Mark Cross, the 175-year-old ‘American Hermès,’ Regains Its Luxury Status

The brand behind the first postwar 'It' bag is back to prominence

Mark Cross became the first postwar "It" bag.
Mark Cross became the first postwar "It" bag. Courtesy of Mark Cross
Headshot of Robert Klara

Well into the second half of Rear Window, Paramount’s 1954 classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly) and photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) are mulling through the evidence that their neighbor Lars Thorwald has murdered his wife. A key indicator: Mrs. Thorwald has vanished from the apartment across the way—leaving behind her handbag.

“A woman has a favorite handbag,” Fremont explains, producing her own sleek black bag to illustrate her point. “It always hangs on her bedpost where she can get at it easily. And then all of a sudden she goes on a trip and leaves it behind—why?”

It’s a famous bit of monologue, but the bag in the shot is more famous still. It became known as the “Grace bag”—made to this day by the house of Mark Cross. The luxury leather merchant turns 175 this year and, as CEO Ulrik Garde Due sees it, Rear Window, like the rest of the brand’s heritage, continues to define it.

“Customers today in luxury want to be told real stories,” he said. “We don’t have to make anything up. We have it all. We just need to tell our story.”

While the story begins in 1845—when Irish saddler Henry W. Cross began making fine leather goods under a company he named for his son, Mark—things don’t really get going until a gent named Gerald Murphy gets involved. A bon vivant who’d roomed with Cole Porter at Yale University, moved to France to paint and hobnobbed with the likes of Hemingway, Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Murphy took the reins of Mark Cross in 1934. He made the onetime equestrian brand—which some have called the “Hermès of America”—into an icon of privilege. (In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s blueblood credentials are established by his Mark Cross luggage.) Murphy’s coterie of fancy friends included Hitchcock who, in 1954, approached him to make a modern, minimal bag suitable for the star of his new film.

Originating as a saddle maker in Boston, Mark Cross had expanded with luxury leather accessories (1) by 1921. Artist and tastemaker Gerald Murphy (2) would bring the product line the kind of panache that would land it in the glossies (3). In 1954, Mark Cross became the first postwar “It” bag following the release of Rear Window (4). Shoppers in New York can test drive goods at Mark Cross’ Madison Avenue flagship store (5).
1. Jay Paul/Getty Images; 2. Courtesy of Mark Cross; 3. Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images; 4. Paramount Pictures; 5. Ilya S. Savenok/ Getty Images for Mark Cross

Mark Cross’ pedigree makes it all the more surprising that the company very nearly disappeared. In 1993, Sara Lee Corp. vacuumed it up during an acquisition spree that also included Coach. Electing not to invest in both legacy names, Sara Lee led Mark Cross behind the barn. (“It’s not that we weren’t able to build the [Mark Cross] brand,” Coach chairman and former CEO Lew Frankfort said at the time. “We chose not to.”)

Following a failed 2008 relaunch as a midpriced brand—via QVC, no less—Mark Cross passed into the hands of veteran retail executive Neal J. Fox, who re-instituted the Italian workmanship, raised prices and got the goods into Barneys. In other words, Fox restored Mark Cross to its historical standard. And it worked. These days, Mark Cross accessories have been spotted on the likes of Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie and Rihanna, among others.

A few weeks ago, the company launched a vintage section on its website, where shoppers can purchase Mark Cross leather goods from eras past: a rugby ball ($480), a houndstooth cosmetic bag ($180) and a folio ($590). Due believes that offering vintage Cross isn’t only sustainable, it’s a way to turn younger shoppers on to the brand’s lineage.
Courtesy of Mark Cross

A year after Due took over as CEO in 2018, he opened a Mark Cross flagship store on Madison Avenue, bucking the trend of high-profile retail closings that have hit New York.

“It’s completely essential to have physical spaces where the consumer can come in and experience the whole breadth of the brand,” Due said, adding that if shoppers would like to come in to see and touch the product, then go home and purchase it online, that’s fine with him. Among the fineries they can try out while in the store: totes, backpacks, wallets and duffles—and the Rear Window bag, looking every bit as boxy and smart as it did on Grace Kelly’s arm 66 years ago.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
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