As Mulberry prepares to host a series of pop-up events for London Craft Week, the brand’s creative director, Johnny Coca, tells Luxury London about updating a British classic, creating the perfect It bag and swapping architectural sketches for satchels
While Kent has been famously dubbed the Garden of England and Yorkshire revered for being God’s Own Country, it would appear that Somerset has been left by the wayside when it comes to metaphorical monikers. But should one wish to gift the English county with a doting signature, the land of cider, cheddar cheese and handbags would surely be a fitting accolade. It may not have quite the same ring to it as its counterparts, but it does pay tribute to the trio of wares for which Somerset is best known: apples crushed into fruity tipples, hefty wheels of mature cheese and buttery leather handbags that last a lifetime. The latter is the achievement of Roger Saul, founder of British powerhouse Mulberry, which still produces 50 per cent of its leather accessories in its two Shepton Mallet-based factories.
Founded in 1971, the label has transcended Saul’s original dream of being a leather belt specialist to become a global fashion institute with an expertise in handbags, seen swinging from the arms of everyone from HRH The Duchess of Cambridge to the average commuter on the tube. Its signature logo is synonymous with British heritage and its totes surpass It bag status – the Bayswater, the Alexa and the Daria need no introduction.
So it was no doubt with some trepidation that Johnny Coca took up the mantle as Mulberry’s creative director in 2015, charged not just with running the fashion house, but with the difficult task of contemporising a brand famed for its British heritage and time-honoured traditions. Fortunately, Coca is well versed in crafting chic accessories, having cut his fashionable teeth at Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors and Céline, where he was head accessories designer and produced some of the brand’s most recognisable totes and footwear. The Trapeze bag? That was Coca. The Trio clutch and Skate slip-on shoes? Coca, and Coca again.
Never one to shy away from a challenge (he got his first job at Louis Vuitton by ringing the CEO), the designer made his first mission at the helm of Mulberry a controversial one: redesigning the much-loved Bayswater. Blink and you’d miss the changes made, but compare the Bayswater 2.0 with its predecessor and you’d notice the subtle differences, from the structured straps to the configuration of the inside pockets. Coca’s self-proclaimed “love of form” is intrinsic to his design modus operandi, and comes from a childhood obsession with structure and shape and a subsequent education in architecture.
“I’ve always been interested in construction and design; my dream job when I was younger was to design planes and cars,” he explains. “But I’ve always had a parallel interest in fashion, from reading my mother’s fashion magazines to knitting clothes for my sister’s Barbie dolls when I was young.
“My training as an architect is what gave me a love of form. I like to look not just at how something can be beautiful, but how it works, how its shape affects its balance, its use,” he continues. “For me, the true validity of a product comes from its functionality. Really, both disciplines are about combining function and form, beauty and structure.”
I imagine it’s this eye for detail that has made Coca and Mulberry such a good match. The three collections that he’s shown so far for Mulberry at London Fashion Week have been extremely well received, striking the right balance between contemporary design and the label’s heritage. Case in point: the S/S17 collection, for which Coca looked to “traditional British schools and colleges”, creating his take on uniforms “but without uniformity”. The result is pinstriped suits in red and navy shades, oxblood jumpsuits and cream PVC jackets. In the bag department, strong shapes have been softened with playful detailing – for example with the Cherwell, a vintage lunch box-inspired clutch and the Pembroke, a shoulder bag jazzed up with chains and a chunky lock.
While Coca tells me that the team is already well underway with its 2018 collections – and, rather scarily, thinking about Christmas – there is another event that requires his attention at the moment. London Craft Week returns 6-10 May for another week of demonstrations, talks and exhibitions surrounding the world’s most skilled artisans – and, as a sponsor, Mulberry is heavily involved. At the Kensington showroom, Coca will host a one-off breakfast, where he will be introducing guests to the craftsmen behind the two Somerset factories. In Mayfair, the Bond Street store will be hosting a week-long display by a team of artisans, who will be demonstrating how the Bayswater bag is made. For Coca, it is paramount that Mulberry continues to champion British craftsmanship.
“The support of British manufacturing is key to Mulberry. London Craft Week celebrates home-grown talent and quality, and shows the work brands like Mulberry are doing to build a legacy, train a new generation and invest in the future,” he says. “As a company, we are the largest manufacturer of luxury leather goods in the UK and we have a commitment to support the industry.”
Alongside the Mulberry demonstrations, London Craft Week will be hosting events by the likes of Gunnel Sahlin Glassworks at Notting Hill’s Vessel Gallery, Bespoke Walls in Holland Park and exhibitions at the Science Museum and the Design Museum. Coca’s picks take him back to his Spanish roots: “Hotel Café Royal’s pastry chef is hosting a pastry-making class which I would love to go to with my mother and sister; I have many memories of watching my mother cook in our kitchen in Seville – eating together was a huge part of our family life,” he recalls fondly.
“Grayson Perry and the head of the London College of Fashion, Professor Frances Corner, discussing workmanship is also something not to be missed,” he continues. “There is a true connection between fashion and art – plus, Grayson Perry is one of my favourite British artists. He always has brilliant insight into modern culture.”
This British attitude to design has long been an inspiration for Coca and he cites Dame Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen as his favourite designers. “I found them inspiring from a young age; how they pushed the boundaries of the industry and how fashion was portrayed,” he tells me. “Westwood for her rebellion and play on proportions and similarly with McQueen: the pieces are always strong and make a statement."
When it comes to the fashion landscape, Coca is optimistic about the changes happening around him, from the 'see now, buy now' trend that's taking hold to the influence of social media. “[The fashion industry] has become more inclusive and democratic, which is only a good thing,” he says, positively. “Now, thanks to social media and online shopping, we can bring fashion closer to those who want to be a part of it – anyone can watch our shows, see products up close, engage with us, and share what they like and what they don't.”
His plans for Mulberry are simple: to continue championing British manufacturing and making “products that people fall in love with and want to use every day, but are also fun and unexpected”. He bats off my question about the secret to creating a cult tote, but in doing so unwittingly reveals his methods and the key to his success, too: by simply avoiding making anything ‘cult’ in the first place. “When designing the accessories collection, I don't consider making an It bag. I want to create products that give ‘that feeling’ when you look at it or pick it up – that it's the bag for you,” he says. “As long as it’s your It bag, then that’s all that matters to me.”