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Op-Ed | Sports Direct's Ashley Gets Distracted by Saucy Lingerie

Agent Provocateur is a very different business than even designer sportswear, requiring a different supply chain and store aesthetic.
Naomi Campbell in Agent Provocateur's Spring 2015 campaign | Source: Agent Provocateur
By
  • Bloomberg Gadfly

LONDON, United Kingdom —With sales struggling and major shareholders grumbling about corporate governance, billionaire Mike Ashley might be expected to have other things on his mind than ladies' underwear.

But on Thursday, Four Holdings, an investor group in which Ashley's Sports Direct Plc owns a 25 percent stake, agreed to buy luxury lingerie chain Agent Provocateur out of administration.

Its saucy silk undies couldn't be further away from Sports Direct's nylon tracksuits.

At the start of the year, it looked like Ashley was scaling back his disparate operations. Sports Direct sold Dunlop, saying that it didn't have the management bandwidth to develop brands and get the core chain back on track. But within weeks, Sports Direct had taken an 11 percent stake in fashion retailer French Connection.

Ashley has been trying to elevate the Sports Direct offering, and pledged recently to make it the Selfridges of sports retail. It's possible he has a plan to add lingerie to the range of leisure wear he sells. It wouldn't be out of character. He has already started selling beauty products to Sports Direct's young female shoppers.

In theory, adding more upmarket clothing and footwear to Sports Direct's premium Flannels line could help the retailer persuade big brands Adidas and Nike to supply it with its latest trainers.

Stocking all the hottest new releases has helped arch rival JD Sports Sports Fashion Plc overtake Sports Direct as Britain's biggest most valuable sporting goods retailer. Its market capitalization is now double that of Sports Direct.

But Agent Provocateur is a very different business than even designer sportswear, requiring a different supply chain and store aesthetic. To be fair to Ashley, his interest is through a company separate to Sports Direct and which has experience of distributing fashion brands.

Nevertheless, he faces a turnaround operation. Under the ownership of private equity firm 3i Group Plc, Agent Provocateur had sought to re-establish its luxury credentials after its image became tacky. But even this strategy wasn't enough to prevent sales stalling, and the business entered administration.

With Ashley still needing to improve the performance of the core Sports Direct chain, and no let-up in the pressure from investors for better corporate governance, adding Agent Provocateur to his sprawling empire could heave him as stretched as a piece of old knicker elastic.

By Andrea Felsted; editor: Edward Evans. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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