Asia invests in European fashion brands

Over the past decade Asian investors have been stuffing their portfolios with illustrious European fashion labels. Jing Zhang surveys the changing landscape

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 11:14am

An appreciation of heritage, an eye for a bargain, or perhaps a bit of both - whatever the mix of factors, Asian investors have been acquiring prestigious, if sluggish, European brands for more than a decade, often bringing fresh verve to the businesses.

A case in point is Taiwanese entrepreneur Wang Shaw-lan, who installed Alber Elbaz at Lanvin after she bought the French fashion house in 2001, setting it on the path back to profitability. Similarly, South Korean businesswoman Kim Sung-joo acquired German leather goods company MCM in 2005. Since then it has become a brand coveted by hip young Asians, with a monogram vying to rival the appeal of Louis Vuitton's. Megha Mittal, from the Indian steel family, also helped inject a cool glamour to Escada after she took over the struggling German lifestyle brand in 2009. In short, the tide is turning in luxury fashion.

Hong Kong supply chain giant, the Fung Group, is perhaps the busiest aggregator. In recent years the group, headed by brothers William and Victor Fung, has amassed an enviable portfolio of storied European brands.

Fung Brands, a subsidiary of the investment arm of the Fung family, now owns French fashion house Sonia Rykiel, Belgian leather label Delvaux and, in a joint venture, French bootmaker Robert Clergerie.

Trinity, the group's luxury menswear unit, last year added Gieves & Hawkes, the Saville Row tailors and clothing brand, to a stable that includes Paris-based fashion house Cerruti and British heritage label Kent & Curwen.

Last year the ailing British luxury fashion brand Aquascutum was acquired by Hong Kong's YGM Trading - the wholesale and retail arm of textile and clothing makers Yangtzekiang Garment Manufacturing, which is controlled by the Chan family. YGM was the Guy Laroche licensee for China before buying the company in 2004. And the buyout follows a pattern - it also held the regional licence for Charles Jourdan before going on to take over the French lifestyle brand.

YGM's labels extend to the golf and lifestyle brand Ashworth and trendy Swedish brand J. Lindeberg, and it will soon bring Peak Performance, another Swedish brand, to the mainland.

"We are planning to move Aquascutum forward for global expansion and [to continue] the existing business in the UK," says Shirley Chan Suk-ling, YGM's CEO, "[as well as expanding and diversifying] product categories such as sportswear, kidswear and accessories".

A new Acquascutum flagship store will open soon, which will highlight the direction of the label's more unified global branding strategy.

There are several reasons driving acquisitions of European labels by Asian entrepreneurs looking to tap the luxury market. First, it's generally easier to reanimate a grand old name than to build one from scratch.

"The European brands have a great advantage because they have quality, heritage, authenticity and, most importantly, history," says Trinity's group chief marketing officer David Au Wong-gay. "Many American or Asian brands are new to the market and have only one generation of history, while brands from Europe have often surpassed three generations of succession and continuity."

If you describe yourself as an LVMH something, you are already lost because you become just an adjective
Jean-Marc Loubier, Trinity

Such longevity conveys a kind of credibility that allows the new owners to build a brand more easily while giving quick access to an existing and affluent clientele. Indeed, Gieves & Hawkes was founded in 1771, and has dressed figures from Lord Nelson to Winston Churchill, as well as many British royals. For major players such as YGM and Fung Group, the purchases represent a kind of vertical integration, allowing them to put their supply side heft behind the heritage names.

Still, reviving a historic brand requires careful balancing. While the brand must remain true to its identity, it must shake off vestiges of mustiness to appeal to a new generation of consumers. The early signs have been positive. At Gieves & Hawkes, new designer Jason Basmajian, formerly of Brioni, turned heads with his debut collection in London last month.

Fung Brands chief executive Jean-Marc Loubier has also brought in new creative talent to shake up the three labels in its porfolio.

At Rykiel, new designer Geraldo da Conceicao has given a more youthful vibe to the label with his debut show in March.

"It was a younger feeling," Loubier says. "It was important because last time I cancelled the show, so this time we wanted people to pay attention."

Robert Clergerie's new creative director, Roland Mouret, has also established a fashion-focused presence for the boot and shoemaker, and will expand with the launch of men's shoes next year.

Delvaux leather goods have also been doing extremely well in the West, Loubier says. Currently sold through retailers such as Selfridges, Barneys, 10 Corso Como and Galeries Lafayette, Delvaux also aims to set up stand-alone stores in Paris and London.

Of course, there's no forgetting that a prime consideration in their strategies are Asia's swelling ranks of luxury consumers, particularly those from the mainland.

"We look for brands with authenticity, heritage and culture that [will resonate] with the Chinese consumer," Au says.

"For Trinity and Fung Group, owning the principle [brand company] has great advantages. Controlling the distribution, network and licensee of the brand is key in the totality of its identity and public persona. Having a seamless brand experience worldwide keeps the customer engaged and loyal.

"In Chinese culture there is a kind of strong respect for legacy," Loubier says. But the outlook is global, he says.

So, although some heritage brands do not have great presences on the mainland, building awareness among Chinese customers overseas is essential to their plans - after all, more than half of Chinese consumers' luxury purchases are made abroad.

"Our vision is clear and simple: global brands and global networks," Au adds. "By this we mean that we globalise our brands by creating global networks of customers and distribution to ensure their succession for future generations."

Not surprisingly, the Fung Group's swelling fashion empire has led to suggestions that it shaping up to be a luxury conglomerate in the vein of LVMH, but one senior manager dismisses such comparisons.

"If you describe yourself as an LVMH something, you are already lost because you become just an adjective," says Loubier.

As part of the Fung Group, the brands have been able to streamline operations and share expertise to make stronger products. For example, Robert Clergerie will take over the licence of Sonia Rykiel shoes, so that the Rykiel brand can concentrate on clothing.

Loubier, with his extensive experience as a senior LVMH executive and chief executive of Celine, also sits on the board of Trinity and helps oversee the development of Cerruti in Europe.

"They [my partners] are looking long term; they are industrialists, they are not short-term financial people. We try to combine our strengths."

At the same time, young, globally-minded entrepreneurs such as Jimmy K.W. Chan have launched their own labels. Through his holding company, Semiotics Inc, Chan founded the Paris-based fashion house Rue du Mail in 2006 with designer Martine Sitbon steering creative direction. Last year Chan acquired fashion brand Aganovich.

Jimmy Chan believes Asian customers are willing to "absorb more than a logo" and are interested in understanding brand philosophies.

He adds: "The respect for the master craftsmen, instead of a frivolous obsession with something new gives the Asian customers a deeper level of appreciation when it comes to creativity. This has been shown from street wear to couture."

Asian customers' growing appreciation and romantic attitude to designer creativity can benefit these labels, he says. And his experiences working around the world have taught him that well-rounded global ideas are key.

Shirley Chan also has a more international vision for Acquascutum, the jewel in the YGM crown. Under her charge, "expansion through a global distribution network and creating a broader global sourcing team" is on the cards for the label.

Loubier adds: "Everyone is dreaming about China, it's relatively new, it grows 8 per cent a year. It's very important. But then there is also the venture to America and the stronghold in Europe."

Still, each company has to carve its own path, Loubier says. "[Fung Brands'] path is putting together West and East - with the strongest from each side."