CEO and Designer
As CEO and designer of her eponymous exotic leather accessories line, Lana Marks knows a thing or two about luxury. Since creating her first piece in the late 1980s, a bold top-handle alligator handbag modeled after a lunchbox, Marks’ designs have been spotted on such A-listers as Kate Winslet, Oprah Winfrey and even the late Lady Diana, for whom Marks was commissioned to make a custom handbag. With a new shop-in-shop in London’s Harvey Nichols, and boutiques opening soon in Dubai and Istanbul, Marks sat down with style editor Tanya Dukes to talk royal encounters and the secret to her brand’s continued success.
ET: Give me a little bit of background on how you started in design and formed your company.
Lana Marks: It was in June of 1984, my husband was a prominent doctor overseas and we were invited to celebrate the birthday of the Queen of England on the Royal Yacht Britannia. I planned to wear a beautiful purple and red suit and I thought it was a wonderful excuse to get a beautiful handbag. I didn’t own a crocodile handbag in those days and I thought it would be a great time to get one. I looked up and down Worth Avenue [in Palm Beach], the famous shopping street, at all the collections. Not only did I not find something fabulous in red alligator, but I saw that nobody was specializing in very, very high-end skins and fabulous colors. I said to myself “this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to start a brand, a very, very high-end brand, and specialize in the finest fashion and skins in the most fabulous colors.” I did two years’ research into all the top factories in Italy. I also researched France, Germany and England at the time. I did intensive research for quite a few years. I learned production. I sat with the artists. It was quite difficult at the beginning because you don’t just walk into the most prestigious factories in the north of Italy. I had to be quite persistent. You don’t just walk in with no name and say, “Hello, I’ve arrived.” So, I spent two years learning production and forming relationships with the very, very fine tanneries and farms in Italy.
Top-handle handbags were just coming back into style and so I made two: One for myself in red, but I also made a large-size, hot pink alligator lunch box. European Traveling & Life featured it, which was roughly equivalent to Vanity Fair. It was beautiful, and Saks Fifth Avenue allowed me to do a little show. Over two days we sold about $36,000, which was amazing. And the rest is history. Saks and Neiman Marcus had me doing twenty personal appearances per season, zig-zagging across the country and selling to all their top customers: Private appointments, personal appearances, trunk shows, dinners, lunches, everything, you name it. It was just marvelous: I learned so much, I worked so hard—they made the money, I made the name, and it just was terrific.
ET: Did you have any business experience before launching your own line?
Lana Marks: My father was a successful property developer in South Africa. The fundamentals of architectural proportion were drilled into me from a very early age. I would go to his building sites with him and learned a lot about running a business from him. And I traveled with my parents and developed an eye for really fine craftsmanship, really great fabrics and leathers, especially in Europe. When I started my company I already had a strong understanding of business and design but I had absolutely no connection to the tanneries or any of the artisans I work with now. It was all built little by little.
ET: What were the breakthrough moments for your brand?
Lana Marks: There were several things along the way that really helped with brand recognition. The Cleopatra bag was definitely important. Having that bag on the Oscar red carpet worn by a few very select celebrities, usually best actress nominees—some of whom actually won—or icons like Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker has been important.
Being commissioned to do the Lady Diana bag, which took so many months to create, was a big turning point as well. She eventually ordered 15.
ET: What was the origin of your Lady Di bag?
Lana Marks: I was commissioned by Diana and by Lucia Fletcha De Lima [the wife of the then-Brazilian Ambassador to the U.S.] to create a very special Princess Diana handbag—which was really a daunting task, because it had to be completely different than anything else out there: Be fashionable, be iconic and be able to transcend time. So it took me about nine months to do it, and in the end she ordered 15 of them. It was very, very exciting and extraordinary, and I got the most beautiful comments from her, like, “Oh, it’s long and slim, just like me.” She was so sweet. She wrote me the most beautiful letter saying that it was the most beautiful handbag imaginable, and I have that in a letter from her, which is something I will always cherish. And then after that I was asked to be her friend and it was an all-embracing situation for about a year and a half before she passed on. It was something extraordinary that I will always remember for the rest of my life.
