“I’m very excited,” he said in relaxed, humble tones when we met him earlier this week to get a preview of what he is set to show today. “The first season was intense because to organise and understand the structure of everybody takes time, so this season I’m more confident. I think we are coming with something new and fresh and different to the first collection.”
What a difference 18 months makes. At the start of March 2015, the luxury British brand was without a CEO, had yet to appoint a creative director, and the most recent headlines were regarding its ill-fated price increase under former CEO Bruno Guillon and its absence from the London Fashion Week schedule. Fast forward to September 2016 and the house has the buzz about it that it did in the early 2010s, now that the Coca effect has started to take hold.
Speaking with the Seville-born, Paris-London native, he is every bit as energised that the brand’s new vibe suggests. Following his autumn/winter 2016 debut for the house in February, the praise was palpable, which, despite his stellar credentials and respected track record, Coca admitted to finding a revelation.
“I was surprised about the reaction from the press because it was my first collection,” he smiled, acknowledging, modestly, that the feedback was globally positive. “People were saying it’s cool and strong. They never expected this attitude and look to come from Mulberry and to see that it was very British, but at the same time different. I think it was important to make a statement from the beginning, but I was surprised to see that the press wanted to do a lot of shooting and editorial straight away. It was great to please everybody.”
The British sensibility of Mulberry is something that Coca talks about with passion – clearly he sees mixing these traditional influences with a fresh outlook as being pivotal to the brand’s success. Being fresh at the brand himself right now, he is in the advantaged position of being able to remember his impression of Mulberry as an outsider and use it to his advantage.
“From the outside for me it was a very classic brand with a very strong knowledge of the craft of leather goods with recognisable shapes, but not really part of fashion,” he explained, noting that while he wants to offer updated alternatives for popular silhouettes, such as the Bayswater and the Alexa, he “understands and respects” that certain customers will always want the original. “Now, I am trying to create a global consistency throughout all of the categories to form a global mood of Mulberry in order to give a strong attitude and personality to the name. To be honest, it’s not often you see a brand strong on leather goods that is so popular. It’s funny to see so many Mulberry bags on the street – people are really proud. What’s nice is to push it a little, to open their eyes, to show them what it can go with.”
Understanding his customer is something that Coca talks of a lot, as is communication and honesty which, reports would suggest were missing from the most recent senior management/ creative director relationships at the house. Luckily for modern-day Mulberry, the relationships between Coca and his team, not to mention the rather heartwarming monthly meet-ups with current chief executive officer Thierry Andretta - sound more like a close-knit group of friends, as opposed to the stereotypical team dynamic within a major fashion house.
“To have success it’s not only one person, it’s done by a team. I need to be close to the people that work for me and I need to know that they are okay. If there is a problem, I say to Thierry, ‘Can we solve it? Because it’s not cool, and I don’t like it when people are sad.’ In fashion, you have to be playful and enjoy what you do. It can be intense, so we need to make sure that people are happy when they come to the office,” he explained.
“Thierry is someone I can talk to,” he went on. “Each week we have a dinner so we can expose every issue and find a solution. It’s like when you are family, or married, or whatever, it’s nice to have a dinner somewhere nice and a moment to reposition. We are very close and it’s really good to be able to make quick discussions. Not to be scary, just to be honest and talk.”
One thing that the pair have had to reposition is the pricing at Mulberry. When cost price was increased on Guillion’s watch, the company - and critique of the brand - did not fare well. Coca explains that he takes it as a personal responsibility to create collections that won’t just garner positive reviews, but ones that will do what they’re meant to do: sell.
Mulberry Autumn/Winter 2016 Ready-To-Wear
“It’s important to make sure, in terms of collection, that we are covering the need of the people, and we want to be very careful about the pricing,” he said. “I am very involved with the factory in terms of pricing. I know exactly what the cost of all my product is for the show. It’s really important not to design product too expensive because our target is everybody, young and old. It can’t be unobtainable. I think people need an easy cool bag for day that’s accessible and good value and we have to offer that to our clients. For spring/summer 2017 we are working on the pricing more. The first season we were learning. Now we are stronger with the pricing and the next one will be well controlled. We can design something cool, but it then might be too expensive, so if we are going to spend time designing, we then have to make sure that people are going to be able to buy it.”
