When I arrived for lunch at the uber chic Hôtel Costes in Paris last week just after 1 p.m., Marc Metrick was already seated at the prime table in the courtyard.
Owner Jean-Louis Costes came by to make sure he was happy.
Valentino creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, was nearby.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Marc Metrick is a big deal. In fashion. In business. In general.
And a super nice guy.
As CEO of Saks, Metrick oversees an iconic, 154-year-old retail empire.
As such, Paris Fashion Week is a must.
So, over a salade niçoise (for me) and a salade de crabe (for him), we took some time on a Sunday to – pardon the pun – dish.
ALINA CHO: So, tell me a little bit about your childhood and how you got interested in this crazy industry we call fashion.
MARC METRICK: I have to admit, out of my siblings and out of everyone, I always liked clothes, even as a little kid. I always liked the nicer things and I always wanted to have them. I wouldn't say that that's where I got interested in joining the industry, but looking back on it in hindsight now, I always liked that stuff. And I went up to college in Boston.
ALINA CHO: I saw that you went to Boston University. I went to Boston College.
MARC METRICK: Oh, see, you guys used to call us a “safety school.”
ALINA CHO: No, we didn’t. We were nicer than that.
MARC METRICK: My father was an investment banker. So, I grew up in that world of corporate finance. So, I figured that would be a path for me to take. I knew whatever I did, I had to make money. Because I did like those nice things.
ALINA CHO: So, you majored in finance?
MARC METRICK: No, I actually majored in marketing at BU. So, my senior year, my father says, "What are you going to do for a living?" I said, "I don't know." I thought I'd go into one of those investment banking training programs, which are pretty hard to get into.
ALINA CHO: And yet your first job was…
MARC METRICK: … not in banking.
ALINA CHO: It was at Saks.
MARC METRICK: At Saks. So, my father said to me, "You know what? I have a friend from Bear Stearns who left, and he's now at Investcorp.” And Investcorp owns Gucci. And they own Saks. This was the mid '90s. And he said, "Why don't you interview there for the training program?"
ALINA CHO: Executive training program.
MARC METRICK: Yes. I said, “I don't know if I want to do that.” Fashion. I don't get it. I want to be in banking. So, I joined, I got the interview, and I got the job. This was 1995.
ALINA CHO: It’s kind-of funny when you think about it now. Here you are today, CEO of Saks. And you started your career in the executive training program at Saks. Can’t make it up.
ALINA CHO: So, how did you work your way up?
MARC METRICK: I think it was just really having the right work ethic, having the right desire to learn, never being afraid to take a job that would just get me to move forward. [One example is], I never wanted to be in buying.
ALINA CHO: So, wait a minute, you were a buyer for a while?
MARC METRICK: I was not a buyer. I was an assistant buyer. So, I graduated from the training program, and I raised my hand to be in what was called merchandise planning. And back then that was a new function. The one thing I learned pretty quickly, being a buyer is not what it looks like in the movies or on TV. It is a hard job.
ALINA CHO: It’s about picking winners, picking things that will sell.
MARC METRICK: But picking things that sell to people [who] aren't like you, picking things that will sell [to] places around the country, and now around the world, with different sensibilities, different end use, different lifestyle.
ALINA CHO: So, you did that?
MARC METRICK: Well, I was an assistant buyer, so I did a lot of spreadsheet work. I never wanted to be an assistant buyer, because that's sort-of pledging a fraternity that you don't want to be in. Because being an assistant buyer is the most grueling job, one of the most grueling jobs, I've ever had.
ALINA CHO: But you took it, because?
MARC METRICK: I took it because that's how you're going to learn the business. It's the only job that I had at Saks or in my career that I actively did not want. But when people sit with me now and say, "What job unlocked your career path? What job gave you the opportunity to be the CEO of Saks?" I've done everything in this company — strategy, finance, operations, marketing, you name it. But you can't be in my role without understanding merchandising. Even if you're not an expert at it, even if it's not something that's innate to you, you have to understand how it works.