ET: Have you actually sold the $250,000 Cleopatra handbags emblazoned with diamonds or are they really show pieces for the Oscar red carpet only?
Lana Marks: The original handbag from the red carpet comes back to us the day after the awards ceremony. The original handbags will be part of a Lana Mark Haute Couture collection that I retain. Then, we do five limited edition versions of each design, which we do sell. We also do a lot of custom created handbags. For one Russian client, we spelled out the recipient’s name in jeweled script along the side of the bag. For a client from India I created two elaborately jeweled handbags that she wanted to wear to her son’s wedding in Phuket, with the proviso that I attend the wedding!
ET: What are the markets, or what have you seen that excites you going forward?
Lana Marks: Russia has come back; the Russian market is starting to be strong again. We had started with them about three years ago and over the last year it quieted a little bit, and now it’s getting strong again. We started a few months back with London. London is extremely strong for the high end.
ET: And you’ve just opened a Harvey Nichols shop-in-shop in there?
Lana Marks: Yes, in London. There’s a very large shop-in-shop at the front of the luxury section of the store as you walk in. They actually sold out of the collection. The entire collection was sold out, a phenomenal thing. Also, in 2009 we had a record year in Harvey Nichols Dubai. We’ve also just opened up at the Bloomingdale’s in Dubai.
ET: Will you also opening up more stand-alone branded boutiques?
Lana Marks: Yes, yes, yes. We have brand boutiques opening in Dubai, Saudi Arabia… we have a whole plan to open in Asia. We are opening in Istanbul.
ET: Are you going to expand to more product categories, too?
Lana Marks: We’re doing many more men’s pieces. A full collection. We’ve always had small leather goods and a few briefcases but we’ll be doing a much more complete range. Everything’s in the sample stage now but will be available in 2011. And for home we’ll be expanding our reach, too. In our Beverly Hills store, we have an upstairs space with home items like director’s chairs.
ET: You specialize in the uppermost part of the market, doing exotics: Alligator, croc, ostrich. Why stick with such a rarefied end of the market?
Lana Marks: I think for the general high-level and mid-level of the market there are extraordinary brands out there that are doing incredibly well—brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Bottega Veneta. But nobody is specializing in the very, very high; I’m talking the crème de la crème of skins: American alligator, porosus crocodile, ostrich and a little bit of lizard, which we just offer as a courtesy. We do only the very, very highest quality in those skins, the highest quality manufacturing. We take out all the old-fashioned production techniques… the metal frames, very heavy wood and all that. Even though the pieces are fashionable, it’s like owning a Chanel suit or an Armani suit or Valentino suit; you can still wear them in five years’ time and they are still going to be magnificent. It’s for the customer that’s buying the Bentley motorcar, the Maserati, the Aston Martin, or going to be in a private plane or on a yacht. People who have a huge disposable income want a red alligator handbag and another purple one, and a yellow one for their beautiful ball gown, and one with diamonds for a special occasion. People don’t just buy one or two. We create haute couture pieces and we customize things as well. Particularly, now with the new, tri-color Positano tote, we can offer it customized in 100 colors—no other brand offers that in the world.
ET: So you can kind of piece together the three colors of your choosing?
Lana Marks: Yes, and from over 100 colors. So if you think even just in terms of the type of inventory we would have to have just to do that in large, very rare skins—it’s something really phenomenal.
ET: Are there brands you see as role models? Brands you pattern your own after?
Lana Marks: Chanel and Hermès. If I didn’t have my own handbags I would use theirs. They don’t do what I do because I really specialize in only the best crocodile, alligator, ostrich and a little lizard as a courtesy. But I love their dedication to quality.
ET: You grew up in South Africa and lived in the U.K. and here in the U.S. as well. Does that help you understand your customer in a way you wouldn’t otherwise?
Lana Marks: I think so. I think because I’ve traveled so much I’m tied to this business—particularly being born and raised in South Africa of British parents. South Africa is where the vast majority of ostrich leather comes from, and they have all the crocodile farms there, so I think I was much more aware of high-end exotic leathers than the average person. And my parents loved to travel and loved to take us traveling; we’ve lived in several places and mixed with so many people. They traveled tremendously. They worked hard and played hard, then taught us the same.
For more information, visit www.lanamarks.com.