How This 200-Year-Old Brand Reinvented Itself (And Became The Celebrity 'It' Bag In The Process)

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Solange attends the "Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between" Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City. 

"I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to give anything away, that if we couldn’t grow on our own merits...then we weren’t doing right by ourselves," Mark Cross CEO, Neal Fox, explained.

When it comes to music, style, and personality, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Solange Knowles, and Katy Perry couldn’t be more different. Yet, at a closer glance, they’re all surprisingly similar in so many ways: they’re role models, insanely talented, strong (both in their vision and attitude), incredibly successful—and they share a love for one particular purse: the Grace Box by luxury leather goods brand Mark Cross.  

 

@katyperry in #paris #gracebox #pink @sweetbabyjamie ------

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Diminutive in size, structured in shape, and timeless in style, the best-selling Grace Box bag (named after Grace Kelly and inspired by the Mark Cross overnight case that she packs in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window) is, essentially, responsible for catapulting Mark Cross into the buzzy “It” bag brand it is today, especially among millennials and celebrities—a remarkable feat, given that the brand was dormant only six years earlier despite a history that spans nearly two centuries.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s start from the beginning. Mark Cross was founded in 1845 as the maker of the finest harnesses, saddles, and bridles in America. Neal J. Fox, president and CEO of Mark Cross, even considers Mark Cross as America’s Hermès—both boast nearly identical origin stories. At the turn of the century, as horses and buggies evolved into automobiles, Mark Cross turned away from saddlery and began to supply luggage options for travel. After a series of events, the brand found new ownership in Sara Lee, a Chicago-based conglomerate that made the decision to shut down Mark Cross in favor for the expansion of Coach (before it was spun off) in the late ‘90s, Fox explains.

And in 2011, Fox stepped in and brought the shuttered company back to life. But there were a few demands Fox was adamant about, like an uncompromising commitment to quality (Mark Cross bags are meticulously handcrafted in the same facility, located just outside of Florence, the brand used 30 or 40-some years ago) and the refusal to gift any bags to celebrities—a rarity in this day and age.

“I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to give anything away, that if we couldn’t grow on our own merits, that we couldn’t find ourselves in demand by the right people, then we weren’t doing right by ourselves or by the brand,” he says. “We did everything to hold up the same standards of excellence that the brand saw in its heyday, and we’ve seen organic growth—from influencers and celebrities, and from my perspective, it’s an amazing story of how our little brand has caught on with the right people.”

It’s truly a testament not only to the brand’s integrity, but Fox’s faith in the product. Of course that’s not to say Mark Cross only lives in the past—just the opposite, in fact.

“I thought the worst thing we could do would be to try to walk through Mark Cross archives,” Fox says. “We had very limited access to them to begin with, but to rebuild the brand from the archives was a fool-hearted thing to do. I felt that if we were going to be successful, we had to be a today-focused brand that would resonate with young people.”

And he was right—well, almost (the Grace Box bag was inspired by an former design, after all). After striking an exclusive deal with Barneys in America and securing partnerships at retailers worldwide, he saw success in consumer’s response in the Grace Box bag—though interestingly enough, the style didn’t become popular until 18 months after the launch, since slouchy hobo bags were in style.

 

#mondaymood tower of #gracebox #graceboxbag @doverstreetmarketnewyork --

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“[Structured bags] was a style that no one was doing at the time, so people were reaching to us for styles they couldn’t buy from anyone else. And you had young girls who were up to their eyeballs in major brands and were hungry for non-logo-specific bags. The Grace was perfect for that,” Fox muses.

And it’s still perfect for that today. Celebrity stylist Peju Famojure, who dresses Solange Knowles, is a fan of the Grace bag for its versatility, the fact that it complements a variety of silhouettes, and its range of colorways. “I love the simplicity of the bags. Depending on which size, they provide a lot of flexibility, going easily from day to night—they never feel too dressed up or too dressed down,” she explains. “And while logo-mania is on the verge of a complete comeback, sometimes it's nice to have a intermission from that. The Grace is a statement bag that doesn't need to have the volume turned all the way up.”

A recent example is when Famojure styled Knowles in a puffer Thom Browne creation for the Met Gala, completing the look with the Mark Cross Grace Box bag. “We chose the Grace because it’s iconic,” she explains. “It’s a mini suitcase, which to me, pairs well with the subversiveness of Thom Browne's look, which is always a play on a suit.”

Next up for the brand: ongoing collaborations, like with DJ-slash-model-slash-designer Harley Viera-Newton, an increased emphasis on a direct-to-consumer business model, and an introduction to non-leather pieces for a more affordable price point (right now bags range from $1,995 and can go up to $22,000). “We’ve been very fortunate; it’s not an easy business,” Fox says. "The fascinating thing to me is, people are responding to the quality of the bags—we’re still relatively small, but we’re growing at a rapid rate."