Coach fashions itself after European luxury giants

 A shopping bag from the luxury brand Coach.
A shopping bag from the luxury brand Coach.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Can Coach - which just took over Kate Spade - elbow its way into the premium class filled by European giants such as LVMH and Kering?

History does not throw up any success stories from American fashion players.

In 2000, a company called Pegasus Apparel Group was founded with private equity money and a big idea: Buy a group of fashion brands based in the United States and create a home-grown version of the major European luxury conglomerates.

It snapped up Miguel Adrover, a darling of New York Fashion Week, as well as Daryl K, Pamela Dennis, Judith Leiber and Angela Amiri.

But one year later, it had sold most of them and renamed itself the Leiber Group.

In 2012, Liz Claiborne, holding company for Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand jeans and Kate Spade, renamed itself Fifth & Pacific to telegraph its transformation into a lifestyle brand group that would leverage its coastal US identity into global markets a la big European luxury groups.

By the end of 2013, it had sold Juicy and Lucky. In 2014, it renamed itself again: Kate Spade & Co.

Every few years, it seems, another US company decides to try to mimic the success of the major European conglomerates, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (owner of more than 50 brands, including Givenchy, Fendi and Marc Jacobs), Kering (Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney) and Richemont (Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Chloe).

And then, it does not work.

But because, it seems, hope springs eternal, this week another business put its hat in the ring: Coach, snapping up Kate Spade for US$2.4 billion (S$3.4 billion) and creating its own stable of US brands, including Stuart Weitzman, bought in 2015.

The question now is whether Mr Victor Luis, chief executive of Coach, can go where no other CEO has gone before and create the first identifiable, successful US fashion group.

To be fair, there are US groups that have worked on the mass level, but they tend to focus on apparel, as opposed to fashion. That may sound like semantics, but it is not.

Coach is clearly planning a group of a different kind, one that looks more like the European model in terms of shared aesthetic identity - call it democratic fashion with a hopeful instead of heritage edge - as well as in its coherent focus on accessories.

The idea seems to be that multiple brands can add up to more than the sum of their parts when it comes to real estate, marketing and manufacturing leverage.

Not to mention image.

Financiers and industry watchers have their take on why US-based groups have not been able to create such groups before and there are two common theories.

First, there is not a deep pool of established brands in the US with roots in the national narrative and culture - the emphasis has been on entrepreneurship rather than preservation. Hence, groups have been forced to grow the footprints and name recognition of too many labels at once.

That is a prohibitively costly task.

Second, the European groups, though public entities, are still family-controlled (LVMH by the Arnaults, Kering by the Pinaults and Richemont by the Ruperts). They benefit from a long-term commitment and an almost paternalistic attitude.

Whether Coach can work around these issues may well determine whether it can create a new model for the industry.

While the future is unclear, one thing is certain: Everyone will be watching, especially because Mr Luis has indicated that when it comes to building his group, he is not done yet.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Coach fashions itself after European luxury giants'. Print Edition | Subscribe