Lana Marks. Image: LANAMARKS.COM
Lana Marks. Image: LANAMARKS.COM

US President Donald Trump has nominated SA-born handbag designer Lana Marks to be his next ambassador to Pretoria. This is what she had to say when interviewed by Business Day in November 2006:

Lana Marks has a good story. Perhaps too good. Born in East London (in SA), she now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and sells expensive handbags to the world’s rich and famous.

“After about 15 years of business I’ve sold to most of the royalty of the world, the celebrities of the world and the wealthy of the world,” she says matter-of-factly.

“I marketed myself very well.”

Her handbags, some of which sell for the price of a suburban South African house, have an impressive following. [Former] US first lady Laura Bush and actresses Jennifer Aniston and Kate Winslet carry her bags. So, too, did Princess Diana, who even has a Marks bag range named after her.

Marks, perhaps, had her greatest moment of public triumph when actress Charlize Theron carried Marks’s most expensive bag — the Cleopatra Clutch, made out of white gold, with 1,500 diamonds set into the frame and a price tag of $100,000 — on the red carpet to the 2004 Academy Awards, when she won the Oscar for her role in Monster.

Her company, Lana Marks, has stores in Palm Beach, in New York, in Beverly Hills and in Dubai. How she came to this stage is a story Marks purrs out down the phone line from her Madison Avenue office.

The woman who was born Lana Bank in 1953 has a refined voice that oozes confidence. She comes across as a person of quality, as polished as her collection of handbags that offers 150 designs available in alligator, ostrich, crocodile and lizard skin.

“I went to very fine schools,” she says of Sterling Primary School and Clarendon High School in East London.

“I did ballet with the Royal Academy of Ballet’s South African affiliate in East London. I started my tennis career in East London. I have played in Wimbledon, the French, and South African Open.”

After what she describes as a whirlwind romance, in 1976 she married Neville Marks, a British psychiatrist who was working at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. The marriage cut short her commerce degree studies at Wits and they left SA. After a stay on an island she is not keen to name — “just one of the islands where he helped in a medical capacity” — they settled in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1987.

Do I know Palm Beach? She then describes it.

“It’s the most exclusive part of the US. It’s a small enclave, an island north of Miami. One-third of the world’s wealth passes through Palm Beach in season. The crème de la crème of the world lives there.”

Her entry into the world of accessories, she says, came about after she was unable to find a suitable alligator skin handbag to take on board the royal yacht Britannia, for a cruise to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

“I looked up Palm Beach’s main avenue where all the luxury brands have shops. I came back unsuccessful. There was nothing in my style and the colour I wanted,” she says. This gave her an interest in making bags for people like herself. She says she spent two years learning about the industry.

“I researched all top factories, persuaded them to do business with me and teach me. I’m extraordinarily persistent and love people and fortunately I have good taste,” says Marks.

Having made her first bags, the next step was to market them.

“I persuaded the then magazine European Travel and Life — similar to Vanity Fair — to print a page in colour of the large, pink alligator-skin lunchbox, the first handbag I created, and then I persuaded the buyer of Saks Fifth Avenue — after more than 60 phone calls — to let me do a small show in their regional store in Palm Beach for two days, with no fanfare, and only to display the five handbags which comprised my first collection, on a counter," she recalls.

“The show was to be from 2pm until 4pm. I arrived at 9am and left at 6pm both days. At 5.45pm on the first day someone passed by the counter and ordered three handbags, for her and her two daughters, and paid $15,000 up front, and a similar purchase happened at 5.50pm on the second day for $16,000. Saks Fifth Avenue sat up and took notice; the rest was history.”

It is a mistake to ask Marks how she competes with big-name brands such as Louis Vuitton, the current must-have bag.

“I don’t compete with them. Louis Vuitton’s market is not mine at all. Mine is a much, much more upscale brand. My customer isn’t carrying Louis Vuitton. They don’t own one.”

Rivals do exist, but Marks says her bags are better value.

“My prices for my quality styling are the best internationally. If you compare a handbag by Hermes, an alligator skin Hermes Kelly bag, in crocodile, it’s $25,000, while my Princess Diana will be $8,000. If you compare, ours is a third the price.”

