#NoFilter: Johnny Coca of Mulberry Talks Bags, Branding, and Britain

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Johnny Coca of Mulberry
Photo: Courtesy of Mulberry

Two years ago, Mulberry was an industry example of “what not to do” when it came to business, with three profit warnings over the previous year that led to a drastic fall in shares. For 30 months, it was at a stalemate. Nine months ago, The New York Times declared that its immense turnaround efforts were the biggest “in British fashion history”. That turnaround had everything to do with the brand’s choice to tap the charismatic designer Johnny Coca as its new Creative Director.

After two critically successful runway collections for the brand, Coca is digging deeper in order to create a new generation of Mulberry products that are both classic and respectful of its heritage while maintaining a sharp new modernity. Not only is Coca turning the brand around at record speed, but he is also stretching his role to include logo and packaging redesign, interior redesign of Mulberry’s boutiques, and more.

Coca’s background is a fascinating one – he’s a furniture, car, and boat designer who transformed into an architect, later becoming a leather-goods designer at Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Céline (he is responsible for Celine’s ‘Trapeze’ and ‘Trio’ designs). His pedigree, training, and keen eye for structure and geometry have more than prepared him for the task at hand.

In an exclusive interview in Paris, Savoir Flair’s Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Haleh Nia, speaks to Coca about the trials of taking over a failing heritage brand, the temperament that makes him different from other designers, and his vision for Mulberry’s future.

Johnny, it’s been a really exciting time for you professionally. Tell me all your shift to Mulberry.
It was important to me to consolidate a strong silhouette and bring something quite diverse to the brand. It’s true that Mulberry was ready to focus more on the UK market, but it was very important for me to make it more international. I’m very pleased that people understand my direction and understand that I’m trying to bring something quite new, fresh, and modern to a classic brand.

What are the difficulties in modernizing a typically heritage fashion brand?
What is difficult is explaining to the old customers that I’m not here to change everything, but to extend the brand – to make it more international. That’s why I am working to reinvent Mulberry’s classic bags, like the ‘Piccadilly’. I’m trying to make it more modern. It’s an education for our older customers, explaining to them how important it is to push the brand to become stronger, both inside and out.

Is there any pressure on you to respect the DNA of the brand? Does nostalgia play a part in your design process?
I’m trying to be careful because I’m really trying to understand and respect the old customer. So I’m going to continue to work on the bags that she loves… try to play with the color, treatment, and shape. But, yes, it’s all very delicate because you have mixtures in term of pricing and accessibility. It is very important to have a global overview of everything with all the products, all the departments, and all the categories.

You’ve mentioned the “old customer” once or twice. If there is a new customer that Mulberry is looking to target, who would that be?
When I’m designing a product, I am trying to make something for everybody. I don’t like the way of thinking that says, ‘Okay, let’s design a bag in this color or this shape because it will be strong in the US or Asia or the UK.’ As a designer, I need to make something with strong international appeal. It’s delicate, but at the same time, you have to be very proud of the fact that it is a very strong brand in the UK.

For example, in the UK, when you have a daughter in the family, the first present she gets for graduating school is a Mulberry bag. It is part of British culture. It’s nice to say we are proud to be British, just to give and bring something quite strong from the outside, and show people what it is like in the UK. There are so many brands referencing British style. My friends, who work for other brands, spend a lot of time there in order to research British looks.

You’ve been in London for quite a few years now, right? Since Phoebe [Philo] moved her Céline offices to London…
Yes, I’ve been there for more than five years now.

So you’ve soaked up the inspiration?
Yes, I was there when the office was in Paris and then London, but I was traveling throughout. I think it’s very interesting for someone from the outside to come into Mulberry – because you’d think that a British brand has to have a British designer [Coca hails from Spain], because my perceptions and references are different. For instance, something that seems banal for the British customer, like the UK flag, could be a very important part of my collection.

Photo: Courtesy of Mulberry

What does the journey entail for Mulberry, which is typically known for accessories, to be considered a legitimate fashion house creating ready-to-wear? How does that transformation work?
When designing, I am not only focused on bags. I work on the bags, the shoes, the jewelry – all the categories except ready-to-wear. The thing is to have a consistency through all the products, then I am able to create ready-to-wear. I think it was interesting because I was able to finalize my silhouette in my head. I don’t like to design things that I will not sell. I’m really focused on every detail – price, quality, accessibility. If something is cool but too expensive, what’s the point? I will not sell it.

If something is cool but too expensive, what’s the point? I will not sell it.

I’ve heard that when you are designing something, you already know what the price point will be during the process of creating it.
Yes, it’s true. With experience, you know exactly what to target while you sketch. You have to analyze and address the need of the customer. You need to understand their position, what they can spend, and try to make something cool and trendy for them. That’s why I’d rather Mulberry be a “trendy” brand than a “fashion” brand. We want Mulberry to be cool, easy, and casual. I love to merge the classic with the heritage, and then modernize the product. I take pleasure in designing, but I’m really here to bring success to the brand. I am not here to create success for myself because I’m just working for the company – my only goal is to make the brand successful.

It’s interesting that you say that, because I feel a lot of designers are now focusing on themselves as celebrities. You’re one of the few who doesn’t.
It’s true. People talk more about the designer and less about the brand, but that is not my direction. I really want to make sure people are happy – I love to work with my team, I love to work with people. I love to talk about what I’m doing with people, explaining the process and finishing. I know everything about our products. I can spend so much time going through all the details in order to explain to the clients, for example, how we make this, for what reason, how much it costs, and where the leather is sourced from.

