Is Fashion Just an Accessory at Richemont?

Dunhill 'Home' in Shanghai, China | Source: Dunhill

ZURICH, Switzerland — For luxury-goods maker Richemont, clothing and bags are going out of fashion. While Richemont last week reported a 30 percent gain in annual profit as shoppers spent more on its Cartier jewelry and IWC watches, leather goods and fashion brands such as Lancel and Chloé have struggled. Earnings at Richemont’s so-called soft luxury unit fell by more than half in the last fiscal year.

Chairman Johann Rupert last week said Richemont should have been quicker to get rid of brands that disappoint. Then yesterday, the Geneva-based company announced the departure of Marty Wikstrom, the head of the fashion and accessories business — which accounts for less than a fifth of the company’s 10 billion euros ($12.9 billion) in revenue.

“The fashion and leather goods piece of Richemont, as opposed to the watch and jewelry business, doesn’t quite cut it in many ways,” said Rahul Sharma, managing director of consultant Neev Capital.

The declining fortunes of Richemont’s fashion brands and Wikstrom’s departure have fueled speculation that Richemont may sell the business, according to Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Capital Markets.

“Richemont made it clear last week that they will not be quite so patient with underperforming businesses,” Cox said, estimating Lancel and British leather-goods maker Alfred Dunhill could fetch as much as 800 million euros.

Despite making Cartier and acquisitions like Van Cleef & Arpels into growth engines, after years of building up fashion and leather, Richemont’s profit from those businesses remains a fraction of the 1.1 billion euros in operating income last year at PPR SA’s Gucci brand.

Richemont’s other businesses have compensated for the fashion unit’s troubles. Its shares have more than quadrupled since Wikstrom’s appointment, while PPR stock has tripled and LVMH more than doubled.

Any sale will probably fall to the company’s co-chief executive officers, Bernard Fornas, who formerly led the Cartier brand, and Richard Lepeu, who has also been Richemont’s chief financial officer. Rupert, the founder and controlling shareholder, last week said that in September he will start a year-long sabbatical to travel and plow through the 50 books on his reading list.

In 2009, Richemont appointed Wikstrom, a 56-year-old former Nordstrom’s Inc. executive who also managed Harrods department store. “Marty’s appointment reaffirms Richemont’s commitment to our fashion and leather goods,” Rupert said at the time.

Richemont said nothing about why Wikstrom is leaving, but thanked her for her “many contributions” and said she had helped position the business for future growth. Wikstrom has served as a member of Richemont’s non-executive board since 2005, a position she’ll retain until September. She’s departing the fashion unit immediately.

Wikstrom is leaving “on great terms,” she said yesterday in a telephone interview. “It’s been terrific,” she said, adding that she left the business in a better state than when she had joined it. “Richemont is a fantastic company.”

Wikstrom was hired to revamp the soft luxury unit, which was struggling to turn a profit with Lancel, Dunhill, Chloé, Hong Kong fashion house Shanghai Tang, and Parisian designer Azzedine Alaïa.

Particularly disappointing has been Chloé, whose founder Gaby Aghion pioneered the concept of luxury pret-a-porter, or ready-to-wear, in the 1950s, becoming the first company to sell high fashion off the rack instead of tailored to individual customers.

The label has never really recovered from the 2006 departure of Phoebe Philo, a designer who introduced hits such as $700 Paddington bags. In 2009, Richemont froze the brand’s planned store openings, then in 2011, Wikstrom named Clare Waight Keller as creative director.

Chloé “seems to have moved backward since it lost” Philo, said Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London.

Revenue at Lancel was “broadly flat” in Richemont’s most- recent fiscal year, hurt by the brand’s focus on France, the company said last week. Richemont paid about 342 million Swiss francs ($352 million) in 1997 for Lancel, which started selling accessories and luggage in the early 1900s. Last year, Wikstrom added Peter Millar LLC, a North Carolina-based sportswear maker, only the third acquisition by Richemont during her tenure.

“You don’t buy Richemont for its fashion offering,” said Mathew Menezes, an analyst at Avior Research in Johannesburg. “I wouldn’t say the fashion business has been badly run, but it has struggled.”

The business has gotten a sales boost from Net-a-Porter, a Web store for luxury goods that Richemont bought in 2010. The unit’s sales have grown faster than the rest of the company’s, convincing Richemont to start selling brands such as Cartier and Montblanc online. Net-a-Porter last year trimmed its loss by half, to 19 million euros.

Rupert told analysts at a May 16 meeting that Richemont doesn’t plan to buy any big companies. While watchmaker Panerai and jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, which Richemont purchased in the early 2000s, have been a success, he said the company’s record on acquisitions is mixed.

“We talk about Van Cleef and about my baby Panerai, but we don’t talk about a load of rubbish that I also had a hand in buying,” Rupert said. “OK, so we haven’t always been that successful. Maybe we’ve got to cull our bad investments quicker. Not maybe, we should.”

Wikstrom was quick to point out the rubbish “may not just be in the fashion and accessories portfolio.”

By: Janice Kew in Johannesburg at jkew4@bloomberg.net; Editors: Thomas Mulier, David Rocks