Inside the Coach archives: See the historic handbags that inspire new purses

Founded in 1941, the company now known as Coach started out as a family-run leather-goods business. Two decades later, the company brought in its first lead designer, Bonnie Cashin, and began the transition that eventually made it one of the world’s best known fashion houses.

That transition was based, of course, on luxury handbags—and today Coach, now a subsidiary of Tapestry, keeps a model of almost every handbag it has ever made, held in secure shelves at its New York headquarters.

This archive is more than just a snapshot of each Coach era. Like similar archives at companies across the corporate world, it helps current designers draw on past successes to create new products, or reimagine older ones. “Traditional European luxury companies do this, but we are the only ones who have this at scale in North America,” says Coach archivist Ryan Bollwerk.

At Coach’s archive, it’s particularly striking to see how past designs inform new looks. A notable example is the turnlock that has been a staple of Coach’s purses for decades. For that design, Cashin reportedly looked for inspiration in automobile hardware, copying the brass footings that held down the roof of her convertible. Archive visitors can also trace the evolution of the brand’s iconic Bucket bag, and see how Coach’s current hot-selling version playfully echoes a design that customers first found appealing more than 50 years ago.

Detail of Cashin Carry 1969 Three-Frame Shoulder Tote. The kiss lock, as seen here, is one of Bonnie Cashin’s signature looks for Coach.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

Coach Archivist Ryan Bollwerk opens and closes a Cashin Carry 1968 Safari Tote.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

Coach designers draw inspiration from an archive that includes almost every handbag the company has ever made. Left, a display captures Coach’s many shades of brown, while archivist Ryan Bollwerk shows off an array of Ergo Mini satchels from 1997.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

Bollwerk tidies up inside the Coach archives in New York on April 9, 2024.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

Coach’s Blue Leather Dinky with color block links were discontinued because it was too time and labor intensive to paint each link rim.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

Designs from Coach Creative Director Stuart Vevers include the Rogue 25 in glovetanned pebble leather, with wild tea roses (left), and coin pouches featuring Coach’s T-Rex mascot Rexy.

Aaron Richter for Fortune

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