Mark Cross is America’s oldest luxury brand — founded 176 years ago, to be precise — and yet shows no signs of fatigue.
“We are keeping busy,” Ulrik Garde Due, the chief executive officer of Mark Cross, mentioned over a cup of coffee last week near the Mark Cross flagship at 667 Madison Avenue.
To wit: there have been two key hires in the past month; the headquarters is in the process of moving from the upper East Side downtown to 401 Broadway by Canal Street; negotiations for possible partnerships in China, South Korea and the Middle East with distributors are underway, and the brand continues to expand beyond its origins in women’s handbags into soft accessories such as scarves and pet accessories, while jewelry and home products are on the drawing boards.
For the holiday season, there will be a wider range of giftables, including games and bar accessories for the first time. Many of the giftables are made of upcycled materials in line with the sustainable brand strategy. Mark Cross was awarded The Butterfly Mark Certificate of Positive Luxury in 2019 and all products have a built-in NFT chip for full traceability.
And in addition, men’s accessories were relaunched last year with a range of modern, functional styles from messenger bags to briefcases; the website was re-platformed; a vintage site-let was added; distribution on marketplaces extended to Amazon Luxury, S24, Net-a-porter in China and others, and Mark Cross will launch on Alibaba Group’s Tmall next year. China is a primary focus for growth.
Since joining Mark Cross in November 2018, Garde Due has led efforts to broaden the assortment and its prices for greater accessibility. The current range is primarily from $370 for a canvas tote to $2,500 for leather handbags, though there are also carry-ons for $5,500 and travel cases for $10,000.
There have been tie-ins with other brands within GF’s portfolio. For example, at The Royal Poinciana Plaza, Palm Beach’s lush open-air setting for upscale retail, galleries and restaurants, Mark Cross staged a pop-up at the Oscar de la Renta store last spring. There was also a pop-up at the Naturopathica store in East Hampton recently, as part of what Garde Due called the “Mark Cross Summer Roadshow.”
Mark Cross on Madison Avenue — the brand’s one and only brick-and-mortar store, which opened in 2019 — has a flexible interior design that Garde Due likens to a gallery. It accommodates a showroom for retailers; trunk shows; the “Artist in Residence” program at the company; special product launches, such as the current capsule collection of casual Western styles, and the core collection.
At the store, the “Open the Window” collection of handbags, inspired by the compact Mark Cross leather overnight case Grace Kelly famously showed off in the movie “Rear Window,” is displayed for media, retailers and customer pre-orders.
The “Open the Window” campaign launches next January and the collection gets retailed in February. The window display is intended to not only evoke the Alfred Hitchcock movie, but also serve as a love letter to New York City where the movie is set, Garde Due noted. “The way we keep evolving this physical space has been super important to our success.”
To celebrate the opening of the store, there was an art exhibit in collaboration with Artnet News featuring up-and-coming female artists and their mentors. The leather goods brand is no stranger to art considering Gerald Murphy, a former owner, was an influential painter who counted the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway as his contemporaries during the lost generation in the ’20s and ’30s. The legacy continues with ongoing design collaborations with artists.
“Part of my strategy since the beginning has been to take Mark Cross from a women’s accessory brand into an American lifestyle brand,” said Garde Due.
To further the growth initiatives, Rebeca Mendoza joined this month as creative director. Mendoza, who was global design director for accessories at Calvin Klein, succeeds Sean Matthews who left to pursue other opportunities, according to Garde Due.
Earlier in her career, Mendoza founded the Rye accessories brand, which was discontinued when she joined Calvin Klein, and she served as head designer at Richard James in London, where she launched an accessory line. “Rebeca will continuously develop partnerships with other brands and designers and with our artists-in-residence program,” said Garde Due. “Rebeca has experience not only in leather goods but accessories in general.”
On Oct. 8, Greg Porfido becomes designer of women’s and men’s accessories, reporting to Mendoza. He previously worked at Marc Jacobs as women’s accessory designer and earlier worked at Calvin Klein in different positions covering accessory designs across men’s and women’s, including jewelry, small leather goods and bags.
“We launched men’s accessories last autumn,” Garde Due said. “Men’s should account for up to 50 percent of revenue within three years, which is a big change…The functionality element of accessories today, both for men and women, has evolved considerably, in terms of catering to how people live today. Of course you need accessories to accommodate your digital devices and the way people are on the move; I know I need to be able to throw my gym stuff into my working bag. It’s a combination of an office and gym bag. We need to cater to that in our design and innovation.”
The new headquarters “reflects the way we think we should be going forward. Our former space on Lexington and 65th Street was almost like an apartment. Now we have a beautiful, 5,500-square-foot loft space. It’s one big open space, with a studio [for photography and filming] Garde Due said. “To be in a more design and creative environment, it’s a better fit for us.” At the headquarters, there’s a team of 15 employees in financial, public relations, digital, design, business development and logistics positions.
It’s unusual for a luxury brand to operate just one store, and Mark Cross has no others lined up, though Garde Due said, “My intention is to open another. We need a store downtown. We are very much for testing areas both in the U.S. and internationally with pop-ups which can potentially lead to more long-term leases.”
There’s been a steady stream of pop-ups at Lane Crawford in mainland China and Hong Kong, in the Hamptons and elsewhere, with the latest surfacing at Forty Five Ten in Dallas, which will be showcasing the Mark Cross Western capsule collection for about three weeks starting this week.
Asked if GF Capital, which also owns the Mansur Graviel and Jonathan Adler brands, among other businesses, could consider selling Mark Cross, aside from growing it, Garde Due replied, “So far, they have a pretty long-term outlook. They bought Mark Cross in 2016.”
Garde Due won’t discuss revenue or profitability, though he said 47 percent of the volume at Mark Cross is direct-to-consumer and 53 percent is wholesale. “We took a hit during the pandemic, especially on the wholesale side. But we are seeing steady growth. The objective this year is to get to back to 2019 numbers and we are tracking to do so.”