Luxury's Chess Masters Prepare for a New Game – New York Times


A series of strategic shifts in the boardrooms and back rooms of the world’s biggest luxury groups — LVMH, Kering and Richemont — has been underway in recent months.

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A Gucci store in Paris.CreditCharles Platiau/Reuters

On a sunny day earlier this month, scores of suited men and women found themselves in a low-rise building on the outskirts of Florence, Italy, walking by bright hand-painted murals of birds of paradise, wildflowers and dreamy-eyed women wearing turbans, T-shirts and rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses.

The location? The new Gucci ArtLab. The occasion? An investor day for Kering, Gucci’s parent company, with Marco Bizzarri, the chief executive of Gucci, taking on a starring role in front of the assembled crowd. His topic: A master plan to make Gucci the largest luxury brand in the world.

“It’s not a question of if,” he said, “but when.”

The brand had just posted record annual sales of 6.2 billion euros, or about $7.1 billion, in 2017, a 45 percent increase from the prior year. Now it planned to reach €10 billion in annual sales and a 40 percent operating margin by 2019.

To do so, Kering, which has holdings in fine jewelry and watches as well as fashion, confirmed a wider strategy already underway to narrow its focus to five of its premium houses: Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta.

The implications of such a shift are becoming increasingly clear. They reflect not only a strategic housecleaning at Kering, but also the quiet reorganizations that have been taking place at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Richemont, as the world’s three biggest luxury groups prepare for what may be a new stage of acquisitions and consolidation.

“This moment signals the end of an important chapter for Kering,” said Thomas Chauvet, head of European luxury goods equity research for Citibank. “After almost 30 years of asset rotations and churning through their portfolio, they have reinvented themselves as a pure luxury player.”

This change in focus has expressed itself in a flurry of hirings, firings and asset disposals over the first part of this year, as Kering reorients its focus away from small and midlevel brand acquisitions — “they have realized these brands need a lot of help and do not move the profit needle at all,” said Mr. Chauvet — and toward their Big Five.

The designer Stella McCartney at her men’s spring 2019 show in Milan.CreditLuca Bruno/Associated Press

These moves followed the divestiture of Sergio Rossi in 2015, and, analysts said, suggest that Brioni, the Italian men’s wear brand, and Altuzarra, the American women’s wear brand in which Kering has a minority stake, might well be next.

“I see it likely that these moves may be a preamble to more meaningful luxury-focused M&A down the road,” Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas, wrote in an email, referring to the Kane, Maier and McCartney news.

The designer Tomas Maier at the Bottega Veneta fall 2016 women’s show in Milan.CreditAlessandro Garofalo/Reuters
Dior Men, spring 2019.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Then, in June, Antoine Arnault, 41, Mr. Arnault’s eldest son and Berluti’s chief executive, was given the added responsibility of LVMH head of communications and image, reflecting an increased level of external scrutiny on the market leader. And earlier this week, the group also confirmed that LVMH was divesting itself of a minority stake in Edun, the eco-friendly fashion label started by the singer Bono and his wife Ali Hewson.

The moves have increased speculation about avenues for growth.

“As an investor, if you buy Kering right now, you are basically buying Gucci and a fundamentally fashion-focused stock which is more prone to cyclical ups and downs: It remains a risk for investors worried about putting all their eggs in one basket,” said Erwan Rambourg, global co-head of consumer and retail research at HSBC. “If you buy LVMH, you get a buy into a much more balanced and diversified portfolio with a greater spread across product categories.”

François-Henri Pinault, Kering’s chief executive, at the group’s general meeting in Paris in April.CreditEric Piermont/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hence the belief in the market that, although the Kering group share price has grown by more than 35 percent this year, its chief executive, François-Henri Pinault, could now be looking for bigger luxury assets with which to capture investor interest, bolstered by recent changes to the French tax code that have improved flexibility around corporate deal making.

Kering declined to comment on its plans, but Mr. Chauvet of Citibank said: “Gucci will account for over 70 percent of group operating profit in 2018, and there will be some desire to rebalance the portfolio away from Gucci” — whether that is by bolstering performance and investment in other brands, or by “deliberately bringing another brand that is more sizable than in the past to the platform.”

In March, Exane BNP Paribas published a report looking at the possibility of a merger between Richemont and Kering, asking, “Why separate Puma just now? Why push Gucci so hard? Why secure control of YNAP (Yoox Net-a-Porter)?” and noting “Richemont and Kering are complementary: Kering is strong in soft luxury, Richemont is a champion in hard luxury. The combination would create significant scale advantage.”

The suggestion has been firmly rebuffed by both groups.

Still, after a rocky few years, the global luxury market has regained its luster. Buoyant results, bolstered by strong demand in China, have not only boosted bottom lines but contributed to a cash buildup waiting to be deployed. Kering appears to be readying itself to lead that charge.


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