NEW YORK — A team of investors hopes to get the Mark Cross name back in the saddle again.

The brand — founded in 1845 as a Boston maker of saddles and harnesses — has been off the market since Sara Lee Corp. pulled the plug on it in 1997 in favor of Coach, which the Chicago company then owned. But a team of investors led by accessories executive J.P. Wilkin Jr. acquired the brand last year and is preparing to relaunch it.

Neal J. Fox, a former retail executive, was brought on last month to head Mark W. Cross & Co. as president and chief executive officer. His goal is to establish the brand as an icon of accessible American luxury.

“If you look at accessories today, in terms of luxury items, there is more opportunity in accessories than ready-to-wear,” he said. “There is an opportunity for what we would categorize as an affordable luxury brand.”

The business model is for the company to license out all its categories, starting with women’s shoes and handbags. Fox, who is currently the company’s sole employee, said he is in preliminary negotiations on the initial licensing deals, but hopes to have those two categories on the market in time for the fall 2004 retail season.

That, he acknowledged, would likely require inking a deal within the next three to four months.

Following the initial licensing deals, Fox said he would look to follow up with deals for eyeglasses and watches, as well as men’s accessories. Within 12 to 18 months after launching bags and shoes, he’d hope to roll out apparel, with the eventual goal of turning Mark Cross into a luxury lifestyle brand.

By price point, his intent is for the bags to retail for around $400 to $500, with shoes selling for $200 to $250.

Fox said he also is talking with advertising agencies in an effort to begin a marketing campaign for the brand, though a spokesman added there were no plans to break ads prior to having product available.

Fox said the brand’s long history in the U.S., and particularly its association with the Jazz Age and the group of American expatriates who spent much of the Roaring Twenties in France, would give it authenticity with consumers. Still, he acknowledged, the target core customer, age 25 to 40, is unlikely to remember the brand directly.“Everyone feels strongly that we should use all the tools available in our toolbox, and that certainly is part of it —the heritage of the brand and the connection to a golden era,” he said. But, he added, “we can’t market the brand only focused on yesterdays….We need to connect the dots with the past.”

The product focus, Fox said, would be on “classics with punch and surprise….It’s not going to be something that’s so trendy that it’s got a shelf life of three months and it’s gone.”

While he initially would want licensees to handle design, he said, his vision for bags would be classic silhouettes enhanced with innovative “embossing and leather and hardware.”

Over its 158-year history, the brand passed through a number of owners. Early in the last century, it was a distributor of a wide variety of luxury goods.

By the early Nineties, it was owned by A.T. Cross Co., the maker of Cross pens. In 1993, Sara Lee bought the brand in an effort to build its accessories portfolio. However, the Coach brand, which Sara Lee then owned, took off in popularity and the company decided to focus on that business. Around that time, the brand’s revenues peaked at around $32 million, Fox said.

By 1997, Sara Lee opted to pull the plug on Mark Cross, and by 1998, most goods bearing the brand name had been liquidated and were no longer on the market.

In 2001, Wilkins, of Boca Raton, Fla., filed an application for the name with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, arguing that Sara Lee had abandoned it. That provoked a legal squabble, which was settled when Wilkins agreed to buy the brand from Sara Lee for an undisclosed sum.

Fox initially approached Wilkins with the intent of buying the brand outright. When Wilkins declined to sell, he agreed to sign on as president and ceo.

During his four decades in the fashion industry, Fox worked his way up through Brooks Bros. and Neiman Marcus, for a time owned a stake in Washington-based Raleigh Stores Corp. and later headed the Sulka chain, owned by Richemont.Fox said he intends to build distribution gradually, through specialty stores and department stores.

“I’d much rather be in fewer doors and know the doors we’re in have the capability to sell product at regular prices,” he said. “I’m more inclined to be patient.”

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