First published by T Magazine on 15 September 2016
On a recent afternoon on London’s Chancery Lane, Johnny Coca, the creative director of Mulberry, was browsing the underground marketplace of the London Silver Vaults — a warren of around 30 subterranean shops that has become one of his favorite places since he moved here six years ago. “I think it’s a very unexpected place,” he said, conspiratorially. “It’s kind of like a jewel display for me, because you can see all these antique silver products from the past.”
To enter the vaults, visitors must walk through an enormous iron door; inside, ceiling tiles, strip lights and linoleum give an unlikely backdrop to the glittering goods on display. Here, you can buy anything you can imagine in silver: shields, liquor labels, cocktail shakers, pineapples, chess sets, thrones, jewelry, Heinz ketchup holders, pheasants, goblets and sailing ships.
Coca, who was previously Céline’s head accessories designer, arrived at Mulberry in July 2015 under daunting circumstances. The brand had not held a catwalk show since the former creative director Emma Hill’s last collection in September 2013 — and profits, share prices and press interest had waned. Yet Coca’s first collection, shown in February of this year, was largely well-received. He said proudly that some of the buyers who didn’t attend the London show, from stores including United Arrows in Japan and Jeffrey New York, saw the pictures and called the next day to arrange viewing appointments. Online, the show traveled further than ever before: “More than 45 million people were looking at everything we were doing, so I think it was a success in that way,” he said, referring to its worldwide social media reach. “That can bring new customers.”
Coca found himself at the Vaults that day — a month before his second Mulberry show — to soak up inspiration, in particular from the craftmanship of the silver objects. “All these old products were completely done by hand, engraved by hand, and now everything is done by machine,” he said. “It’s not the same feel, and it’s not the same impact in terms of quality, and there’s something more human and more crafty here.” Raymond Feldman, who has worked at the Silver Vaults since 1953, greeted Coca in his store and showed him an ornate, silver-plated box from around 1890: it was fashioned almost like a picnic hamper, and designed for the express purpose of serving dainty cookies, which delighted Coca. “People before were thinking about very specific functions — to eat or to present, or to serve the people,” he said. “So I like the fact you think about the heritage and the past, how people were living, when you see all these products.”
Heritage is a concept of which he is more aware now than ever. As a Spaniard, he said, it has taken him some time to understand that British people feel proprietorial towards Mulberry — as the country’s largest manufacturer of leather goods, and an employer of around 600 craftspeople in the U.K. For this reason, bringing new customers into the brand without alienating that loyal base is a careful process. “If you make a very strong break very quickly, it’s quite delicate for them,” he said. “So it’s an interesting exercise for me.” Overseas, however, many aren’t even aware that Mulberry is British: “It needs to be more known and more popular outside,” he said.
Teaching an international audience about the Britishness of the brand is part of the process: The fall/winter 2016 collection, which featured platform boots, leather kilts and biker jackets paired with frilled blouses and fishnet dresses, had a distinctly Brit-punk attitude. It also had plenty of hardware: capes and skirts were punctured with press studs, and several of Coca’s new bag designs were draped with mixed chains. He has a large personal collection of antique jewelry, some of which he bought right here at the Silver Vaults, and he loves metal — but always with restraint. “When you put on metal, it needs to have a real function,” he said. “I don’t like decoration.”
The spring/summer 2017 collection, which he will launch on Sunday at London Fashion Week, will have a more fluid aesthetic — “delicate, poetic, and there is something quite romantic on some silhouettes” — but will also continue last season’s tension between the boyish and the feminine. “It’s what I like in the U.K.: There is this kind of very beautiful girl, and she has all these tattoos with a piercing. She looks really posh in the day and she’s really naughty in the night.” He grinned. “It’s going to be really fun.”