Lillian Cahn, founded Coach leather brand; at 89

Lillian Cahn founded Coach Leatherwear Co. in a New York City loft in 1961 along with her husband, Miles.
Lillian Cahn founded Coach Leatherwear Co. in a New York City loft in 1961 along with her husband, Miles.

NEW YORK — Lillian Cahn, who founded the Coach Leatherware Co. in a New York City loft in 1961 with her husband, Miles, and went on to help produce the ‘‘shopping bag’’ tote and other handbags that have become ubiquitous accessories in the wardrobes of well-heeled American women, died Monday in Manhattan. She was 89.

Her husband confirmed her death.

Men’s leather wallets and billfolds were the company’s original line of business. At Lillian Cahn’s suggestion, her husband began making a line of women’s handbags in the early 1960s at their small West 34th Street factory, working with a thicker yet flexible type of cowhide often used in making baseball gloves.


‘‘I scoffed at first,’’ Miles Cahn said in an interview. ‘‘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.’’

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She suggested the design for what became the first successful Coach bag: a tote modeled on a type of paper shopping bag she had used as a girl in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to deliver homemade noodles to customers, one of a series of small businesses her family started during the Depression.

‘‘It became a classic,’’ her husband said. ‘‘We started having loyal customers.’’

He went on to create the dozen other handbag designs that became the first generation of the Coach line. She became the company’s showroom impresario and media agent.

She established a rapport with many fashion writers and editors, put Coach bags into circulation among the city’s arbiters of style, and started philanthropic projects — the New York Public Library and the Food Bank for New York City were among the beneficiaries — that served civic causes and also raised the company’s public profile, said Julie Cahn, a daughter.


By the early 1980s, Coach was selling about $20 million in handbags a year, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Cahns sold the company in 1985 to the Sara Lee Corp. for a reported $30 million. Sara Lee opened stores worldwide and expanded the Coach line to include perfume, jewelry, raincoats, scarves, gloves, hats, sunglasses, and shoes before spinning off the company in 2000 as an independent business in a stock sale, netting a reported $1 billion. Coach reported net sales of about $4 billion in 2012.

Lillian Cahn and her husband went off to make goat cheese at their 600-acre farm — named Coach Farm — in Pine Plains, N.Y., in Dutchess County. Pioneers in making artisanal goat cheese, they sold the farm about five years ago and returned to living in Manhattan full time.

Lillian Lenovitz was born Dec. 11, 1923, in the town of Satorauljaujhely, in present-day Hungary, one of four children of Benjamin and Rose Lenovitz, who eventually opened a candy store, among other businesses. Her father immigrated to the United States in 1928 and settled in Wilkes-Barre before sending for the rest of the family in 1933 to join him there. Lillian was valedictorian of her high school class.

After moving to Manhattan, she studied acting and met Cahn. Besides him and their daughter Julie, she leaves another daughter, Susan Cahn; a son, David; a sister, Judy Miller; a brother, Lou Lenart; and five grandchildren.


Miles Cahn, who never considered himself a fashion designer, said his wife had taught him most of what he knew about the dual roles of fashion and function in women’s handbags.

It was she, he said, who explained the logic of pockets and helped to pick the colors and decide where zippers should and should not go.

‘‘She had the women’s point of view,’’ he said, ‘‘which was very important.’’