On December 11, 1923, Lillian Cahn was born in a town located in present-day Hungary. She would eventually immigrate to the United States and grow up to redefine the American handbag with the now ubiquitous Coach brand. Aside from changing the women’s accessories market with her chic and casual bags, she also gave back to New York City with her important philanthropy work.
As one of four children, Cahn (née Lenovitz) grew up in a family that owned many different businesses, yet struggled when first laying down their roots in Depression-era America. This experience would inspire her to start her own empire later in life. After owning and operating multiple businesses including a candy store in their native Hungary, Cahn’s father immigrated to the United States in 1928. After settling in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the rest of the family joined him in 1933. Cahn excelled in school and graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class. After high school, she moved to New York City to study acting. She met Miles Cahn and the couple married in 1947.
The couple co-founded Coach Leatherware Company in 1961 after they acquired a small men’s wallet manufacturer on West 34th Street. They wanted to expand their new business and Lillian suggested that they make and sell pocketbooks. She wanted to create them out of the durable and flexible cowhide used in baseball gloves. Miles was initially hesitant about the idea of entering into the handbag business, yet Lillian persisted. He explained in a 2013 interview with The New York Times, “In New York, there were a lot of handbag companies, and at that time, stores were all buying knockoffs of bags made in Europe. But my wife prevailed.”
Since the market was saturated, they decided to switch up their approach to producing handbags. Their goal was to create a casual yet classy bag that could be worn in like a good pair of jeans. In other words, the Coach bags could be sported with many outfits, from season to season and over a course of many years. This was a novel idea at the time when most women wore structured purses and switched them around daily depending on their outfits and the season. Reflecting the shift from more stuffy and structured fashion to one that was more casual in the 1960s, the effortless style of the Coach bag forever changed modern American fashion.
Their first successful style, the now-classic shopping bag purse, was modeled after the large brown bags that Lillian used to deliver homemade noodles to customers for one of her family’s businesses that was started during the Great Depression. The utilitarian yet stylish bag earned the company their first batch of loyal customers.
Aside from inspiring the designs, Lillian was instrumental in the marketing, publicity and sales for the business. She oversaw the showroom and promoted the brand to the top fashion writers and editors of the day. Another revolutionary woman who was an early part of the Coach brand was designer Bonnie Cashin. She was instrumental creating the many innovative Coach bags that became chic wardrobe staples, including the bucket bag, the tongue bag and the turn lock/toggle fastenings.
After several successful decades, the Cahns sold Coach to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1985 for a reported $30 million. After parting from their company, they established the 660-acre Coach Farm in Gallatinville, NY, where they operated a fresh and aged goat cheese-making business. Lillian and her husband also made sure to give back to the city that generated them so much success. Their philanthropic contributions were instrumental in assisting many New York City civic causes including the New York Public Library and the Food Bank. Lillian died in Manhattan at 89 in 2013 and Miles died in February 2017 at 95. Their impact on fashion is still alive and well today, including the streets of the city that was the birthplace of Coach Leatherware Company.