Mark Lee: Merchant of Milano

A born merchant and one of the industry’s most admired executives, he will be recalled for his time at Gucci as the unassuming American who boosted revenues.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 02/23/2011

A born merchant and one of the industry’s most admired executives, Mark Lee will be recalled for his time at Gucci as the unassuming American who boosted revenues 46 percent during his four-year tenure — and for his abrupt departure shortly after the credit crunch hit.

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A key protégé of former Gucci chief executive officer Domenico De Sole’s, Lee was named president of Yves Saint Laurent in November 1999, where he championed the promotion of one of Tom Ford’s design deputies, Stefano Pilati, to pilot the French house.

In 2004, six months after De Sole and Ford bid farewell to the company, Lee took the helm of Gucci, replacing Giacomo Santucci. He was instrumental in promoting Frida Giannini, who had been part of a trio of designers in the wake of Ford’s exit, to the brand’s sole creative director overseeing all product categories. Giannini previously oversaw only accessories.

“Mark has constantly supported and respected my creativity and this has always been vital to me,” Giannini told WWD following Lee’s departure from the company in 2008.

Lee, who last summer was named ceo of Barneys New York, declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

In the face of a lukewarm reception from the fashion press, Lee supported Giannini’s creative vision and the many new projects she took on, such as La Pelle Guccissima, a high-priced line of leather accessories embossed with the Gucci logo. The collection was aimed at raising the quality bar as an alternative to logo canvas bags and helped keep counterfeiters at bay.

A slim and unassuming man, Lee has always been considered a strong merchant and a dynamic leader with a tight grasp on all aspects of his business. He is known to be in touch with his staff 24/7 via BlackBerry, regardless of the time zone, and does not shy away from micromanaging his businesses.

“He’s not just a merchant, but a very, very capable manager, a hard-nosed manager who understands finances as well as sales,” said De Sole last month. “And he has a great understanding of luxury goods.”

Lee and Giannini developed accessories-only ad campaigns, as well as ones dedicated to fine jewelry that for the first time for the brand featured a celebrity (Drew Barrymore was first, in 2007).

They also created a charity program with UNICEF to support orphans in Africa who lost their parents to HIV. Each year, a line of more mass-market driven products is developed for this ongoing project.

The duo was active in boosting the brand’s lifestyle concept, and new stores were conceived to accommodate Gucci’s fast-growing categories such as timepieces, fine jewelry and eyewear.

Lee orchestrated a new store concept in the post-Ford era that was unveiled in Hong Kong and Tokyo. James Carpenter, an architect who built his reputation on glass and how it intersects with light, designed the multifaceted exteriors of the eight-story Ginza Tower in the Japanese capital. The interiors were developed by William Sofield, the architect who translated Ford’s viewpoint into the brand’s new store design in the Nineties.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Lee began his fashion career at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1984 as an assistant buyer of European designer collections. He went on to work for Cidat USA, the firm that handled American distribution of some Valentino lines, before joining Giorgio Armani for a five-year stint, rising to commercial director of its U.S. arm.

After that, he worked at Jil Sander America Inc. as managing director before joining Gucci in 1996 as worldwide director of the ready-to-wear business.

He was named president of Yves Saint Laurent in 1999, and spearheaded a radical — and costly — overhaul of the French fashion house. He employed De Sole’s famous direct-control strategy for production and distribution, terminating more than 150 licensing pacts and setting out to build a global network of boutiques.

Lee left — abruptly — at the end of 2008, as the worldwide economic crisis was gaining momentum. Gucci’s first-quarter sales had fallen 3.3 percent earlier that year, due to tough conditions in the U.S. and Europe and the impact of currency exchange, and the company made no secret that it was unhappy with the results, although sales growth began to pick up later that year.

Insiders say that during his tenure, Lee was under intense pressure to generate cash for PPR, which had paid $3 billion for its stake in Gucci, the cash cow of the group.

Lee characterized the nonrenewal of his contract as a “personal decision to rebalance my life” and to spend more time in New York. “My life has been three or four countries a week,” he said at the time. “I’ve lived a fantastic lifetime of all the evolutions of Gucci and Gucci Group.”