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Marigay McKee: Talkin’ About a Revolution

Eight days into her tenure as president of Saks Fifth Avenue and McKee has already fit a lifetime of activity into a New York minute.

Eight days into her tenure as president of Saks Fifth Avenue and Marigay McKee has already fit a lifetime of activity into a New York minute.

Multiple media interviews? Check. Moderator of a panel on luxury and globalization? Check. Nonstop brand meetings and breakfast, lunch and dinner with key vendors? Check.

“I had 12 appointments the other day,” says McKee, who was previously the chief merchant of Harrods. “I started with a 7 a.m. business meeting and I got home at quarter to eleven in the night, but I felt happy to be alive.”

Right now, it’s late afternoon and McKee is in her 19th-floor office high above 49th Street, across the street from Saks’ fabled Fifth Avenue flagship, recounting, in her characteristic nonstop effusive manner, what she’s been doing since waking up at 4 a.m. After a flurry of e-mails to friends and family in London, McKee was first in line at the East 76th Street location of the blow-dry salon Dry Bar when the doors opened at 7.

“I thought, ‘Should I have a Cosmo, a Manhattan or a Straight Up?’” she says, ticking off the different hairstyles offered by the salon. (She chose the Straight Up.) “I love the concept—it’s got all the ingredients of a successful retail concept. It’s got the right people, the right place, the right positioning and the right products. How fabulous is that? It cheers me up.”

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When McKee says a business has all of the ingredients of a successful retail concept, she knows whereof she speaks. The 48-year-old executive is largely credited with revitalizing Harrods’ business, infusing relevance, vitality and modernity into what was once considered a stodgy department store and sparking a dramatic increase in sales. “Marigay has the ability to envision something spectacular and then execute it well,” says her close friend Tommy Hilfiger, who threw not one but two starry welcome parties for her in both his Plaza penthouse apartment and Mustique beach house. “That’s exactly what she did at Harrods—she envisioned turning it into one of the world’s luxury destinations and she executed it. She really does what she says she is going to do.”

Veteran department-store executive Robert Mettler also gives McKee high marks for her work at Harrods. Before McKee, he says, the store was huge and wasn’t “au courant.” During her tenure, he notes, “a lot of changes took place. I was very impressed with the changes and how acute they were relative to understanding a more contemporary customer and of being more responsive to a competitive marketplace.”

McKee’s vision for what she wants to do with Saks is equally as transformational and bold. “American retail is ready for something a little bit new, something a little bit different, something with a point of difference and a point of view,” she says. “I think Saks needs an edit. I think Saks needs more of a fashion edge. I think Saks needs newness. I think Saks needs designer collaborations. I think Saks needs energy. I think Saks needs a platform to make the magic happen.” McKee tends to speak in lists, building thought upon thought like so many bubbles rising to the top of a Champagne flute.

“Clearly I haven’t come across the pond to try blow-out bars,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “I’m here because the excitement and the allure of being able to transform and enhance an iconic business like Saks is, quite frankly, every girl’s dream.”

Leonard A. Lauder, the chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos., who has known McKee for more than two decades, has no doubts that she will make that dream a reality. “Marigay is a force of nature,” he says. “She has ambition, taste, style and new ideas, and is driven to succeed. She will succeed.”

McKee likens her job to being let loose in a candy store—or “sweet shop” as she calls it—and getting to sample all the chocolates to taste every filling. “It’s just fun, really,” she says.

Fun, in fact, is a guiding principle for McKee, an executive whose glamorous exterior belies a shrewd business mind keenly attuned to the nuances of retail. “Life is so much fun when you’re not mediocre. I believe that one should never go for mediocre. Too many people get carried away with what we’re supposed to do, what we’re supposed to look like, what we’re supposed to offer,” she says. “If we carry on servicing all of the customers we have and we don’t look at the customers we don’t have, how do we move on?

“It’s extremely important to be looking at what is a new concept, what’s the next big thing, what’s a new platform for young designers,” she continues. “How can we make our windows more exciting, the brand more iconic? How can we make our brand partners see us in a different light and invest in us in a different way?”