Having on the other end of the phone the official handbag and accessory consultant for the 2000 Academy Awards, it is a good opportunity to ask a style question. Do handbags have to match clothes these days?

“Absolutely not,” she replies. “I’m working with top Hollywood stars and they’re getting my bag and choosing their clothes based on that.

“I have a new handbag, the Positano Tote, which costs $9,500 or $12,500. I’m wearing it with fuchsia pink as a neutral and training all my customers to wear a hot colour as a neutral, e.g. hot pink, and wear it with everything and treat it as a fashion accent.”

It is strange to hear of someone “training” their customers rather than the other way around, but Marks makes it sound the most natural thing in the world.

“They trust my fashion and style sense. Because I’ve been doing it for quite a while.”

Marks’s story is fascinating. Verifying the details of that story, however, is harder. Her husband, who is listed in Groote Schuur’s 1974 and 1975 annual reports as a full-time psychiatrist, came to SA to be involved in heart transplant work, Marks initially says.

“He came out to help Chris Barnard with the heart transplants,” she says.

When pushed for further detail on this in a conversation yesterday, however, she gives a different answer.

“I never said he worked for Chris Barnard. He was seconded by Chris Barnard to see the patients post-operatively after the transplants.”

Her tennis career is also hard to find evidence of. The East London Daily Dispatch newspaper has no archived stories of her and a search of records on the WTA Tour website of professional women players yields no record, even though it has record of her contemporaries, Linky Boshoff and Ilana Kloss. When asked for details of her apparent appearances in Wimbledon qualifiers and first round of the French Open, Marks’s memory is hazy.

“In the French Open, I played at Roland Garros, and lost in the first round to an Australian, Ann Smith. It could have been ’70s or ’80s … probably the ’80s.”

The French Open website has no record of her on its 1970s or 1980s tournament lists.

Johannesburg-born Ilana Kloss, winner of the Wimbledon junior title in 1972 and US Open junior title in 1973 and now the New York-based CEO and commissioner of World Team Tennis, also has no recollection of Marks’s international tennis career.

“As far as pursuing a professional career, she was good but not great. For the most part, I used to beat up on her. I don’t recall her having any great success outside of SA,” Kloss says.

“I think she’s a great self-promoter and my hat’s off to her.”

It does turn out that Marks did play international tennis — for Bermuda. She also represented the US in tennis at the Maccabi Games and won two bronze medals, although she says she cannot remember the years.

Marks represented Bermuda in the Maccabi Games in 1985. This Atlantic haven for the wealthy was the island she does not mention and was home to Lana and Neville from 1976 until 1985. He had worked there in private practice since the early 1970s and returned there with his newly wed wife.

The Marks’ stay on that island turns out to have been controversial. The couple were convicted of breaking Bermudan immigration laws in June 1982, for hiring a South African nanny illegally, but the conviction was overturned on appeal the following year. However, the Bermudan immigration department refused to renew Neville’s work permit and the family was forced to leave the island in 1985, local newspaper reports say.

When asked if that was the reason she left Bermuda, Marks’s response is blunt.

“I have no idea.”

You don’t remember?

“No.”

Controversy also dogged Marks’s appearance in the 1985 Maccabi Games. The island’s tennis body, the Bermuda Lawn Tennis Association, said afterwards she had participated in the games without their knowledge, the local Royal Gazette newspaper reported in August 1985.

Her recollection of details may be hazy, but Lana Marks has successfully convinced the rich and famous to buy her handbags and marketed herself on that basis.

In November 1997, three months after Princess Diana’s fatal car crash, the now-defunct Personality magazine published an eight-page article in which Marks wrote about her 11-month friendship with the late princess and published handwritten notes to her written on Kensington Palace stationery.

“I want to tell the world about this friendship — the most exciting dream of a lifetime,” Marks says in that article. “Had she not passed away, my lips would have remained sealed.”

Marks has a great story. She has built up a successful brand. As for the rest of her story — that’s quite a brag, lady.