That was the reaction among many Washington insiders, pundits and voters who questioned and in some cases challenged President Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Africa — Lana Marks.
The designer and CFDA member is known among the fashion crowd for her exotic-skin handbags and friendship with the late Princess Diana.
Reached in Palm Beach Thursday, Marks said, “I am deeply honored,” declining to comment further about the situation or future plans regarding her independently owned company.
The South African-born designer is believed to have met the President about 23 years ago in some sort of social setting in Palm Beach where she is based. Marks has known Trump and his family for years, although they are not known to socialize together. Her familiarity with South Africa, her professional style, her international relationships, media skills and women’s empowerment leanings were upsides with the President, according to one insider familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity.
The well-dressed, globe-trotting professional runs with an international crowd and specializes in exotic-skin handbags that retail from $2,655 to nearly $20,000. The idea for her company sprang from her fruitless search for a red alligator handbag to match the suit she planned to wear to a birthday party for Queen Elizabeth II aboard the royals’ Britannia. In 1987, she started her signature company, which remains privately owned, and launched her first design the following year — a hot pink alligator lunchbox handbag. Crocodile, ostrich and lizard are among the other exotic skins she works with.
While the company is expected to go forward without Marks at the helm, she declined to comment about any plans.
Trump allegedly sees her as an American Pamela Harriman, albeit one with only one husband, due to her long-standing relationships with royal figures and politicians, a source said. Her lack of political experience is said to be a plus with the Oval Office, as well as her fluency in Afrikaans and Xhosa. As a child she studied with the Royal Academy of Ballet. Her education was at the University of Witwatersrand and the Institute of Personnel Management in Johannesburg. Marks reportedly was a member of the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago Club.
Born and raised in South Africa, the designer left at the age of 22, the day after she married her husband Neville. Their relocation was due to his overseas job opportunity. Relying on department store distribution to get her company going, Marks later opened her own stores and branched out into international markets. Connecting with Hollywood actresses like Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Anniston, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lucy Liu in the early Nineties helped to raise her brand’s profile. Through social invitations, and at least one serendipitous in-store appearance, Marks befriended a few royals.
While scores of pundits buzzed about the unlikelihood of Marks becoming an ambassador, her induction into to the Beltway scene is believed to have already happened following a month of leadership talks and seminars.
In the mid-Nineties, Lucia Flecha da Lima, who was then the wife of the Brazilian ambassador, was invited to one of Marks’ Saks Fifth Avenue trunk shows in Washington, D.C. Partial to trying to maximize opportunities, Marks arrived at 9 a.m. for a two-hour event that started at 2 p.m. An hourlong storewide seminar was followed by meetings with sales associates, the department manager and the store manager to try to brainstorm about potential clients to call. With the store’s approval, she extended her stay until 6 p.m. Shortly before calling it a day, Flecha da Lima arrived with her friend Princess Diana. That meeting led to Marks designing a bag in Diana’s name and the pair struck up a friendship.
In August of 1997, the pair planned to vacation together. After Marks’ father died, she canceled their plans for a four-day trip later in the month. The friends planned to fly British Airways to Milan including a night at La Scala and stay at the Four Seasons followed by a night at Villa d’Este. When that fell through, Diana traveled with Dodi Fayed to Sardinia and later Paris where they both were killed in a car accident.
Marks has served on the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Sixteen years ago she was selected to take part in the “Women and Power: Leadership in the New World.” Marks has also participated in Georgetown University’s lecture series, addressing MBA students.
Her friends include Mary Bonneau “Bonnie” McElveen-Hunter, the first woman to serve as national chairman of the American Red Cross. Previously, when McElveen-Hunter served as U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Mark was the U.S. representative for an all-female summit with Eastern European leaders who were becoming members of NATO.
Marks’ charitable efforts center on underprivileged children, breast cancer and the arts. Last year she donated one of the Diana-inspired bags for an auction to benefit the American Red Cross’ efforts to relocate children to shelters following hurricanes and other natural disasters. Married to a psychiatrist, Marks also supports the Center for Family Services in Palm Beach, which supports families unable to afford mental health counseling. She is cued up to speak at its annual gala on December 12 and to host a benefit event for the organization in her Palm Beach store next month.