By all accounts, McKee will certainly have the means to make her vision come to life. At a cocktail party thrown in his honor in Paris in late January, Richard Baker, the chairman and chief executive officer of Hudson’s Bay Co., which acquired Saks for $3 billion in late August of last year, spoke of the promise he made to McKee when he lured her to Saks from Harrods. Baker told the crowd, “Marigay, who was very comfortable in this nice little shop in London, said, ‘I’m happy to come across the pond, but you’d better make sure you put aside at least $1 billion for me to do a little fixer-upper at the new business there.’ So Marigay and team and $1 billion are now set to take Saks into the future,” he said.

“People should put their seat belts on,” he added. “It’s going to be an exciting ride.”

Beauty is a category that will be key in McKee’s transformation of Saks, and it’s one that she’s both passionate and knowledgeable about. While at Harrods, McKee oversaw the creation of the fabled White Hall, one of the most successful concepts in beauty merchandising. Even though she added fashion to her Harrods responsibilities back in 2007, she describes herself as a “beauty girl” at heart and belongs to a private club in London comprised of 20 female beauty ceo’s and managing directors who meet for dinner quarterly.

“Beauty is a world where relationships are lifelong and the buzz and energy are palpable,” says McKee, who wants to bring the sizzle back to Saks’ beauty floors.

“The beauty business at Saks is a great business and it is a large business,” she begins, then launches into the many opportunities she plans on seizing. “We’ve got an opportunity in the way we deliver service in beauty, in the way we deliver training. We’ve got an opportunity in the way we segment cosmetics, skin care, apothecary and fragrance,” she says.

“To me, those are four very specific divisions. I’d love to see a really cool, uberfuturistic apothecary at Saks which is almost like an incubator for young beauty brands,” she continues. “I’d like to see a fabulously decadent temple of fragrances. I’d like to see an iconic array of skin-institute brands in skin care. And I’d like to see the buzziest, most dynamic, most interactive color offer within cosmetics.”

When asked what she needs to achieve her goal, her immediate answer is investment, before she pauses to consider the philosophical implications of the question. “We need to work on a new concept for cosmetics which is more about the products but with a brand umbrella, as opposed to a brand focus with a product umbrella, which I think is what a lot of retailers do today in beauty. We need to be relevant, exciting, dynamic. We need to take some risks,” McKee says, “and we need to look at the part that technology plays when we’re designing the cosmetics halls beforehand, not posthumously.”

Her plans involve a reassessment of the brand matrix to better cover the entire spectrum of beauty shoppers. “We are looking to expand with new brands and new concepts, and we’re are also looking to nurture iconic brands.” In fragrance, for example, McKee often invokes the concept of creating an haute parfumerie. “There are a lot more fragrance houses out there that we should be trying that we haven’t got,” she says. “It shouldn’t be about, ‘Do we have Bond Number 9 or Creed?’ It should be about Bond Number 9, Le Labo, Francis Kurkdjian, Creed, Byredo and all of the brands living together in harmony. It is about having the best offer….For cosmetics brands, we have to be thinking constantly about point of difference, wow factor, exclusivity, newness, quality.”

The vision goes far beyond tweaking the merchandise mix. It’s a total transformation of Saks’ storied flagship, from the bottom up. “What we’re talking about is the redevelopment of the entire Fifth Avenue mansion,” says McKee, “and beauty will be a top priority because it’s on the ground floor of the store.” To make room for her vision—literally—McKee talks about everything from shifting the merchandise mix to moving escalators and entryways and enlarging the 30 windows that encircle the ground floor. “My life for the next five years will be spent with architects—50 percent of my time will be spent with brands and 50 percent will be spent with architects, rebuilding this business and rebuilding this brand,” she declares.

In terms of the Saks brand overall, McKee wants to fuse the company’s glamorous heritage with the modern precepts of retail to “future proof” the 90-year-old store and ready it for its centenary. “Live the Legacy” will be its new tag line, and everything from the shopping bags to the service protocol is being revamped. Vintage photographs of style icons like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy shopping at Saks are a key source of inspiration, and the color palette guiding the new visual identity McKee and her team are creating for Saks is strictly black and white—down to the M&Ms in a glass jar in her office. (Even McKee’s parting gift from her Harrods team—a pillow embroidered with “She Who Must Be Obeyed”—is in the requisite color scheme.)