It’s education I try to give. I’ve been teaching at Central Saint Martins because I really need to explain how to be successful, how we do things, how we design, etc. I started at Louis Vuitton in leather goods for women, and then moved to Michael Kors and worked in other categories like shoes and sunglasses. Now, I have a ready-to-wear category to oversee at Mulberry. I got there step by step.

Photo: Courtesy of Mulberry

Let’s talk a little bit about the industry. Almost every designer I interview is talking about this pressure to constantly create. How do you feel about this subject? Is the fashion cycle moving too fast?
I think the pressure comes from the way brands are organized. For example, I don’t like to overwork my team. I don’t ask them to stay until three or four in the morning. I don’t like to finish the looks for the show at five in the morning when the show is at four in the afternoon. I need to be very clear with my calendar so as to respect all the schedules of my suppliers, and to make sure I am not discovering problems last minute. So, I think it’s more a question of organization and being realistic about what I can and can’t do. I refuse to do what is impossible for myself and my team. I really try to protect all my people because I love them, and I have my best days when I spend time with them.

It’s very heartwarming that you say that. I feel the same way about my team.
You know you can ask your team anything if you show them you really respect them and you love them. If there are any issues, we will find the solution. Professionally or personally, I think it’s a pleasure that you have to enjoy each day when you are a designer. I don’t like to be unfair with people. I don’t like to scream. We’re all together, just to have a good moment.

You could easily be called the most laid-back designer working today.
The day before the show, I stayed with my team to help them pack. I don’t act like, ‘You guys pack everything and I’ll see you tomorrow.’ No. Instead, I took so much pleasure in sitting with them, packing with them, talking with them. It was eight in the evening when we finished, and we put on some music and everybody danced – 40 people from our team, all dancing the Macarena. It was so funny!

You’ve become like a family.
Yes, and I think that is very important. I think it’s really important to respect the people who work around you.

And what are your thoughts or concerns about the new “See Now, Buy Now” model?
It’s interesting to see how that will work. I think it will only be possible for really important brands. They have the power to anticipate the buy, and the power to anticipate production goals. If you are your own designer, you would never do it – because why would you want to spend so much money when you don’t have a guarantee you will sell? On one side, it’s a bit sad because there is less creativity, you know? You show your products during the show and then make them available for purchase right away. But don’t you still love to open a magazine and see your product in it? I remember, last season, I opened a magazine to see a Mulberry bag styled with shoes and a top from Balenciaga, and I loved it.

I also love press. For me, it’s cultural; it’s something you keep. I have my collection of magazines. You invest in them, and they spend a lot of time to make sure it’s a beautiful product. It’s not like, ‘Okay, we’ll just put a picture on the page and be done, and everyone will be happy.’ It’s something creative. “See Now, Buy Now” would be possible for Mulberry because we have two factories in the UK, so it’s quite easy to anticipate production needs… so let’s see. I’m not saying yes or no to the model – I just want to wait and see what happens first.

The role of a Creative Director today is to make sure there is a global consistency through categories, image, advertising, and communication.

What exactly is the role of a Creative Director now? I hear, for example, that you are getting involved with everything from the typeface to the packaging and, potentially, even the interiors of the stores. Twenty years ago, you guys were just designing clothes.
Well, it’s quite easy because I am already an architect and a designer.

Oh, are you?
I never attended fashion school, but I’m teaching at Central Saint Martins. I studied to be an industrial designer – to design cars and boats, and later moved to furniture. I was then doing architecture in Paris. I think the role today is to make sure there is a global consistency through categories, image, advertising, and communication. For example, we changed the branding at Mulberry. When I arrived, the branding was very classic, but it was too close to that of Burberry. I went into the archive and saw all the vintage bags from Mulberry, and the branding back then was very different. I thought, ‘Ah, this is much stronger and more unique!’

It’s really nice to establish a brand’s unique message through the way it is presented. For instance, if you put a ring that costs ten pounds in a really beautiful and luxurious box, it will look much more expensive. It’s not a question of price or the value of the product, it’s the way you treat the product. I think it’s like a global way to approach the design in 360 degrees.

Photo: Courtesy of Mulberry

You’ve been credited with the design of so many iconic “It” bags, which is a term I don’t love… but of course I love the bags you have created. What is the secret to that? How are you the one person in the industry creating one “It” bag after another?
I simply try to design what I think is right and cool. I never design something to be iconic because that is not for me to say. It is my customer who makes my bag iconic.

That’s very humble of you to say, but the reason the customer loves it so much is specifically because it’s a great design. 
[Laughs] I think my only focus is to make the girls happy; to make them a cool and beautiful bag.

I really love to observe people on the street. I have a corner terrace, where I can observe girls walking by, and I really pay attention to what kind of shoes or bag would be better for them. I think it’s really important to look and listen. I hear when a woman complains that her bag is too heavy or not big enough to carry all her stuff. I think you have to understand the needs of the customer, but also create something beautiful and special in the meantime.

I never design something to be iconic because that is not for me to say. It is my customer who makes my bag iconic.

My final question is about the Middle East. How do you feel this new collection, especially the ready-to-wear, will resonate with Middle Eastern consumers? The work is absolutely beautiful, and I do see a lot of potential.
I think what is really interesting in your region is that everyone is so open, and it’s easy to approach the product. They have a really strong sense of what is fashionable today, and it’s interesting to see the judgement and critics are sometimes more relevant here than in other countries. They’re really open to exploring new designers and new products. I think modernity is a way to be open, and I think girls are reacting to modernity. There is an image of them being strong and powerful professionals, but I love the fact that they can be really classic and “princess-like” too. They have a very specific vision of what luxury is – in a good way.

See the Spring/Summer 2017 collection below.

#NoFilter: Johnny Coca of Mulberry Talks Bags, Branding, and Britain
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