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James Gager to Step Down at MAC, Toni Lakis Takes Creative Reins

Gager will take on a more executive role within the Estée Lauder Cos.

MAC Cosmetics keeps shaking things up.

Only a few days after agreeing to enter the speciality retail channel in the U.S. by selling to Ulta, the brand on Monday revealed that James Gager, its creative director, is stepping down after 18 years. Toni Lakis, Gager’s number two for 11 years who left in 2014 to spearhead creative at Tiffany & Co., will return to MAC to succeed him.

Lakis will assume the role of MAC’s creative director on March 20, where she will work with Gager to transition through May 1, when he will become senior vice president, creative director and brand development, Estée Lauder Companies. He will team with John Demsey, executive group president at Lauder, to oversee the creative direction for the company’s stable of brands and act as an adviser to Jo Malone London’s creative team.

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The shakeup in creative leadership is further proof MAC is moving fast to maintain – and in some cases regain – relevancy in the ever-changing, more digitally driven beauty industry as it struggles to get back on the growth path in the U.S.

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“There is so much more to go [for MAC], but I know my heart lies in smaller brands – and MAC is a really big brand. I want to be able to effect real change and directional change and see growth happen [with smaller brands],” Gager told WWD Monday afternoon, adding that there are entities within the Lauder portfolio that have already been identified as ones that could benefit from his creative input. “I’m getting back to my roots of working with smaller brands – changing and enhancing their direction and hopefully watching them blossom.”

Gager – officially senior vice president and group creative director of MAC Cosmetics (he also already oversees all creative for Jo Malone London) – was instrumental in MAC’s growth from about a $200 million company when he joined the team in the late Nineties to a multibillion-dollar makeup empire.

He said that the decision to shift his role within Lauder, as well as finding his successor, has been a more than two-year process. He was also deeply involved in helping to develop the Ulta concept, which he’s confident will expose the brand to “so many more people who couldn’t get their hands on MAC before.”

“You have to face reality and decide, ‘OK, I have to do this or I’m not relevant to a certain group of people,’ and why not be relevant to as many people as you possibly can and do it in a way they can relate to?

“You can really stake your claim at Ulta, and really become significant [there],” Gager continued, noting that the changes in the beauty landscape over the past two decades span engagement, storytelling, the focus on product and even the competition.

Gager, who maintained the handful of candidates considered were largely “all from the outside,” had a big say in choosing Lakis to succeed him. He said a “eureka moment” struck and he just knew that MAC’s next creative director had to be someone that the brand knew and who could “make stuff happen” – versus someone who would be too disturbing.

Demsey agreed.

While evolution is paramount at the company, being too disruptive wasn’t the goal either. Demsey called Lakis a “known entity” to MAC who understands the pillars and equity drivers of the brand.

“She is a modern, proactive agent of change to help MAC continue reaching more consumers and breaking through the clutter in today’s more digitally savvy universe. She has her own vision and…a strong point of view that we believe will take MAC forward into the future,” Demsey said.

He acknowledged that embracing a new retail distribution channel like Ulta is part of an overarching aspiration to be where customers are. And these changes – from a creative and retail standpoint – are what will fuel the 33-year-old brand into its next stage.

“Gager always had a vision and always had an opinion…Toni is probably a little more conventional, but maybe that’s good for the company right now. Maybe having a slightly less fantasy approach to cosmetics might be good right now,” said a source within the The Estée Lauder Cos. who has a deep knowledge of MAC’s business. “She has great taste, she has great passion, and that’s what was really important. Many of the team know her…[they] didn’t want everything to be thrown up in the air.”

Another individual in the beauty space who wished to remain anonymous pointed to gender as the most profound change in creative leadership.

“She’s a woman for starters. At the end of the day, most of the beauty business, first and foremost, caters to women…Having a woman’s point of view, as that’s the target audience, will be important,” this individual said, quickly adding: “That’s not to say that a man can’t [lead MAC].”