McKee is so keen to saturate herself in the retailer’s aura that she’s chosen to live on Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Fifth Avenue is where the Star Trek Enterprise is,” she says. “That’s where I have to be. Where else am I going to go? The allure of Greenwich and other such places where executives live had no allure for me. I wanted to immerse myself in the brand, in the building. I wanted to become part of the institution, to understand it, absorb it, so that I can take it and run.”

McKee knows that that level of attachment will be rewarded handsomely if she succeeds. Referencing her revamp of Harrods’ beauty halls, she notes that then-owner Mohamed Al Fayed reluctantly agreed to invest five million pounds in the renovation, a gamble that paid off when the business doubled in five years. That thought brings McKee back to her vision of a successful beauty selling floor. “You need to have visibility in cosmetics, and interaction. You need to have twice as many stools. I don’t see where the stools are here,” she says, her voice rising for emphasis. “You need to sit, you need to experience. You want plasmas and interaction.”

It all goes back to creating what McKee calls a DMC—or deep meaningful conversation—with consumers. Modern retailing entails creating an emotional connection with consumers, particularly younger shoppers, which McKee sees as missing from the equation today, with technology as the primary conduit to enhancing the relationship. As mother to two teenagers—an 18-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter, both of whom will be moving Stateside this spring—McKee feels particularly passionate about the interaction between social media and shopping. “To future-proof a retail brand, you need to make a big investment in technology,” she says. “Young people shop in a very different way to us.” She describes the numerous beauty blogs that her daughter reads religiously, including one just before she goes to bed each evening. “They live and breathe the beauty world not just at department-store counters,” she says. “They are immersed in information. We can’t patronize them through our communication. We have to be relevant, create the emotional connection, meaning we need to embrace bloggers and the social-media facet of online.”

As compelling as her vision is, it’s not without its challenges. Revitalizing the Fifth Avenue store is one thing. Weeding out or reenergizing outlying stores in the entire Saks portfolio, which consists of 41 stores in 22 states, is another. One seasoned industry executive, who agreed to speak not for attribution, questions how McKee and her team will “fix the stores in the U.S. that need fixing,” while also launching into Canada, one of Baker’s stated goals. As of press time, the company announced two planned openings for Toronto in 2015 and 2016. A former retail executive agrees that achieving the right balance between capital expenditures in the New York City store and outlying areas will be key.

And, of course, there’s the competition: As Hilfiger notes, “In the American retail environment, there’s a lot of strong competition.”

Donna Karan, for one, acknowledges that it’s a daunting challenge, and says McKee is perfectly suited to the task. “Saks is a tough job. It’s a huge undertaking,” says Karan. “But Marigay understands the totality. She is a balancer between the creativity and the business. And she has energy to burn. She exhausts me! I met my match,” exclaims the notoriously indefatigable designer.

Karan is right. For all her glamour girl exterior—today, McKee is wearing a deep green Azzedine Alaïa dress and matching gladiator stilettos, her Mustique tan as glowy as her gold Cartier watch and Love bracelet—she is a retailer’s retailer at heart, pragmatic and focused on moving the merch. At Harrods, McKee was an early proponent of tailoring the merchandising mix to the wide array of international shoppers visiting the store, and she plans on doing the same thing here. “The change in the visa situation in the U.S. with South America and Asia will undoubtably bring more customers. We have to be ready,” she says. “For Asian consumers, gifting is very important. And they need smaller sizes, in shoes for example. With the South Americans, we need to have more intricate product, more embroidery, more exotics, more fur, more luxury.

“Future-proofing the requirements of the customers that we may not have today is about understanding the evolution of the market,” she says.

As the sun sets and the windows outside McKee’s office darken, the executive shows no signs of slowing down. She has two photo shoots left to do today, and when told that there might be time for her to pop into Saks across the street for a quick visit, her eyes light up. Later, much later, she will head home to her new apartment, perhaps to unpack the 500 coffee-table books that she had shipped over from London, the only thing other than her clothes, shoes and handbags that she has brought with her. But for now, she is firmly focused on the task at hand. “If we get this right, the aim is to leave the customers breathless. I want to stop people in their tracks,” she says. “I want people to look at us and think, ‘This is amazing, this is insane, this is awesome, this is crazy cute or crazy chic,’ whatever it is people say when they’re ecstatic about something. And I definitely want us to be anything but mediocre.”

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