ALINA CHO: So, in 2015, when you became President of Saks [he’s now CEO], that is when you started coming to Paris Fashion Week?
MARC METRICK: That was my inaugural trip to Fashion Week, was that year.
ALINA CHO: Was it at that point that you really understood what Fashion Week was all about?
MARC METRICK: [I used to think] Fashion Week was a big party, and dinners, and I didn't realize how grueling it was. Day to night, constant meetings, wall to wall, you have to switch and move around.
ALINA CHO: Why is it important for you as the chief executive of Saks to be here?
MARC METRICK: We do a lot of business with European brands. While they have fantastic leadership in the US that we work with, we need to be here to hear their vision straight from them. And it gives us also the opportunity to articulate our vision and our strategy.
ALINA CHO: But you also go to the shows.
MARC METRICK: I go to the shows. That's another thing, look, the shows for me are... one of the first endeavors I had when I took over Saks, was renovating our Fifth Avenue flagship. Alina, I can tell you that when you meet with these brands and they tell you how they want to lay out their shops, how much they're going to be spending, and how much you need to be spending. You can't appreciate that until you come here, and you see the show, and the production, and how much effort, and heart, and soul goes into what they're trying to bring to life for their brand.
ALINA CHO: When you say, “What goes into the shows…”
MARC METRICK: These are religious experiences. When you come, it's like you sort-of gasp. I mean, even me, I'm not someone [who’s] grown up my whole life wanting to go to fashion shows. It’s the clothes, it's the models, it's the media, it's the celebs, it's the entire thing. It breathes real and different oxygen into this business. I do think you need to come, and experience it, and see it, and feel it.
ALINA CHO: You just introduced me to this new terminology, the “Limitless” program at Saks. What is the Limitless program?
MARC METRICK: I would put it akin to the Centurion program at American Express. It's sort-of like this hidden program on the top of our loyalty program.
ALINA CHO: So, how do you determine who's a Limitless customer?
MARC METRICK: We don't like to think about any of our customers based on what they spend, because everyone at Saks is a luxury customer, everyone.
ALINA CHO: Yes, but that has something to do with it, obviously.
MARC METRICK: Yeah, of course, but there's also how you interact with the brand ecosystem, if you’re loyal to us, if we were to get all your spending. So, Ron Frasch [former President and Chief Merchandising Officer of Saks] used to always say, "The $5,000 customer could be a million-dollar customer somewhere else." So, we never like to grade them on what they spend. The Limitless program is really geared towards folks who love fashion, folks who like to shop, and folks who really want to embrace it. We have 18 of them here with us now in Paris.
ALINA CHO: That’s unbelievable, you bring these top clients to Paris for the shows, what's the purpose of that?
MARC METRICK: The purpose is to bring them closer to the fashion. The world that we're in now, I mean, there's so much choice, and my goal in life is to be everyone's colorist. There are thousands of colorists in New York City, but my wife will go to one. If that one…
ALINA CHO: You're right.
MARC METRICK: ... is home for COVID for a year and a half, my wife will walk around with whatever color hair she actually has, I have no idea.
ALINA CHO: Because she only goes to the one?
MARC METRICK: She only goes to that one, and I need to create that same connection with my customers.
ALINA CHO: So, they're loyal?
MARC METRICK: They're loyal, and so, literally, they will do the equivalent of walk around with the hair that they don't want, or they'll walk by a store that has the bed they want and say, "I'll wait until I get to see Marc at Saks, I'll wait to go buy that at Saks."
ALINA CHO: I'm curious to know, where do you think fashion goes from here?
MARC METRICK: Everyone said, "Is COVID going to change fashion forever?" Fashion changes every year, that's what makes fashion amazing — constant change. So, I don't think COVID did anything to fashion that fashion wasn't going to do to itself.