Sies Marjan, the five-year-old New York–based brand designed by 35-year-old Sander Lak, announced on Monday that it is shuttering due to the financial impact of COVID-19.
It raises a question: WTF?
That might sound a little strident, but consider the evidence. Sies Marjan was one of New York’s few luxury-fashion success stories. The clothes were often pulled by magazine editors, including GQ’s, for the kinds of shoots you might call “directional”—but they were also deeply wearable. Even when global warming eliminated the need for outerwear, Sies Marjan’s pastel coats, thrown over T-shirts, were a common sight in downtown New York and Brooklyn. Just four months ago, the brand underwrote the Guggenheim’s big Rem Koolhaas show, precisely the kind of financial flex usually undertaken by big-time LVMH or Kering brands.
Speaking of financial muscle: Not only were Sies Marjan’s credentials in order, but the finances were too. Everything was set up for its success—literally. In 2012, Nancy Marks, the wife of billionaire investor Howard Marks, formed a holding company with hopes of funding a comeback for acclaimed American couturier Ralph Rucci. Howard, who counts Warren Buffett among his fans, minted his fortune through Oaktree Capital Management, the distressed securities investment company he cofounded in the mid-’90s; in 2019, he was ranked 370th on Forbes’ list of America’s wealthiest people. When the arrangement with Rucci fell through, Nancy Marks and her team searched for a new designer who could step right into that infrastructure and create a new breed of luxury American label. They found the perfect candidate in Lak, who is young, energetic, and passionate about art, with a European visual sensibility and a millennial’s mind for sellable fashion. He was installed in a luxurious and efficient atelier in the Garment District, and quickly made a name for himself with his enviable sense for color and quirked-up sophisticated ideas, particularly in menswear: teal croc-embossed suiting, cropped pants with dishabille tunic blouses, and pink fur outerwear. “Men are also really reacting to all the extreme pieces—like the pink fur jackets or the super-bright purple pants,” Lak told GQ in 2019, “which sold out immediately.” His purple hologram and gradient pieces, first introduced for Fall 2018, were genuine grails. He could push men to freak it a little, which has been the sweet spot in commercially minded menswear over the past five years.
And then, all of a sudden, it was over.
The brand said in a brief statement that the impact of the pandemic has been “significant.” And it’s not wild to imagine that a smallish clothing company dependent on wholesale accounts—Barneys New York was a major Sies Marjan stockist—would be significantly impacted. But it’s notable that many of the brands that have recently filed for bankruptcy, like J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, and big department stores, looked rocky even before the pandemic hit. Sies Marjan was not one of them.
But it seems Lak’s label is a victim of the same problem that has brought layoffs at media companies and start-ups over the past four months. In the late 2010s, billionaire backers became a source of optimism in industries buckling under unrealistic growth expectations and shrinking profits; many idealistically hoped that investors like Laurene Powell Jobs—who in 2017 took an ownership stake in The Atlantic, which laid off 68 people in June—could be compassionate owners who prized quality and strategic expansion over endless growth. The closure of Sies Marjan further underscores the naïveté of that assumption—perhaps there is no such thing as a kindhearted backer, even if Warren Buffet cosigns your investment strategy. Sies Marjan’s backers can presumably afford to float the brand; it appears they simply don’t want to. Maybe hitting eject when a tidy bottom line is at risk is how you get to be a billionaire in the first place.