MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Coach, a leading luxury retailer, has seen its revenue increase from $3 billion to $5 billion in the last five years, according to Forbes.

But a lot of people do not even know the story behind the bags they are “toting” around.

If you do not know the name “Bonnie Cashin,” that is OK, not many people do. Cashin revolutionized Coach’s signature style in the 60s and the way people still dress today.

“She was never subject to a company’s whims, or to trends. She was so hugely influential that its staggering to think of all that she did,” local designer Stephanie Lake said.

Lake is one of five people in the world to get her Ph.D. in decorative arts, design history and material culture. Cashin was the focus of her doctoral dissertation while earning her decorative arts degree.

A short walk through Lake’s showroom is like taking a step back in time. She designs her jewelry in the lower level of her Twin Cities home.

“They’re really glam, they’re really elegant. They’re idiosyncratic,” Lake said.

The jewels and gems that make up her one-of-a-kind, show-stopping necklaces include pieces from all over the world.

“Some of my pieces will have centuries of materials in them. Most of them have a few decades of materials in them, so the stones are all from a different age,” Lake said.

She sometimes spends months designing her necklaces. Lake’s studies have taken her to every big runway, but her attention to detail in creating these timeless pieces is impeccable.

“Frankly, I have no idea what it will turn into, but I start going,” Lake said.

When in need of a break or a little inspiration from her work, the detour is not very far.

“I’m in here every day, either for research or work, but I also wear it,” Lake said.

Just down the hall from her studio is a girl’s dream. Lake’s mentor or big sister — as he describes her — was Cashin, the instrumental and “nameless” woman behind the brand Coach.

The two first met while Lake was doing research for her doctorate. Despite Cashin being 60 years her senior, the two immediately bonded.

“She’s just this little, tiny, elderly woman who was so strong and so forceful. I remember the first time I met her she almost knocked me over,” Lake said. “Her presence was electric.”

Lake was given Cashin’s entire personal clothing collection after she passed away in 2000.

“It was a shock,” she said. “It was a huge shock.”

Cashin was described in the New York Times as, “one of the first designers to create and popularize that uniquely American approach to dress called sportswear.”

“She was an icon and iconoclast,” Lake said. “She was rebellious and she was very respectful. She carved out a place for herself in this very tough world of fashion and that’s the single biggest influence.”

Lake says she learned the last century of fashion through Cashin’s eyes.

“She only did what she wanted to do,” Lake said. “She only designed the things that she needed in her own wardrobe.”

Lake’s gifted collection is lined with hundreds of ready-to-wear items: coats, sweaters and even the tote that took Coach and Cashin to the next level of prestige among peers.

“The press called it, ‘fashion’s new snob tote,’ because it was the first designer tote bag that really gained a huge amount of recognition,” Lake said.

It is a timeless collection that Lake hopes to see live on in her day-to-day work.

“It’s sort of archaeological. It’s digging up these treasures and rescuing them, giving them a life,” she said.

Women across the world can also thank Cashin for things like leather in every-day wear. Even the zipper on her Cashin-designed leather dress has played a role in how we all dress today.

Lake says Cashin’s salesman accidently brought big, brass zippers that were used for tents. Instead of getting mad, Cashin incorporated them into the dress.

This is the first time anyone has ever seen Cashin’s private collection. Lake is publishing a book next spring about Cashin, called, “Bonnie Cashin’s Century: Fashioning the Modern Woman.”

Fashion Week Minnesota continues Thursday with a luxury showcase. Gucci, Chanel and Prada, styled by June and Mona Williams’ boutiques, as well as Stephanie Lake Design will also be on the runway.

Sandy Simmons is helping plan the event in conjunction with Fashion Group International.

“We’re helping small businesses grow, jewelry, we have businesses to help these businesses grow, like social media,” Simmons said.

Click here for more about the event, and click here to purchase tickets.

Ali Lucia

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