The rebellious spirit of Johnny Coca, Mulberry’s captivating creative director, is alive and well. Since 2015, he’s been responsible for vamping up the brand’s British foundation with a recalcitrant twist. With powerful collections, unstoppable energy, and thoughtful design in mind, Coca is paving the way for the British brand’s highly deserving comeback.
WHITEWALL: While studying architecture and interior design in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Boulle, you worked on the interiors of Café Marly—a café that drew crowds from the Louvre and was a near template for so many Parisian cafés thereafter. Tell us about the similarities in designing for interiors and for fashion.
JOHNNY COCA: Designing is thinking about aesthetics, style, and functionality. Looking good and being useful. When I was younger, I wanted to design rockets, cars, and boats, then I fell in love with fashion, and now I apply the same principles of design to handbags, shoes, and clothes for Mulberry. Whether you’re designing a café or a handbag, it’s the same principle—aesthetics times function.
WW: Your bag designs and redesigns—such as Mulberry’s The Maple, The Chester, The Clifton, the reworked Bayswater, and Céline’s Trio and Trapeze bags—have been consistent in balance between form and function. In terms of designing for both, while still staying respectful to heritage household designs as true as Mulberry’s, what are some difficult decisions that you must make?
JC: It’s always difficult to decide what to keep and what to change when you are dealing with a British icon and a household name. Take the Mini, for example—the car has changed considerably from its original design, but the charm is still there. They changed the design because tastes evolve over time, and techniques, colors, and materials are refined and available. The Bayswater is the same. There are new materials available now in 2016 that there weren’t in 2003. This allows us to introduce new colors. There are lifestyle demands that mean we should be offering a different construction—more balanced for carrying newer, lighter laptops, et cetera. Before, you would have carried a heavier laptop in a separate bag, but now everyone wants to have all their essentials in their main handbag.
WW: At Céline, you designed accessories, and created the brand’s iconic Trapeze bag—one of the house’s and fashion industry’s most successful bags to date. In an age like today, where so many houses rely on the sales of handbags, what is an “it” bag to you?
JC: You cannot create an “it” bag on demand. You design using your best ideas and then the customers respond. They decide what’s an “it” bag and you can be really surprised. It’s like the movie industry—you can never tell before for sure which of 10 movies will be a hit. There is no formula . . . I just try to create beautiful bags for people today.
WW: You redesigned the house’s logo to reflect an original font that the brand used in the 1970s. Why did you make the decision to change Mulberry’s logo?
JC: I first saw the original logo from the 1970s when I was going through some archive materials. I was instantly drawn to it—it somehow felt more British, more “Mulberry.” I then commissioned an amazingly talented typographer to make some subtle changes to ensure it was relevant and modern.
WW: You have previously said that you wanted to “instill a sense of British character and lineage back into the Mulberry brand, building on our heritage rather than creating something entirely new.” What are you doing to instill that?
JC: I am inspired by the British heritage and way of life—the beautiful contradiction between traditional elegance and a subversive, rebellious attitude. I love this contrast and express it in my work. The Fall/Winter 2016 collection references classic tailoring and the rebellious pop of color and texture. I am also inspired by Mulberry’s DNA—the heritage check, tartan, natural leather, but with new and modern twists. I try to do Mulberry British essentials, too, like great coats, capes, knitwear, and the perfect day dress.
WW: You presented your first show for Mulberry in February 2016 at London Fashion Week at the Guildhall, and an English piece of Victoria sponge cake awaited guests. Tell us about the small British details you choose to infuse into the brand.
JC: Britishness was in all our choices . . . I chose to show in an iconic British building—the Guildhall, a beautiful historical building in the heart of the city of London used for state occasions. I liked the fact that guests at the Mulberry show would discover a place they may not have known about—a hidden gem in London. Another Mulberry tradition is to always make our guests feel welcome, so we presented cake on each seat for when they arrived. I then took everyone to “The Box”—an iconic British nightclub that celebrates urban subculture and the alternative London!
This article is published in Whitewall‘s winter 2017 Luxury Issue.