s really important when I’m designing to think about whether what I’m doing is right or not, and to think about the value, compared to other brands. It’s important just to be unique and different.
JB: One thing that you also do besides designing is teach at Central Saint Martins. Why is teaching important to you?
JC: When I’m working with young design students, I try to drive them into understanding what is real and the reality of the business. That’s one side, and the other side us that I try to change the mentality of all these fashion schools because they are all working on ready to wear and as we know, it’s the accessories—from the shoes to the bags to the and jewels that are really quite strong in terms of business for all the fashion brands. I was working for more than fifteen or twenty years in the fashion industry, designing accessories. And all the time I was trying to find young designers to work with but it was hard for me. So it’s really important for schools to understand that they have to just to train more that just ready-to-wear designers, but strong accessories designers as well.
JB: What’s the one biggest piece of advice that you give your students?
JC: The first thing is, that if you want to be strong, try to be focused. Take your time. There is no point to working on so many projects at once, trying to do ready-to-wear, shoes, bags…. And make sure everything you do is under control and you know what you are doing. For example, in my case, I started working on leather goods. So after like five or six years, I knew all about selection of the leather, construction, pricing, function, attitude, and design. And I had a strong relationship with all the different departments. After that, I said, ‘Okay. Now I know I properly understand everything about that.’ And if anyone came to ask me something, I could give them the right response. So after that I said, ‘Okay now I want to try and start on the shoes.’ So I did the same job with the shoes, to understand the structure, the form, the sole… all the components that made up the shoes, and understanding how to make them right and relevant. And after that, I said, ‘Okay now I know I properly understand shoes and bags, so I can now start to work on the jewelry or sunglasses…’ So it was step by step and I was trying to make sure everything I was doing at the time was controlled and right. I think my advice is just don’t try to rush everything. Make sure to take time, and once you are strong in one thing, you can have another one.
JB: You had a chance to work with some great designers, from Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs to Phoebe Filo. What did you learn from them?
JC: I learned about vision—trying to bring exactly what I expect, and trying to properly analyze the expectation in terms of desire and design. I tried to listen to them a lot because they were all so strong. I really love Phoebe. She’s a super strong designer—so talented. It was really strong for me to be in that environment, to be so close to her. But it was the same with Michael Kors and all the designers I’ve worked with. I think the relationship you have with them is very important because it’s only about honestly and work.
JB: You really have your work cut out for you now, to take this iconic brand and really lift it to the next level. How are you approaching it?
JC: I think it was important for me, when I looked all these past products, to try and understand which ones are the more iconic ones, which ones have the strongest design and how I can really work on that, and how I can bring another more modern or more desirable touch. For example, I was working on the Mulberry Bayswater bag. I really love the Bayswater because it’s easy, functional, and has nice proportion. And I said I would never kill that bag. I want to continue with it because it’s part of what Mulberry is. So I just continued to work on that bag, trying to modernize it. And now I have a new version. The proportion is the same but the construction is different and it completely changed the attitude. It’s more modern in a way. I think it’s really important to just analyze what’s key and what’s made the brand so successful for all these years, and then try to continue to bring new designs and new shapes to be part of the same story.
JB: Do you think women can ever have too many handbags?
JC: For me, bags are like shoes. All these accessories just give love during your day. It really depends on you. Sometimes you want to go out with a small bag, sometimes you are working and you need a big bag. It’s part of you: like a dress code in a way. You have flat shoes, loafers, rain boots…In terms of bags, you need different functions, different proportions, different weights, different sizes to suit what you want to do. If you want to party, if you were going to cocktails, if you’re traveling…. I think it’s really important to bring a lot of different proportions and functions. So it’s important for me not to focus on just one shape, but make sure you can have anything you need. If you need any shape or any function, Mulberry can bring you the product.