Coach’s Handbag Hunter

When Jed Winokur arrives at the gates of the Brooklyn Flea in Williamsburg, most of the vendors are still setting up, unfolding tables and racks, putting up tents, and unpacking their stock of vintage T-shirts, ceramic bowls, clocks, brass jewelry, farm benches, and leather bags. It is, after all, 10 a.m. on a midsummer Sunday; the tattooed and porkpie-hat-shaded throngs are just starting to trickle into the graveled lot across the East River from lower Manhattan, where the Flea pops up weekly.

As the man in charge of maintaining the vast archives of 70-year-old accessories brand Coach, Winokur often spends his weekends combing antiques fairs across the Northeast, and every other minute in the office refreshing his iPhone’s eBay app, checking on auctions. Heeding the maxim about the early bird and the worm, he is smiling and squinting at the entrance, a vendor map in hand, poised to scour the 190 stalls for rare Coach items to add to the company’s collection of more than 15,000 pieces. “Really good finds happen once or twice a year,” he tells Noot Seear, the Vancouver-born, L.A.-based model and New Moon actress, in town to receive a lesson from Winokur in vintage-Coach-bag spotting. (Seear stars in the label’s fall ad campaign and is a self-described flea junkie.) “The more we collect, the more we know about ourselves. we can use that as a resource to make great new products,” he says.

Inside, nearly every clothing vendor has a few of the brand’s ’70s and ’80s styles—a testament to their viruslike proliferation in the Cheryl Tiegs/Reagan era and recent resurgence on the arms of off-duty starlets (Michelle Williams, Kirsten Dunst) and regular girls happy to find the perfect accompaniment to preppy coats, high-waisted jeans, and playful floral dresses. The ’70s are back in fashion, and so, too, are Coach’s sturdy-chic leather satchels, which Winokur points out to Seear with a sweet, slightly dorky earnestness. Today they find cherry red and marigold zippered clutches and ladylike shopping totes with contrast stitching, as well as scores of slouchy bucket bags and day purses fitted with the brand’s signature, utilitarian turnlocks and buckles. But it isn’t until the pair comes upon what appears to be a scrap of purple leather on a table that Winokur’s quiet tone gives way to clipped, quick sentences.

“The Body bag!” he says, handing it to Seear to try on. “I didn’t think I’d find this.” Made out of a single piece of leather twisted and stitched into a large, beanlike sack, it was designed by former Coach creative director and American sportswear pioneer Bonnie Cashin in 1970; the only other known examples are housed at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. he wants it. Badly. (“It’s kind of like the holy grail,” he tells me later.) But after a few digital camera pics and hushed words with the vendor, it turns out he’ll have to wait. usually Winokur pays between $500 and $1,400 for the rarest pieces, but this keen seller refuses to name a price on the spot.

While Winokur’s job may seem like pure fantasy—part handbag hunter and part historian, he’s essentially an Indiana Jones of accessories—this Rag & Bone–outfitted 33-year-old (a graduate of Pratt Institute’s master’s program in Library and Information Science) provides a very real, indispensable service to a company increasingly focused on its rich heritage.

“Having the archives and the history there is an invaluable resource,” says Coach’s senior vice president of design management, Kimberly Price, of the facility, established in 2005 and run by Winokur for the past three years. “We’re constantly returning for inspiration.” Fall’s Chelsea line, for example, combines contemporary silhouettes in sumptuous suede, pebbled leather, and bouclé tweed with iconic brand elements such as turnlock closures (inspired by the toggles on Cashin’s ’60s convertible), external pockets, chain-and-leather straps, and top dowels.

Meanwhile, the newly expanded Classics collection—archival reissues in colors including vermilion, lime, and navy ($298–$498)—is a more straightforward homage to Coach’s heyday as well as an attempt to capture the zeitgeist. “It came about because of the ’70s vibe in the air,” Reed Krakoff, the company’s president and executive creative director, explains. “Think Ali MacGraw in Love Story, Lauren Hutton, that very specific American style. The timing just felt right.”

This much is evident at the Brooklyn Flea, where robust piles of Coach bags and various other trinkets are currently being perused by the after-brunch set, including Winokur and his enthusiastic student. “Any of these bags you could take and sell now,” Seear marvels, smoothing out her lace-trimmed peasant dress (vintage, of course), “and they’d still be fashionable.” Winokur nods, clearly distracted.

Hours later, back at the whitewashed, industrial-looking archives—housed behind an unmarked door next to Coach’s nondescript headquarters on the westernmost edge of midtown Manhattan—Winokur is still buzzing about the elusive Body bag. “I was ready to walk to the ATM,” he says. But vintage resellers often grow attached to pieces, causing a drawn-out negotiation that, in this case, could take several months to resolve. Nonetheless, he’s determined to “procure” one for the archives. “To have the chance to have one of every piece, every small leather good, every wallet, every bag that we’ve ever produced,” he adds. “For me, that’s a pie-in-the-sky goal.”