Comparing the sleek revamp of the Bayswater, Mulberry’s best known, most loved, most copied and still best selling bag, with one of the original versions is an instructive lesson in how far we’ve all raised our game and expectations, bag-wise.
Millions of us loved that bag when Nicholas Knightly, Mulberry’s then creative director, launched it in 2003. The appeal of its chunky, semi-structured frame, gently distressed leather and chuck-it all in interior was so broad that as Emma Hill, Mulberry’s Creative Director between 2008 – 2013 and no slouch herself when it comes to minting It Bags, said, “I have a Bayswater, my son’s grandmother has a Bayswater, Kate Moss has a Bayswater.”
“I remember suddenly seeing this bag everywhere,” says Johnny Coca, Mulberry’s new creative director, “and thinking how clever it was. It had an attitude. You could put everything in it, throw it around. It was obviously well crafted, but it didn’t seem precious. Every brand tried to reproduce something like it.”
Working out what made it so right a decade ago, and what would make it right now, has been, he says, “a bit like redesigning the Mini”. The analogy isn’t so far-fetched.
Like the Mini, the Bayswater is an exemplary, cute, anti-bling design that became an emblem of Britishness. So why mess with it? Because as Coca is currently deftly demonstrating, draping an original over his shoulder and twirling around his airy, oak floored south Kensington studios to give me a 360-degree view, the older versions are not without faults.
“Look,“ he dips a hand inside, “The internal pocket is at the back, so you can’t reach into it so easily. The straps make it heavy and a bit clumsy at the sides – and what do they do?” (Ostensibly they can be undone to adjust the size of the bag but Coca’s right, no one uses them), “The hardware is dull looking, the padlock is unnecessary, the straps always flop down to show a join that isn’t very elegant…” There, in an almost bullet-point paragraph, you have the nuts and bolts of Coca’s approach to design, where form co-exists with function.
Raised in Seville, in Southern Spain, he studied architecture and interior design in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Ecole Boulle, which two centuries earlier had made furniture for the court at Versailles. In the mid 90s he worked on the interiors of Café Marly – a modern incomer to the Louvre museum, which became a template for so many Parisian café make-overs. And then he found himself window dressing at Louis Vuitton. A few weeks later he was hired to design bags – while still completing his two courses.
One of his first hits, aged 24, was the Vuitton Musette, a messenger style bag, designed to hold vinyl records. He later moved to Celine, first under Michael Kors, when he worked on the Boogie bag, a huge hit in the late 90s, then under Phoebe Philo, where he worked on bags such as The Trio, which became as copied as the Bayswater.
He’s been tweaking every detail at Mulberry replica from the packaging, which is now green, to the typeface. Given his architectural training, it can’t be long before he turns his attention to the stores’ interiors? And he loves maths. “I know the minute I start sketching a bag how much it will cost… I like numbers”.
Price is a key block in Mulberry’s recovery strategy. From its heady, recession-defying heights when a string of hits and shares sent shares soaring 207 per cent in one year, the brand has been on a turbulent journey. A decision by Bruno Guillon, an ex Hermes executive who was briefly in-situ at Mulberry (2012-14) as CEO, to take it “upmarket” saw the company lose 67 per cent of its share-price in one year. Things have gradually improved.
Mulberry now desperately needs some fashion credibility to regain its position as a much loved purveyor of aspirational, but not unattainable objects. No pressure then. But Coca could be the one . He may have designed some of the most desirable bags of the past 20 years during his career at Louis Vuitton, Celine and Bally, but he shares Mulberry’s “friendly-luxury“philosophy.
Shopping recently for a present for his sister after she had a baby, he found some of the bag prices startling – and wouldn’t pay for them. Most of Mulberry’s will sell for around £125-£295. Not cheap by normal criteria, but a bargain in the luxury market – and importantly, a fair price for the workmanship, half of which is carried out in its two Somerset factories (the rest is in Turkey, an increasingly popular workshop for global luxury brands, including some you might assume only to manufacture in France or Italy).
He’s refurbished the Bayswater, which is available in its new incarnation now, from the inside out – literally. “Look”, he says, unfastening a charcoal model to reveal a burgundy suede lining that had everyone oohing in the office when I showed them photos. Unlike the old Bayswater interiors with their ridged seams, the new ones are bonded which makes them seamless. The offending pocket on the inside back is now at the front. The straps have been removed – the Bayswater redux is sleeker and lighter and the sides automatically extend, in the vein of Celine’s Trapeze (which, after all, he worked on). The brass plating is shiny – the perfect amount of bling. The pointless padlock has gone. The leather is softer, thicker, more expensive looking, although he says it’s the same quality replica Mulberry handbags has always used. The handles don’t flop. He’s added a dinky, but practical, on-trend smaller version (22cm x 35cm x 12cm) with sporty-chic white top stitching. These tweaks, which don’t cost more, are the product of a refined eye and “of knowing how to roll leather, not stretch it, how thick to make it for different parts of the bag.”
“I knew I didn’t want to alienate existing customers,” says Coca. When one bag came out too expensive, despite Mulberry’s stockists being keen to have it, Coca cancelled it. “It doesn’t feel the moment for such a British brand, with such a British smell to do something that costs so much.”
I haven’t heard anyone talk about a British smell for years. Since he’s in his seventh year living here (he moved when Phoebe Philo relocated the Celine design studio from Paris London, just behind that most hallowed of British institutions, the John Lewis flagship), I was intrigued to know more. It turns out he’s not referring to hygiene, but to attitude. ”There’s playfulness in the culture here, but also something that encourages independence of thought and a certain punk element.” It’s that old conservative versus anarchic paradox which may seem a cliché to Brits. Yet it holds such sway over the rest of the world, it must contain some truth.
His first Mulberry catwalk show in March avoided the glaringly obvious British tropes, while still, charmingly, playing homage to many of our traditions – from military coats and cloaks to Dr Martens-esque chunky soled footwear, floral prints, glossy leather gilets and mini kilts – and a slew of new bags, some sleek, others have sprouted punkish chains. The line up includes the Selwood, a smooth skinned saddle bag with a striking metal clasp, and the Chester, a very grown up two sided tote.
For the Bond Street customers the same styles will come in exotic skins that may cost several thousand, and a luscious palette of oxblood, navy, khaki, green…” I love green”. So much so, he’s changed the colour of the packaging. “It’s a very British colour. That’s the thing that always hits tourists when the come here – how much green there is and how intense it is.”
It’s an understatement to say Coca has form designing smash hits – yet prior to his appointment at Mulberry outlet, no one had heard of him. Is this the mark of the new breed of serious, successful designers?
The new Bayswater is now online at replicamulberryhandbags.me.uk