It's long been said that in fashion, God is in the details. So when it came time for iconic British brand Mulberry – which is known for its sumptuous leather goods – to find a new creative director, it's no wonder the victorious candidate was someone who knew bags inside out. Enter Johnny Coca, arguably one of the industry's hottest accessory masterminds (he introduced the coveted Trapeze bag while working at French label Céline). Coca, a 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 as a way to make some money. Eventually bags got the better of him and Coca found himself working alongside Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Phoebe Philo at Céline, dreaming up It bags and other accessories that turned heads and made cash registers sing. Based on all the kudos received for his recent London runway debut for the Mulberry – a vision rife with British references from royalty to punk – it looks like 40-year-old Coca has found his perfect perch. I spoke with the designer from Paris about understanding Mulberry's DNA and how he aims to rejuvenate the label.
Was it a tough decision to come over to Mulberry?
I had thought about Mulberry for a long time. I watched the brand and I knew it was very popular in the U.K. and that it had a strong heritage. My question was whether I was right for the brand or not. I started to meet all the people in the company and I tried to understand the value of the brand. I learned that they have two huge factories in Somerset; that really helped make my decision because it is important for me to be sure that everything I expect in terms of design, creation and quality can be properly resolved with the people I work with. I went to the factory and I saw about a hundred craftspeople in production – and I saw how the product had been made since 1971. It's something quite special for people in the U.K. because it was really the only good leather brand in the country. So then it was important for me to think about what my value could be and what I could bring. I thought that it would be an interesting project for me to give the brand a more lifestyle direction in terms of products, like ready-to-wear, shoes, jewellery and, of course, bags.
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?
My background was architecture and product design, and I was always thinking about duty, function and construction. Because I grew up with my mother and my two sisters, I was attracted to fashion and style. I worked 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. 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. I got to design and present a project to Louis Vuitton when I was 22 years old. That was when my career started going in that direction.
Fashion today is such a big business and there's so much pressure on designers. What is it that keeps you going?
With everything I do, I give a lot of love and I try to make sure that everything I'm doing is top quality. It's really important that each brand keeps its own DNA and tries to respect its environment, where it comes from. For example, Mulberry is a British brand so I'll try to understand all the cultural references, like the music and the fashion. What makes British style very special and very desirable is a mix of classic and eccentric ideas. It's 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.
You also teach at the famous Central Saint Martins school. Why is teaching important to you?
When I'm working with students, I try to drive them into understanding the reality of the business. I try to change the mentality of all these fashion students, because they are all working on clothing and as we know, it's the accessories – from the shoes to the bags to the jewels – that are strong in terms of business. I've worked for many 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. It's important for schools to understand that they have to train not just ready-to-wear designers but strong accessories designers as well.
You have your work cut out for you now, to take this iconic brand and lift it to the next level. How are you approaching it?
It was important for me, when I looked at all the past products, to try to understand which ones are the iconic ones, which ones have the strongest design and how I can work on that and bring a 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 proportions. I said I would never kill that bag. I want to continue with it because it's part of what Mulberry is. I 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 important to analyze what's key and what has 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.
This interview has been condensed and edited.