Women We Love

By: Melissa Campanelli

Who: Marigay McKee, president, Saks Fifth Avenue
Why: The former secondary school teacher is taking the retail world by storm.

Marigay McKee, who in January took over as president of Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the most storied retail brands, certainly had an unorthodox career path. Her first job out of London’s Middlesex University was teaching secondary school in Madrid. However, McKee’s experience as a teacher was an important building block for her career in retail.

“That experience taught me how to relate to and develop people, and how to — in a big group — find the person who stands out or the person who has something to give,” McKee told Gotham magazine.

Five years into her teaching career, McKee was recruited to join Estée Lauder’s training program as an instructor in Spain, partly because she speaks English, Spanish, French and Italian. McKee rose quickly at Estée Lauder before joining Fenwick, a British department store.

“I was a junior buyer, a fashion buyer, and from there I started to do fashion, accessories and cosmetics,” McKee recalled.

In 1999, luxury department store Harrods called McKee and asked her to head up its beauty division. She accepted, and worked her way up to become the chief merchant at the company. During her time at Harrods, McKee was credited with bringing fresh thinking and modernity to the legendary store. For example, she changed the fashion mix, introducing edgier designers and one-of-a-kind pieces; brought in less expensive lines; and dramatically raised price points. Under her tutelage, Harrods also attracted legions of tourists from abroad. The company’s stores now offer visitor-friendly services as a Mandarin sales staff and tax-free shopping.

McKee has already brought as much vigor to her job at Saks. Before starting in January, she visited each of Saks’ 41 storefronts in 22 states. As a result of those visits, McKee is planning to diversify Saks’ product offerings location by location. For example, the company’s Beverly Hills store will become a hub for Hollywood stylists and actresses, while Miami’s Bal Harbour outpost will cater more to its Hispanic clientele. South Florida will shed the all-black clothing that’s better shopped by New Yorkers and Bostonians, and California will cut down on overcoats and heavy tweeds.

McKee will also be introducing to Saks more one-of-a-kind designer pieces, collaborations, pop-ups and even new categories. “If we want to future-proof our brands, our job as retailers is to give the customer the three ‘E’s’ — excitement, entertainment and experience,” she explains. McKee is also at the helm of Saks’ $250 million renovation of its flagship store in Manhattan.

Further proof of McKee’s immediate impact at Saks, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) has named the “Marigay Movement” one of its top 12 stories of the year. McKee shook up Saks’ management team with a litany of changes. However, she cited “making lots of promotions within the team and looking at cross-selling as one of the biggest opportunities” to bring the brand to life.

After almost a year at the helm of Saks Fifth Avenue, how are McKee’s changes working out? “I still think it’s too soon for a verdict,” McKee told WWD. “We’ll see bigger changes in 2015.” She did cite some positive selling performances already in designer apparel, jewelry, handbags, fur, lingerie and swimwear.

And 2015 figures to be an even greater year for the retail superstar.

“The first year wasn’t as much fun,” McKee said. “Now I understand the culture, the American sense of humor. I understand the demands. I see the desire for everyone to be successful, to see us evolve, to see us as the brand of the future. We also have to set realistic expectations. I think I’m trying very hard.”

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