Stuart Vevers, a genius designer of timeless leather goods
British born designer Stuart Vevers graduated from the University of Westminster in 1996. His first job was at Calvin Klein followed by Bottega Veneta, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton where he worked with Marc Jacobs. He joined Mulberry as Creative Director in 2005 and was instrumental in the company’s success, transforming their leather goods into the must-have bags. He has also collaborated with Luella Bartley and Designer of the Year, Giles Deacon. In 2006, he won the British Fashion Council’s Accessory Designer of the Year award. In July 2007 it was announced that he had been appointed Creative Director of Loewe.
Vevers is now aiming to revive the Spanish luxury brand of LOEWE by choosing simplicity over bling, functionality over flash. One of his newest creations: a leather version of an ordinary brown paper grocery bag for about $1,045. He’s making a point of using the same bag shapes season after season—the opposite of “it” bags’ short fashion cycle. And he’s made sure that Loewe bags are lightweight, under two pounds. “It’s kind of taking the bag back to its purest functionality,” Mr. Vevers says.
For a decade, nailing the “it” bag was the holy grail for luxury brands because of insatiable consumer demand and hefty profit margins. Back then, more was more. Chloë’s Paddington, launched in 2005 and weighed down by a metal padlock and a $1,380 price tag, boasted waiting lists. Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada splashed their logos on their purses.
Then came the 2008 economic crisis. Sales of handbags in the U.S. fell 3.3% to $6.97 billion in 2009, according to market researcher NPD Group. Restraint and classicism returned. Gucci and Coach toned down their logo looks. Meanwhile, Bottega Veneta—known for its iconic plain, woven-leather bags—enjoys increasing popularity.
Mr. Vevers’s challenges: Sell the simplicity and re-establish Loewe’s presence in the U.S., one of the most cutthroat consumer markets in the world. The 164-year-old Spanish brand generates about a third of its sales in Spain and the other two thirds in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Loewe Chief Executive Lisa Montague. World-wide sales are below €100 million ($133 million), estimates Luca Solca, a luxury-goods analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein—”very small in the context of LVMH.” Since being purchased in 1996, Loewe has lingered in LVMH’s closet—despite the efforts of such designers as Narciso Rodriguez, who left the brand after five years to focus uniquely on his own label. The brand wasn’t sold in U.S. stores for at least 10 years.
Mr. Vevers, who was recruited to become Loewe’s creative director in 2007, has plenty of experience. After designing in 1998 for Bottega Veneta, Mr. Vevers joined LVMH’s star Louis Vuitton brand. He also worked at its smaller Givenchy fashion house before leaving in 2005 to take the reins of Mulberry, a British brand that specializes in accessories, and giving his over-the-top mode free rein. Besides adding studs, tassels and spikes to the brand’s line of classic aged-leather bags, he designed an evening bag shaped like a medieval mace ball and a metal-and-leather clutch.
“He has worked for iconic brands, and he always respects its heritage while giving it an edge,” says Floriane de Saint Pierre, a luxury-goods consultant and recruiter.
But for Loewe, Mr. Vevers decided he wanted to strip the bag down. “‘Luxury’ was becoming a word that was so overused,” says the boyish-looking designer, noting the economic crisis merely accelerated his transformation. It was a concept he says Loewe executives initially struggled to grasp. “I think there was some confusion as I was explaining that it was time to move on,” recalls Mr. Vevers. (Ms. Montague says Loewe “strongly believes in Stuart’s ability and his sensitivity to understand the evolution of the market.”)
Lacking a big ad budget (LVMH is proceeding cautiously with the revival effort), Mr. Vevers is banking on word of mouth. Tapping stylists he knows from his Mulberry days, he’s gotten Loewe’s 35-year-old Amazona bag—a classically rectangular bag with two handles that costs between $1,800 and $1,950—into the hands of Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. So far, three stores in the U.S. sell Loewe’s bags—Bergdorf Goodman, Jeffrey and Hirshleifer’s on New York’s Long Island.
Mr. Vevers appears to have no regrets about his style change, saying that he has grown up: “I don’t think I could ever design the way I did then now. It just wouldn’t feel right.”