Glossy+: Inside the relaunch of a luxury brand

Everyone loves a comeback story, and luxury leather goods brand Mark Cross has been working toward a strong rebuild since its return to retail in 2012.

To date, it's linked with top luxury retailers, won over young shoppers (25- to 44-year-olds responsible for 75 percent of sales), built out its product assortment and grown annual revenue to around $10 million.

Neal Fox, a retailer with executive-level experience at companies including Neiman Marcus and Richemont, gained control of the trademarks and intellectual property of Mark Cross that year. The brand had been dormant since the late 1990s, after parent company Sara Lee put it under Coach Management. Coach shut it down with the intention of overhauling and relaunching it, then found its luxury ambitions fulfilled with the Coach brand, which took off, putting the accessible luxury category on the map. Mark Cross was all but forgotten, as Sara Lee spun off Coach as a separate IPO and sat on the intellectual property until 2003, when it was purchased by former luggage executive J.P. Wilkin Jr. Fox made several failed attempts to buy the trademarks, until Wilkin Jr. finally threw in the towel on his grand plans for the brand and sought out Fox’s help.

“I had a passion and love for Mark Cross -- it was America's Hermes, America's Vuitton, America's Gucci. It was the only luxury leather goods company America ever had, and it had been around since 1845,” Fox said of his motivation. “It had this illustrious history, starting as a saddler -- a true heritage brand.”

In 2011, he and Wilkin Jr. relaunched the brand, with the first collection -- handbags averaging $2,500, for spring 2012 -- selling exclusively at Barneys, online and in stores. The exclusive deal with Barneys was specific to the U.S. and lasted more than four years, so the brand sought out international partners. London became its top market, with wholesale stores including Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Dover Street Market. Also on its current, 80-store stockist are Galeries Lafayette in France, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, Secoo in China (a target area for expansion, said Fox), and several retailers in Moscow and the Middle East. Despite the brand’s NYC headquarters, only 30 percent of its sales are in the U.S. Local retailers now include Saks Fifth Avenue and Net-a-Porter.

Now, Fox is looking to open the first Mark Cross store, an “experiential, evolving and very tech-focused” flagship in New York by next year. (In its heyday, Marc Cross had 23 U.S. locations, including a NYC store selling a full assortment of lifestyle goods, from desk accessories to ready-to-wear.) More stores will likely follow once kinks in the first iteration are worked out. “We're working to expand our universe,” he said. “We're very happy about the relationships we’ve built with our wholesale partners, but consumers are only seeing a very, very compressed version of what the brand is all about through the eyes of a retailer. Nobody is presenting the full-blown collection at market.”

Currently, he’s testing physical retail via a multi-brand, four-month pop-up in Soho, as well as in-store events with global partners.

In March, the Mark Cross website went through a long-overdue relaunch, moving from strictly a showcase of bags serving as a service to wholesale partners -- customers interested in a bag were connected to the store selling it -- to a fully functioning e-commerce site, linked to inventory. About 8 percent of sales are happening online.

Fox is working with the same Italian factories and suppliers behind the brand’s styles in its first life. After a few collections of handbags, the brand expanded to small leather goods. It’s since launched a men’s accessories collection with Mr Porter and also a travel collection with pieces starting at $4,000, made to be used by passengers of private jets.  

Its current, “aggressive” marketing strategy, which kicked off within the last year (prior, it was not advertising) includes digital ads through Hearts Digital and a ramped up social media strategy, including work with influencers. The brand loans influencers bags, versus gifting them, concentrating on big photo opps like fashion month. (Celebrities including Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Alexa Chung are often photographed sporting bags they purchased, each time boosting sales.) Ads by David Lipman are now running in print magazines like Departures and Town & Country, and are featured in wild postings and billboards in Lower Manhattan, driving to the pop-up. The focus is the product, versus the brand story -- which Fox said should be “the icing on the cake, not the cake.”

“I firmly believe in the cross-pollination between brick-and-mortar and wholesale and digital, all working in tandem to enhance each of the businesses,” said Fox.

“The old business was not a global business,” he said. “It was a $35 million a year business, and brand equity was low; it was a speck in the marketplace. Now, we just have to use all the tools we have in our tool chest to take this company to another level.”

What others are saying about reigniting a brand

Cory Baker, COO of Marquee Brands, on taking on BCBGMaxAzria:
“We’re attracted to legacy and heritage; we acquire great worldwide brands with very strong consumer awareness, where -- for whatever reason -- their ownership didn’t give them the chance to be all they they can be and have their time in the sun.

We acquired BCBGMaxAzria and BCBGeneration in August 2017. The company was nearly 40 years old.

The average consumer doesn't know when a brand is in and out of retail for a season, or even two seasons. BCBG never left retail, it never left wholesale -- it just started losing focus under the former ownership. Like most companies in fashion, when they have financial trouble, they cut the two areas where it hurts most: design and marketing. When we stepped in, the first thing we started pouring money into was design and marketing. Now if you go into the flagship store [in NYC] on 40th and 5th, you're going to see a level of product and design you haven’t seen in years, and if you look at our campaign, you're going to see a level of execution and artistry you haven't seen in many years. We’ve got new categories like luggage and little girls, and handbags, and sales across the board are on an upward trend. Our international business is growing very significantly, as well. The customer votes, ultimately, and as long as our retailers keep coming back and saying, ‘We’re happy with the progress,’ and our loyal customer is happy with what we’re seeing again, we know we’re doing something right.

Most of our sales are done through what we call partner shops, really shop-in-shops at stores like Bloomingdale’s that are run by the brand. There are about 300 of them. And we have a flourishing e-commerce business and approximately 45 freestanding retail stores.

By the end of the year, we’re launching swim and jewelry, and we’ll launch intimates and eyewear in spring of next year.”

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