Features: Conversation With...

Feb
2008

Traditional Values

It’s been a homecoming of sorts for Cole Haan’s new design director Paul Overfield. A veteran of the accessories world, the U.K. native has worked for some of fashion’s biggest and brightest names including Gucci, Calvin Klein (where he served as design director), Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta. His style passport has also been stamped by some major powerhouses in the accessories arena such as luxury goods company Tardini, De Vecchi and… Cole Haan, a brand known for its iconic footwear, leather goods and hand-tailored coats.

In fact, while looking back through the archives in preparation for celebrating Cole Haan’s 80th anniversary, Overfield came across a collection he had worked on in a freelance capacity back in the early ’90s.

“I designed the men’s program of small leather goods and belts, and the precious skins. It’s been a very long connection with the brand,” says Overfield. “We were going back through some of the old catalogs and there was one from around ’94. I said, ‘Wow, that’s a trip down memory lane.’ ”

Overfield received a Master of Arts degree from the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied ceramics. “A lot of people I know who fall into this world of accessories come from that kind of a world—a world very much about three-dimensional design.”

His past connection to the brand as well as his affinity for the type of three-dimensional design mentality connected with accessories, made it easier for him to accept when, about a year ago, colleague Gordon Thompson, then-Cole Haan creative director, asked Overfield if he’d be interested in taking over his position at the company. “The timing was perfect,” says Overfield. “They were ready to reposition the brand again—stores, concepts, new licensees—so I ended up here.”

Speaking of new licensees, the timing was also right for the brand to launch an eyewear collection. The line, a collaboration with ClearVision Optical, is an extension of the “lifestyle” of Cole Haan, says Overfield. “Accessories are about changing your look,” he explains. “Eyewear for me is a perfect extension of that. One of Gordon’s philosophies when he was here was that it’s about 360 design. Certainly from my background I have the same philosophy. I think eyewear also matches up to that.

t’s a physical product. If you look at a shoe, it’s about the heel, the last, the sole. It’s about constructing something. Eyewear to me is a very similar kind of product. You really do construct the pieces. You have to look at every detail. I think for us, eyewear makes for a very happy marriage.”

That marriage is made successful thanks to a good working relationship with ClearVision. “The relationship with the licensee is fundamental because that can go horribly wrong,” notes Overfield. “I’ve worked with licensees in the past where it’s just been a constant battle. I have to say working with ClearVision has been a pleasure. We communicate; we throw ideas around together. They come in and show sketches; they bring prototypes. They’re also working at breakneck speed because the eyewear timing is so much more advanced than our timing. They’ve been great partners.”

The fact that ClearVision also understands the brand and its customer is key. “Our customer as a whole is more discreet,” says Overfield. “You can still have a very high-end fashion person who’s confident enough not to want a lot of logo but want a lot of detail. That’s really what we try to put into the eyewear as well. Add that detail in but be confident enough to keep it discreet. Partnering with ClearVision has been a pleasure because they’ve understood that.”

It was important that Cole Haan’s tradition and heritage be part of the eyewear collection, especially the brand’s signature weave pattern. “Obviously we’re known for our leather,” says Overfield. “Adding the details of the leather into the line is very important. The detailing of the weave on the frames has been very important. The mixtures of materials are very important. The hardware, the leather, the inlay, all of these things have been incredibly important in terms of detailing the product. The cases: again back to woven. I think the weave can be interpreted in so many different ways—reinterpreting the logo into a weave. This is a big new step. We’re also going to be introducing a new jacquard line, which is, again, based around the weave. It’s still a Cole Haan logo but it’s very subtle.”

The Cole Haan tradition is a rich and long one. The company began in Chicago in 1928, when Trafton Cole and Eddie Haan crafted their first shoe. Today, Cole Haan, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nike Inc., is celebrating its 80th anniversary. “Cole Haan was the first company to bring the penny loafer style into the U.S.,” explains Overfield. “For our anniversary we’re going to celebrate the penny. It’s a great story. Timing-wise there is a whole preppy movement happening. We’re going to do some original hand-sewn products here in the U.S., which is very difficult to do now. The manufacturers are very small. We’re going to be taking the penny from that hand-sewn heritage right through to a modern product. We’re also working with a jewelry designer who’s working on specific pennies with us. It’s really just to incorporate something new into something old.”

While Cole Haan is going back to celebrate its anniversary, it’s also moving forward as a brand by “embracing” its tradition, notes Overfield. “It’s wonderful coming to a brand when it has so much internally to inspire you because then you can use that tradition to take the brand forward. I’ve been at companies where there hadn’t been a heritage so you have to invent things constantly. Here it’s wonderful because we do have this heritage and to take it to the next level is fairly easy because there is so much internally that you can get hold of and modernize.”

Cole Haan is indeed going back to the future. “In terms of taking it forward, we’ve used the DNA of the brand which is the penny, the weave, the menswear-inspired product,” says Overfield. “We’ve put a lot of menswear-inspired product into our women’s footwear but made it very feminine. Even though we have a very big business in accessories, I still think we’re fairly young there. I don’t think people really recognize us in that respect as being a brand as a whole. We’re still famous for footwear, which is incredibly important, but we also need to be famous for the accessories as well.”

But that doesn’t mean that Cole Haan is now going to go out and sign a lot of licensing agreements. “We’re taking licenses very slowly,” says Overfield. “We don’t feel very comfortable being a licensed brand. I think where the fit is right and the partnership is right we’ll do it, but it’s going to be very limited.”

As for Overfield himself, he is pleased to be back in a place where accessories are king. “I had great days at Calvin [Klein] and companies like that,” he notes, “but you have your racks of clothes and then you have your accessories. The mindset is still the accessories are an accessory to the ready-to-wear. Where at Cole Haan, the accessories are the business. When I came in here for the first time, the pleasure of just seeing the racks of shoes, the racks of accessories… for me it’s like coming home.”

 

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