How COACH Became a Home Run

The twentieth century saw a lot of social change, especially related to women.  As they achieved greater independence and a larger role outside of the home, their handbag choices evolved as well.  At the same time, the industrial revolution introduced new manufacturing techniques and expanded shipping and travel options facilitated the spread of brand names and styles between continents. 

Throughout the first half of the 1900s in America, European designer handbags were held in high esteem.  Wealthy American women were able to acquire them through their travels to the continent or exclusive shops in New York City or other large urban areas. 

For most women, however, these handbags were out of reach.  Expensive and impractical for their daily routine, these women had to resort to cheap bags made of thin leather stretched over cardboard.  There was nothing in between. 

But Lillian Cahn saw an alternative.  And with the help of her husband, Miles, she created an entirely new handbag segment – the Affordable Luxury purse category.

Start with What you Know

  • Miles Cahn knew leather. 

He had experience working in leather manufacturing.  In the 1940s, he was hired by a small leathergoods manufacturer that specialized in making wallets and billfolds.  This outfit prided themselves on their craftsmanship and paid close attention to detail. 

Miles embraced this philosophy as well.  He was always inspecting leather products he encountered.  He came across a leather baseball glove.  It was well worn, but maintained a soft, buttery feel and a deep tan hue.  He was intrigued by the strength and suppleness this leather exhibited. 

He began to think about how he could apply this leather to the products he was making in the factory.

  • Lillian Cahn Knew Handbags.

Lillian Cahn was raised during the great depression.  She used to run errands for her family, carting groceries back and forth in shopping bags.  As she matured, she adopted the use of purses for special occasions, but missed the functionality of the shopping bags she carried daily.  The structured purses that were popular at the time were impractical for day-to-day use. 

So Lillian took matters into her own hands.  She designed a tote bag that combined the structure of leather with the functionality of a shopping bag.  Taking the design to her husband, he initially did not see the need for this type of bag.  But Lillian persisted and convinced him to manufacture some of her designs. 

  • They Combined their Knowledge to Create Something New

Miles decided to give Lillian’s designs a try.  He was willing to make a few experimental prototypes of her handbag to see if they attracted any interest.  At the same time, he was experimenting with the baseball glove leather that had intrigued him.  He discovered a process that made it even stronger, softer, and more flexible.  And since he was in an experimental mindset, he decided to manufacture Lillian’s bags using the new baseball glove leather he had improved upon.

Combining detailed craftsmanship, high quality leather, and a practical design that could be used all day, every day, the Coach Handbag was created.  It became highly sought after and opened the door to an entirely new handbag segment – Affordable Luxury. 

Using Ordinary Experiences to Create the Extraordinary

Miles and Lillian Cahn did not live an extraordinary life.  He worked as a leather craftsman.  She ran errands and shopped.  But their actions demonstrate an Effectual worldview.  They did not view their lives as limited, but full of opportunity. 

They applied their ordinary experiences in unique and novel ways.  What began as a simple handbag grew into a company, an esteemed brand, and an entirely new market. 

The Cahns took a shopping bag and a baseball glove and turned them into a homerun. 

--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC