The Sentiment And Magic Of Collecting Vintage Coach

A handbag as a means of connection: to one's family, to a heritage of craftsmanship, and to one's past self.

by Rosa Jisoo Pyo
Originally Published: 

If you’re patient and lucky, the thrift gods might bless you with something special: a vintage Coach bag, instantly recognizable with its thick, glove-tanned leather; classic brass hardware; and boxy, utilitarian silhouette. But as Gen Z returns to girlhood (see: the ribbons everywhere, dressing to delight your inner child), vintage Coach has become more than a well-made accessory — it’s become a way to hold onto sentiment: of your first bag, the purse your mom or auntie carried, going to the mall and picking out a grown-up wristlet.

Since 2021, Gen Z has entered the vintage Coach conversation, largely due to the brand’s immaculate rebranding efforts through re-releases of coveted collections like the Swing Zip, as well as dressing Olivia Rodrigo and recruiting stars like Lil Nas X to front its campaigns. (In fact, searches for “vintage Coach” have nearly tripled in the last five years, according to Google Trends.) The obsession with the brand is nothing new — the fashion savvy and leather enthusiasts alike have built collections starting from when the brand hired its first designer Bonnie Cashin, whose legacy and impact can be seen in American sportswear to this day. But 2023’s Coach devotees are different in that they’re as obsessed with the craftsmanship as they are with the feeling of being connected, through these bags, to the women in their lives — and maybe even former versions of themselves.

Your All-American Girlhood

Creator Annie Silkaitis’s Signature Messenger Crossbody, which was passed down by her mother, was the beginning of a long line of purses. As Silkaitis’s vintage Coach collection grew, she began highlighting them on TikTok, where viewers would comment asking her to show her vintage Coach bags, she tells NYLON. “I realized it was something a lot of other people collect, too. Finding that community aspect has been fun and definitely made [collecting] more special for me.”

For content creator Imani Keal, who’s part of Silkaitis’s online community, the brand has always “been that girl,” she says. Online, Keal shares the bags she lovingly stole from her mom when she worked at a Coach store shortly after graduating college. “She had no paycheck because she was just buying,” Keals says. “So I grew up seeing her carry Coach bags more than Louis Vuitton and Gucci.”

Today’s Coach devotees are as obsessed with the craftsmanship as they are with the feeling of being connected to the women in their lives.

Of these Coach bags, Keal says one stands out in particular: a structured, top-handle one her mother tracked down in Delaware. After she located it, she turned to Keal and her sister and asked what they wanted; Keal says she chose a canvas and metallic wristlet that gave her a childlike sense of authority even though she didn’t have a single dollar to put inside. “I dogged that wristlet out,” she says. “[Coach] made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like a woman.”

In South Australia, artist Elena Téa says she holds Coach bags sacred, too. After the loss of her mother, Téa was given her prized soft snakeskin Coach pouch, which she says helped her mourn. “It feels very healing to my inner child,” she says of acquiring more Coach, an act she likens to the memory of a young girl trying to fit into her mom’s high heels.

Down to Brass Tacks (and Hardware)

When Keal holds her contemporary and vintage Coach bags in her hands, she says she can see the familial resemblance with the sturdy leather and tight stitching. But her vintage Coach shoulder bag, which used to be her mom’s, has a quiet simplicity, its worn leather fraying slightly under the flap. In comparison, her modern Coach Beat has more extravagant details: a removable chain, little feet on the bottom, and polished rivets. “I'm excited to see how [the Beat] holds up knowing that I know what [vintage Coach] looks like 20 years later,” Keal says.

When comparing vintage Coach to the brand’s contemporary offerings, Volkan Yilmaz — known to his nearly 1 million TikTok followers as Tanner Leatherstein — notes that the former embodies an undeniably American technique characterized by thicker leather without the support structures commonly seen in modern bag construction. Save for the rare exception of a striped lining that Cashin popularized in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you’ll almost always be met with raw suede. “The American stuff will shape with the leather’s deformation,” Yilmaz says. “It will start sagging slowly and age into a different, used-looking bag while still staying durable.”

I'm excited to see how the Beat holds up knowing that I know what vintage Coach looks like 20 years later.

In contrast, today, Coach uses European tanneries that add internal support structures between the leather layers to create a more elegant form that stays new-looking for a while, Yilmaz says — before they might start falling apart due to those inner workings breaking down.

Earlier this year, Yilmaz put these findings to the test by slicing into a vintage Coach bag to determine its quality. He cut through a black leather bag with his signature gusto, and gave a final verdict: absolutely worth it, given the high-quality leather and hardware. “Coach still uses really good hardware, but back then they used the brass,” Yilmaz says. “If you're looking around in a thrift store and you see that the brass buckle has [patina], [that] is a good sign.”

Memories in Leather

When Will Tyler isn’t working as a Coach assistant store manager, he often takes his 200,000 TikTok followers through his vintage Coach archive while sharing how to clean and restore the aged leather and hardware through step-by-step tutorials. He says that while people might be intimidated by the process, it’s actually less complicated than they think.

By watching Tyler’s videos, both Téa and Keal say they’ve been able to give their vintage Coach collections some TLC with just a bit of leather conditioner to revive the texture. (“It just needs a little moisturizer,” Keal says.) But even as investing in the care of leather goods helps them last longer (and maintains their resale value in a market that’s increasingly favorable to vintage Coach), Tyler says that sometimes, the imperfections are worth even more — like when he met a customer carrying an ‘80s model in pristine condition, save for one small pen mark.

After he learned that the smudge was from her days working in New York City, he says he gave her what might seem like surprising advice: “Whatever you do, don't touch it.” It's a memory, he said, so don't try to erase it.

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