New York Times
By Ruth La Ferla
June 02, 2017
The riotous hoots of nearby youngsters threatened to drown out his comments, but Mark Lee was unfazed. Mr. Lee, the former chief executive of Barneys New York, seemed keyed in to their mood in the courtyard of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village.
Since stepping down from his post this year to sit on the Barneys’ board of directors, he has redoubled his efforts in support of that youthful community: He is co-chairman of Fashion Centered and its benefit gala on Sunday night, held to support the center. Working alongside Glennda Testone, its executive director, he is intent on raising awareness of this 24-year-old New York institution.
We recently caught up with Mr. Lee, who talked about his engagement with the center and life after Barneys. This interview has been condensed and edited.
You’re putting a lot of energy into this gala. What drives you?
I was thinking about the arc of my life. I’m very lucky to have what I call a very happy gay life. I grew up in San Francisco in the ’70s, I came out to my mom when I was 13, and it was not a big deal. I had a supportive loving family. I moved to New York. I survived the AIDS crisis of the ’80s, and having lost a lot of friends, I consider myself very lucky to be alive.
Fashion, in my experience, has been a very open environment. I have never experienced any kind of discrimination in the workplace.
That kind of luck could have made you complacent.
No, for me it was time to give back. I’m aware that my experience is not the experience of many people. If anything, things are becoming more difficult. The center welcomes about 6,000 people a week, a number that since the election has increased by 30 percent.
What part of that uptick do you think comes from the current political climate?
A lot of people are scared and angry. The election has been shocking. It was a very ugly campaign, built on a lot of ugly words and a lot of fear-mongering. For any minority group, the gay community included, all that represents a very negative step backward.
In trying to reverse that direction, what concerns you most?
Anything that has to do with safety. Young people who are facing unsafe situations at home, or have been put out of their homes and are living on the streets — they are dramatically more likely to become drug-addicted, more likely to contract AIDS. We who live in a liberal, modern society don’t realize what people are still facing and the needs that are out there.
Can you describe those needs in more detail?
Immigration is an issue. They talk about deportation, about race, about finding employment, about how to cope with a toxic environment. A lot of young people don’t have that loving support from their families.
Fashion Centered turns 5 this year. What was the impulse behind it, and what do you think you’ll achieve?
For many people, going to the gala is a way to discover the center for the first time. That was the original premise. Along the way I’ve pushed everybody. I’ve been a little bit of a thorn in their side. Cumulatively, we’ve raised more than $900,000 for the L.G.B.T. community in New York City. We expect going into this event to raise another $500,000.
Seems there is life after Barneys. How have your days opened up?
With Dorothy Berwin, we founded Berwin Lee London New York Playwrights Inc. Dorothy and I have a passion for the theater. We thought we could identify interesting playwrights and give them a cash prize with no strings, provided they use that money to write a play — as opposed to, say, working in television or at Starbucks. Our first writer was Lucy Kirkwood. She wrote “The Children,” which was produced at the Royal Court in London and will come to Broadway at the end of this year.
I also have a passion for documentary film. I was an executive producer of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film on Diana Vreeland, and I have a new film in the works on Cecil Beaton.
A merchant turned cultural arbiter? Can you reconcile the two?
You know, my original dream was to be in entertainment. My fear when I was a kid was that I would end up working in the post office. I ended up in fashion, which to me is another form of entertainment. Fashion, film, theater — they’re all worlds that are vibrant and constantly changing.
Fashion, you can’t escape it. I still read the papers in the morning: Business of Fashion, Women’s Wear Daily. I’ve spent 30 years in the business. It’s a hard habit to break.
Do you ever wonder about fashion’s next big thing?
It’ll be something that we can’t imagine. You know, that’s the fun of it, that you never know what’s just around the corner.
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