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Bonnie Cashin, Pioneer Founder of Coach

Apr 9, 2008
Being a transplanted New Yorker as well as a dedicated follower of fashion, I have watched with great interest the resurgence of this company over the past ten years. Coach, whose design creations include handbags, footwear and accessories, has become increasingly popular across all demographics. As is usually the case, the story of the founder can serve as an inspiration to us all.

Coach had its formal beginnings more than fifty years ago in a small Manhattan loft. However, the story really begins in Fresno California in 1908 with the birth of Bonnie Cashin. Even at an early age Bonnie worked with her mother, who was a local dressmaker, and it was here that she was to learn much of the skill set that was to hold her in good stead in her later years. Interestingly enough, she had no formal training in clothing design.

After designing costumes for chorus girls in the Los Angeles area in the 1920's and early 30's, Bonnie moved to Manhattan in 1933 and began to extend her reputation by designing for the in-house dance line of the Roxy Theater.

Cashin returned to California in the mid-40's and spent nearly a decade designing costumes for 20th Century Fox. She was extremely productive in this timeframe, designing costumes for over sixty movie productions including Laura, Anna and the King of Siam and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She continued to design on the side and won the prestigous Neiman Marcus and Coty Fashion Critic's awards for the first display offering of her own designs. She became increasingly unhappy with her manufacturer's control over her creativity during this period and in 1962 she teamed with Miles and Lillian Cahn to launch Coach, a women's handbag and accessories design firm. This showed an enormous amount of self confidence as women executives in the fashion industry were virtually unheard of.

The newly formed company was a family run workshop that employed six artisans to design a collection of high-quality leathergoods(such as handbags) using skills passed down from generation to generation. It wasn't long before discerning consumers discovered and began to seek out the unique design and high quality of workmanship found in the companies initial product, the handbag.

As is usually the case, there is an interesting story behind the first creations of the company. Cashin, a baseball fan, got her first handbag design inspiration from, of all things, a baseball glove. She was interested in the way the glove aged, becoming more supple with time, and was fascinated by the distinctive markings that were part of the leather.

Taking this idea, she refined it by making the leather softer and stronger and ended up with the first Coach handbag. Since that time, innovations in leather finishes, new grains and colors and modern materials all played a part in the development of the highly popular and widely acclaimed Coach product lines of handbags, footwear and accessory creations.

Cashin was a visionary in women's clothing design, most particularly sportswear. But perhaps her most important contribution to the fashion industry was her breaking of the "glass ceiling", which kept women from positions of leadership in the industry. She serves as a strong inspiration to many who have followed and the new breed of fashion designer has its roots with the Coach founder.

With the death of Cashin in 2000, Coach entered a period of transition while maintaining the quality standards that made the company successful. Coach is now considered a leading light on the landscape of American design and is the legacy of its strong and inspirational founder.
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