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How a 171-Year-Old Company Found Their ‘It Bag’

Mark Cross has a long history of going against the grain, and now they have some very fashionable fans

Would Grace Kelly carry a bag printed with happy cartoon clouds? Or one made with silver holographic leather?

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In the hallway of Mark Cross’s Garment District studio, a still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window hangs in the hallway, showing Kelly holding a sturdy, boxy black purse. Inside a showroom, "Grace" bags are lined up in that same boxy shape, but in a rainbow of jelly bean colors and patterns.

It’s all pretty modern for a 171-year-old brand. "I never wanted someone to walk in and say, ‘This is dull. Nice, fine quality, but it's boring.’ That to me to be would be the kiss of death in terms of what we're doing," Mark Cross President and CEO Neal J. Fox tells Racked.

Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart with an original "Grace" bag in Rear Window. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Fox, whose resume includes names like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and men's haberdashery Sulka, had admired Mark Cross from afar before relaunching the brand five years ago. The company started as a harness and saddlery company in 1845, founded by an Irishman named Henry Cross who came to Boston and named the business after his son Mark. It evolved into America’s first luxury leather goods brand, way before Hermès and Gucci got a toehold in the United States.

Mark Cross flourished in the early half of the 20th century, and there was a moment in the '70s and '80s where Mark Cross had 23 retail stores across America. But by 1997, Mark Cross’s then owner Sara Lee — yes, the baking/frozen bread giant — shut down the brand.

"The conservative look of Cross bags has become dated," Susan Chandler wrote in the Chicago Tribune at the time, and after the closure, the Mark Cross brand lay dormant for years.

Photo: Mark Cross

Circa 2010, Fox acquired equity in the Mark Cross trademark and set about relaunching the brand in 2011, exclusively at Barneys. Flash forward to today, and this historic American brand is sold across the globe, and has a hit on its hand in that tiny, streamlined, logo-less Grace box bag that starts at nearly $2,000. "That's our It Bag, that's the bag that people come to us for because no one else is doing it," Fox says.

These aren’t the easiest of times to sell a $2,000 purse, considering the slowdown on spending in China, Brexit, fluctuating currencies, and a decline in tourism due to terrorism — yet Mark Cross says it is growing. The private company doesn’t publish sales figures, but Fox says it grew 100% last year and he anticipates growing another 60% this year. A travel collection is coming out, an expanded men’s collection is in the works, and Mark Cross hopes to open an NYC flagship in the future.

"The Mark Cross collection is timelessly modern and irreverent in design," Sarah Blair, Barneys senior vice president for women's accessories and shoes tells Racked. "Many Barneys customers are now collectors of the iconic Grace box. The brand is a classic American heritage story that appeals to a broad range of clients."

Classic American heritage story or not, shoppers today probably don’t even know the history behind Mark Cross. But they might’ve seen a bag on the arm of Alexa Chung or Kate Foley, or even Rihanna.

Photo: Mark Cross

"It’s not super flashy, there’s no branding or logo on it. It’s elegant in that way," says blogger and photographer Zanita Whittington, who wore a Mark Cross bag at fashion week. "I actually got my bag from Matches, I bought it online so I wasn’t really sure, but I was really blown away by gorgeous quality of the brand. The leather, the finishing, the zipper is quite heavy, and it slides in beautiful way. They’ve really invested in fantastic hardware."

Fox claims that the brand has had no involvement with celebs wearing the brand. "People don't believe me, but we don't pay. I'm cheap. We're not giving bags away, we're not paying anyone to wear them. Rihanna's walked into Barneys and bought two or three handbags," he says.

Exceptions are made, however, with regards to Taylor Swift. The pop star asked to purchase a sample bag from a Glamour cover shoot in 2012 and was photographed with it all over the world."I will admit that I never charged her," Fox says. "She beat it to death, so within a year, she had a problem with a piece of the hardware, and she sent it back because she wanted it repair. And I replaced it with another bag because she didn't want to be without it." Now Swift owns a Mark Cross purse for each of her fashion personas, from girly to Met Gala goth.

Like Swift, the average age of customers is much lower than Fox anticipated.

"When we [relaunched in 2011], we had a brand that's been around since 1845, it's been dormant for close to 15 years when we began the process, so I assumed that baby boomers, younger baby boomers, might remember the brand. But the fascinating thing to me is that we're selling millennials and women in their 20s through 40s, that's the sweet spot," Fox said.

Photo: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty

The relaunch of Mark Cross’s discreet line coincided with logo fatigue and the rise of bags that would resonate with in-the-know shoppers, like Mansur Gavriel.

"The kind of consumer that's responding to the brand is up to here with wearing someone else's initials. They won't wear LVs, or Cs, or Gs," Fox says. "I don't need to be narcissistic enough to flaunt the fact that I spent a lot of money on something by sticking it in someone's face."

Mark Cross purses are definitely at a luxury price point, ringing in at $2,000 to $3,500 on average. The brand is getting more into exotic leathers as well, and a bag made with crocodile can run up to $25,000. As the Grace bag picks up steam, other styles are gaining popularity as well, like the Benchley bag, a curved, top-handled bag shaped like an old-fashioned binocular case.

These bags are made in Italy, just like back in the day. "We're producing most of our bags in a factory that was producing Mark Cross handbags 35 or 40 years ago. The patriarch of that family is still around, still overseeing production," Fox says.

The goal is to preserve Mark Cross’s focus on quality, with a 2016 twist. "There's an ongoing DNA that when you look at one of our bags, there's continuity. We're still feeding off the heritage that was there. Maybe not in the same way, but maybe more in a today kind of way," Fox says.

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty

The company routinely searches for vintage Mark Cross bags for inspiration — but lately there’s been more competition. "We're always going on eBay to see if we can find something we haven't seen before. I never saw anything priced above $200. It was priced from $30 to $50. Since we started building brand equity, the eBay prices keep escalating," Fox says. Vintage Mark Cross products on eBay now run in the hundreds, and even thousands. "The people on eBay now comparison shop. They look at our bags before they put them up for sale."

Fox is now the person everyone calls with any history or info about Mark Cross or its most famous executive, Gerald Murphy. Murphy, a painter and bon vivant who ran in the same circles as Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other Jazz Age luminaries, was born to the family that owned the brand. After spending the ‘20s in France with his wife Sara, Murphy served as the company’s president from 1934 to 1956. "It upset me that the Murphys weren't included in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, they belong in that film," Fox said. Someone just called him trying to sell the Murphys’ schooner Weatherbird, the same boat where Man Ray photographed Gerald Murphy sailing in the nude.

Maybe that’s why today’s Mark Cross isn’t afraid to take a classic $2,000 bag and add a little peace sign, a Super Mario-esque mushroom or a silver and gold Saturn motif. "We're proud to feed off that part of DNA," Fox said of the Murphys. "There's a spirit there that we try to deliver with the product, a free-living kind of spirit."

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