Luxury in China

Undeterred by luxury sales slump, California fashion house St. John seeks to boost China sales

The US fashion retailer is seeking to ramp up sales of affordable luxury clothing for women in China with a little help shareholder Fosun

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 6:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 11:13pm

California fashion house St. John Knits International, little known in China despite more than a decade of market presence, aims to make the country its second-largest overseas market within five years.

“We are definitely underdeveloped in China,”Bruce Fetter, chief executive of St. John said.

In 2013, St. John sold a minority stake to Fosun, China’s largest private conglomerate. The relationship has helped St. John develop a customer base in China and allowed access to some of Fosun’s network of companies, including French resort operator Club Méditerranée SA, which was acquired by Fosun last year.

“Fosun is a very smart investor by trying to leverage all of their assets across all of their operating companies,” said Fetter, who also sits on the board of US clothing giant American Apparel.

Fosun, controlled by China’s self-styled Warren Buffett billionaire Guo Guangchang, has made its name as one of the most acquisitive Chinese firms overseas. In terms of fashion, the company has pursued a strategy of buying equity in foreign brands, and then working with those companies to build up awareness among consumers in China.

Fosun bought into Folli Follie from Greece and Caruso from Italy with the idea of helping them make inroads into China.

The Chinese group acquired a 33.3 per cent stake in St John for US$55 million, at a time when the China market accounted for only 1 per cent of the company’s sales. Fosun’s chief executive told media at the time that the proportion should reach 29 per cent.

But shortly after the stake purchase, Beijing’s graft crackdown and an economic downturn started to act as a brake on luxury goods sales.

Over the past year, St John’s has taken back distribution and sales rights to its brand in China, closed some shops, and was expected to push for more prominent store locations.

The company currently has six boutique retail locations in Shanghai and Beijing, while another will open in the Chinese capital next month. “We are beginning to think about what first tier cities we should look at for additional stores,” Fetter said, adding that the company is not yet thinking about expanding to second tier cities.

With a knit jacket priced at US$1,400, St John is best known in the US for affordable luxury knitwear and conservative office attire for women.

But in China, the market is slightly different. For example, luxury enthusiasts are generally younger, and will not wear designer clothing the office. Fetter said St. John is rolling out a casual line of clothing geared towards the needs of frequent travellers.

Still, he said the biggest challenge is to raise awareness among Chinese customers during a time when some big name fashion brands such as Prada and Louis Vuitton are scaling back in China.

“Fosun’s customer database is huge. That is something that we are able to leverage by sending digital marketing materials to those clients,” Fetter said.

Recently, a marketing promotion saw VIP members from Club Med invited to visit St. John’s clothing boutiques for special events.

Fosun was also able to assisting St John’s push into China by helping with recruitment, lease negotiations, and sourcing local manufacturers, Fetter said.

“Fosun owns a Hollywood Studio, that is a great way for us, through their connections, to put our clothes on celebrities and actors,” Fetter said. Fosun extended its interest to entertainment in 2014, when the company took a US$200 million stake in Studio 8, run by former Warner Brothers film chief Jeff Robinov.

However, Zhou Ting, director of the Fortune Character Institute, said more could be done to improve the China strategy.

“There are a number of problems in its China marketing and product lines in the past, and what St John needs is a professional team supported by Fosun that help work out a well-rounded strategy from brand positioning to product distribution,” Zhou said.