As for the results, December will reveal all, but a year-and-a-half into his tenure, that’s all a part of Coca’s plan. Refreshingly, as the revolving fashion doors continue to rotate, he has a long-game approach.
“I will say, to see the results properly in terms of sales, it takes a year-and-a-half to start to understand, and you really consolidate in three years,” he said when asked how long it takes a designer to hit their stride. “You design, then it has to go to production, then it has to be delivered, so now I’m here a year and the product just more or less arrived. We have to wait to see what the reaction will be.”
Despite a short reign as the face of a major brand, Coca’s outlook and understanding of the industry could only come from someone who has been waiting in the wings for years. Successful stints at Celine (which saw him create the most financially successful bags for years) as well as Bally and Louis Vuitton proved his pedigree and as a result he is pragmatic when it comes to his role with the brand.
“It’s important to be careful, because I’m not here for myself. I’m here to make sure I make the brand a success and profitable,” he said. “It’s my job, I’m not just here to show my face, I don’t have an ego, I want to work and make sure that people are happy and that we can spend more for the next year because we are selling better!”
In terms of the qualities that it takes to be a creative director in the current climate, Coca is transparent: you need “to have a strong flexibility”, “to guarantee everything works well”, “to be clear with your vision” and to “give a sense of everything to everybody” – even if he admits to being a little surprised, when he started, with the amount of meetings it entails. In classic uncomplaining Coca tones, even this small snag is a positive: “It’s important to take time with the people, because you can’t say to someone something is bad if you never take time with them to explain. It doesn’t have to be long, but it’s good to share ideas and concepts. Sometimes there is frustration, but when you are the creative director there is also freedom.”
But, as any seasoned creative director knows, they’re judged on their last show. So what does today hold in store?
“It’s going to give something quite emotional,” he revealed. “I wanted it to be less heavy than last season in terms of architecture. I wanted something more poetic and romantic, but I like the opposition for something strong with something soft, so I was looking at all the clothing from rockers and students.” Coca looked to Cambridge and Oxford, studying the studious striped blazers and oft-shrunken sizing of academic wear. “If you look, they are always wearing these blazers with stripes – I love it!” he enthused. “It was funny to look at the proportions, so I took that as inspiration.”
He’s also incorporating a warm-weather counter to his winter florals, sighting paisley print as a major component. “I love flowers. This season they are in line with what people love in the UK and reference the culture of the British garden. I was interested to explore what type of print I wanted to use. The first season it was roses, but this time it’s more light and colourful and I looked at how to play with floral prints on fabrics with movement, so there is more flou.”
“It’s a lightweight version of the last show – it’s more feminine and it’s easy to wear. It’s not complicated with lots of layers. I wanted lots of skirts and dresses and jackets – to cover, more or less, what women want in their summer wardrobes,” he continued of the 37-look collection, explaining his reasoning for his edit. “There is showing, but then there’s selling,” he laughed. “We have found a good number. There’s no point doing a lot just to say we do a lot. I could make 100 looks but the message and direction need to be really clear.”
The message, of course, has a heavy focus on footwear (what less would you expect from a man who has designed shoes for seven years?) and Coca’s face lights up when talking about them. “The shoes are very special – lots of mid heels at 70 mm but the shape of the heel is special and related to the outfit.” Not forgetting the all-important Mulberry bags. “There are of course a lot of bags! I don’t like to have one bag throughout the show, as the shape doesn’t always support the style. I went through the classic Mulberrys this season and revamped and reworked.”
Top tip for today? We’re told that there’s a small bag, a little like a child’s packed-lunch box with pockets and handles that Coca predicts will stand out to the press because it’s “so visual and graphic”. As for the rest of the show?
“For me the show is like a moment,” he said contemplatively. “Throughout the year, we have time to give people what they need, whereas this is the time to explore the emotion and bring something unexpected.”
That’s Johnny Coca. Something unexpected you never knew was so good.