MR magazine is deeply saddened to report the passing last week of Sunny Diego, a much-loved merchant at Saks Fifth Avenue who died from stomach cancer at a very young 51.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Sunny received an MBA from the University of Chicago before starting at Saks in 1994. Over the years, she held numerous positions at the store including fashion director in both the men’s and women’s divisions, VP of men’s product development, and, most recently, VP of contemporary and designer menswear. In between her two stints at Saks, she was senior VP of Li & Fung (overseeing Nautica, Dockers, Ben Sherman, Geoffrey Beene, and private label) and chief merchant at PR firm Lividini & Co.
Eric Jennings, a colleague at Saks, was a close friend. “Sunny was a force of nature who lit up every room she entered. I had the privilege of working side by side with her for almost ten years,” he tells MR. “We called each other ‘work husband’ and ‘work wife’ because of the many hours spent together: in the office, in designer showrooms, and traveling worldwide for business. She always dressed glamorously and was always ready to do business. Her mantra ‘Always be Closing’ served her well.”
“I loved Sunny’s direct honesty, sense of humor, and fierce loyalty,” he adds. “She made an indelible impression wherever she went: from the hostess at the local restaurant near the office to the Maître D at the trendiest bar in Paris, they all knew Sunny’s name and would immediately stop what they were doing to take her to her favorite table.”
“But most importantly, she was a devoted mother,” Jennings continues. “When she brought her daughter Gemma to trade shows, Sunny made sure she had personalized business cards to exchange with vendors. And she’d be sure to introduce Gemma to strong, smart female business leaders to show her daughter that with hard work, anything is possible for young women.”
Peter Harris was a mentor to Sunny at Saks and readily recalls her signature style. “Sunny reminded me of a lot of the great brands in our industry: they have visual signatures and calling cards. Sunny’s sunglasses and assertive gait were her calling cards. Like the great brands, she had an unbelievable ability to adapt to changing circumstances. I knew her best when she was my Assistant Buyer in Classic Tailored Clothing at Saks. The arc of her career was remarkable: from an MBA from the University of Chicago to Vice President of Men’s Designer at Saks, her passion, energy, and drive helped her navigate myriad changes in the industry. She was a larger-than-life character with loads of personality who lit up the room. She intrinsically understood the art of ‘making an entrance’ and will be greatly missed.”
Tom Ott, founder of Retail and Fashion Solutions and a 24-year veteran of Saks, describes her as caring and loyal. “Sunny was always pushing us forward and finding great new brands for Saks. She was the one who drove our Saks Fifth Avenue men’s collection to designer status. She taught me so much. She built great teams around her but perhaps her proudest moments were being a mother. We will miss her and are forever thankful for all she did for us.”
Shawn Howell worked with Sunny at Saks since 1998. “She was the same person as a VP as she was as an assistant buyer: lovely, kind, unpretentious, driven to learn, and always in the know. She was the consummate merchant: exceptional taste level, highly competitive, fierce in negotiating with vendors. Her ultimate goal was always to create a better brand for Saks. She was personally responsible for making Saks’ private label a destination for men’s sportswear, on a par with the best luxury designers. She was a force in the industry and will be greatly missed.”
Saks’ chief merchant Tracy Margolies also recalls Sunny’s passion for the industry.“Those who had the privilege of working with Sunny were fortunate to experience her fierce attitude, caring nature, dedication, and strength – and her undeniable love of fashion. Her passion for the industry was infectious to everyone from her Saks team to our vendor partners. She was an inspiration to us all, and her incredible legacy will continue to live on.”
Louis Digiacomo, Saks’ Men’s GMM, was another colleague and friend.“It was an honor to have known Sunny for 25 years. She was a caring, beautiful person who possessed amazing energy, passion, dedication and, most of all, generosity. Sunny was more than a colleague or friend, she was family. Like so many who were lucky to be part of her life, I will miss my sister.”
Andrea Grilli, CEO of New Guards Group, considered her a close friend and incredible business partner. “I don’t have proper words to describe what my team and I are feeling. Sunny played such a fundamental role back in 2015, when she believed in our newborn company. She had the vision to trust in our strategy, giving us space in multiple doors, supporting our creative directors before we were known in the U.S. The world has lost a truly great person.”
Paul Rosengard, EVP at True Religion who worked with Diego at Li & Fung, noted her elegance. “Sunny defined style. In business, she could always spot the winning styles. In her relationships, she personified style. She was elegant and beautiful inside and out. Sunny could move through any social circle, captivate any audience. She lit up the room just by entering and always used this gift to lift others. She will be missed by all whose lives she touched.”
Robert Barbara, a buyer for men’s advanced designer at Saks says: “I’ve known Sunny for 16 years as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a dear friend. I know I’m not alone in thinking how fortunate I am to have worked with one of the best…a strong and fearless industry leader, whose generous and nurturing spirit left an indelible mark on my life.”
And, Wynn Smith, a buyer for men’s advanced contemporary and outerwear at Saks adds: “Sunny was a fearless leader whose passion was infectious and could light up a room like no one else. Sunny was more than a mentor — she was like family. She was thoughtful, generous and loyal, and was always a champion for her team and for the business. I will forever cherish the feeling of pride knowing that Sunny was in my corner.”
Alan Victor from Jack Victor is also feeling the loss. “I am heartbroken to have lost a dear friend whose business and personal advice and insights I valued so much. When I think of Sunny, I will always remember her wonderful smile, as well as her enormous energy and passion for our industry. I send my deepest sympathies to her family and all her colleagues at Saks.”
Nelson Suriel from Jack Victor adds an anecdote: “When Saks moved their corporate offices downtown, Sunny would often work from our offices near Grand Central. (In fact, she called it Saks’ midtown office.) One day I had an appointment with Scott Polworth, men’s DMM from Bloomingdale’s; since the two had never met, I advised Sunny that he was coming at noon. Of course, he shows up before me so Sunny, in her ever-charming manner, answers the door, takes his coat, settles him in the showroom, brings him coffee. When I arrived, Scott commented on what a great new assistant we hired, having no idea who she was. When I introduced them, he was of course embarrassed but Sunny loved it, always showing a terrific sense of humor!”
Sunny is survived by her sister Suzy Kim, her 13-year-old daughter Gemma, and her parents, Hong and Hyok Kim. We at MR magazine will be forever inspired by the positive energy and generous spirit of this amazing fashion icon, merchant, and friend.
RIP Sunny Diego: know that your light continues to shine.