The Story Behind a Midwest Fashion Staple: Vintage Coach

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It bags come and go, but certain styles and shapes have a lasting appeal and a timelessness that keeps them relevant for years after they were designed. Such is the classic leather Coach bag. You know the one: simple, with a long strap for easy wear and that iconic brass turnlock. They’ve been around for decades, and their casual appeal has kept them coming back into fashion year after year.ellen_02The classic Coach bag is a Midwest girl’s dream come true. It’s not flashy, laden down with labels or heavy chains or sparkles. It’s made of quality leather that gets better with age. It’s easily found at thrift stores and vintage shops for a decent price, but you know you’re getting a great piece that will last. Maybe you inherited it from your mom!

We have legendary designer Bonnie Cashin to thank for the classic Coach bag we know and love. “When Coach decided to introduce a retail collection for women in
1962, the owners contacted Bonnie to launch the company,” says jewelry designer Dr. Stephanie Lake, foremost scholar of Cashin’s work. “[Bonnie] wanted to create simple designs in gorgeous leathers to suit modern living.”ellen_03Cashin designed the bags to travel easily and created a palette that would match her clothing designs. “For Coach, she mapped her designs on everything from buckets to equestrian gear–anything that was meant to function with ease, strength, and grace.”

The classic Coach bag was hugely popular in the casual, easy-breezy ‘70s. It was often the first “designer” handbag young women received, and many of them fondly held on to their bags after the popularity waned. Its resurgence has come about fairly recently, as flea-market shopping and heritage style came into fashion. Retailers like J. Crew release handbag designs that have obviously taken a cue from Cashin’s Coach, and all sorts of celebrities have slung the bags over their shoulders.

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“Her ideas revolutionized the handbag market and became some of the first ‘It’ bags,” Lake says. So even though we covet the Diors and the Guccis and Balenciagas, it’s the simple, classic Coach shape we’ll always return to. Lake agrees. “Contemporary American luxury is moving in a more elegant direction, and Bonnie[‘s designs] epitomize that.”

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illustrations by Allegra Lockstadt

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Kara Nesvig is a Minneapolis-based writer who grew up on a farm in North Dakota. She writes for xoVain, xoJane, Thought Catalog and various local publications.

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