WWD | EVAN CLARK Michael Kors and his $15 billion fashion empire are proving to be a tough act to follow. But that isn’t stopping Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, Kate Spade and a slew of others from trying. Whether they can bring together the same mix of personality and profit margin remains to be seen.
Investors and designers of all stripes have been struggling to replicate the success of Michael Kors Holdings Ltd., which brought back the big-time fashion initial public offering three years ago and created a new benchmark for the industry’s strivers. So far, no one has managed to pull together the same alchemy: the broad appeal of Kors’ persona and designs and the backroom savvy of backers Lawrence Stroll, Silas Chou and chief executive officer John Idol.
While Kors’ success looks straightforward, one must recall that a little more than a decade ago he was near bankruptcy. That is when Stroll and Chou came in and implemented their roadmap, which looks something like this:
• Secure experienced, aggressive operational talent. Stroll and Chou played a key role in the Nineties success of Tommy Hilfiger and Idol is known as a canny executive, with stints at Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and elsewhere.
• Build some serious mainstream exposure. Kors had been a known-quantity in fashion for years and had American luxury roots, but it was his star turn on reality show “Project Runway” that thrust him into the popular imagination and gave his brand much broader reach.
• Trade on that fashion credibility with high-end looks that give the brand an air of exclusivity, while distributing many styles that have more mass appeal. To be a blow out, a brand must be democratic.
• Spend to support growth.
As deceptively easy as it is to describe the path to follow, the brand’s strategy is extremely hard to pull off — if it weren’t, the fashion world would be teeming with ubersuccessful Michael Kors clones.
Early contenders to the Kors mantle — from Kate Spade & Co. to Vince Holding Corp. to the privately held Burch — have all shown enviable growth, but have yet to catch fire in the same way.
The spotlight, though, is shining with a new intensity on Burch, who this week recruited some serious top-shelf talent and installed Ralph Lauren and Macy’s Roger Farah as co-chief executive officer. Farah has long been considered the business brain behind much of Lauren’s growth and his 14-year tenure at the brand saw sales shoot from $1 billion to $7.5 billion while the company’s market capitalization hit as high as $18 billion.
An IPO might not be in Burch’s immediate future — both the designer and Farah spoke of the virtues of being a private company — but the combination of branding and operational expertise could still supercharge the company. And she has a number of private equity investors who are going to, at some point, want a return on their investments.
Then there is Marc Jacobs.
The designer left his perch at Louis Vuitton last year after 16 years to focus on taking his own company public, with the help of Bernard Arnault’s LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns a third of the business.
“I already think the next Michael Kors is Marc Jacobs,” said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in A.T. Kearney’s retail practice.
Ben-Shabat noted the company’s ties to LVMH, which has deep pockets, expertise in the industry and global reach.
“The brand is already doing so well under that umbrella,” she said. “There is a great chance they are able to replicate” the Michael Kors’ model.
Marc Jacobs has a good start, since he’s backed by LVMH and enjoys wide exposure, showing up in rap lyrics as well as on Diet Coke bottles, the latter as part of acollaboration.
And Kors’ eye-popping market capitalization has not escaped the notice of luxury titan Arnault.
“If we could do something along those lines, or even half, everyone will be happy,” said Arnault, flashing a smile to analysts and journalists during a meeting in January.
Robert Burke, chairman and ceo of the Robert Burke Associates consultancy, said, “Marc Jacobs has all the components to become the next Michael Kors. He has a collection line, which is well-recognized internationally. [He has] personality, a broad reach when it comes to the secondary lines, and even more potential if the secondary lines are developed correctly. And licensing, he’s very good with licensing on fragranceand eyewear and footwear. All the components are there.”
There are also other contenders, such as von Furstenberg.
Burke also saw potential in von Furstenberg’s business, which is being rejiggered with the help of Hilfiger vet Joel Horowitz, who has served as cochairman since 2012.
“She’s certainly positioning herself for a big move,” Burke said. “She’ll probably be quite successful.”
Ike Boruchow, an analyst at Sterne, Agee & Leach, isn’t counting out a Michael Kors-like success from Kate Spade.
The brand, which is now freed from the drag of Lucky Brand and Juicy Couture, saw its comparable sales increase 30.4 percent in the second quarter.
“When you look at Kate and their market share and their revenue base, it’s about a billion-dollar brand, maybe five percent market share in the U.S…. low margins,” Boruchow noted. “However, margins are rapidly expanding. They’re the top-comping retailer out there right now.”
Kors, however, is still far ahead of the pack in business terms.
While his market capitalization has dipped recently as the stock has fallen — it dropped 1.9 percent to $73.15 Thursday — the company’s outstanding shares are still valued at a total of $14.95 billion, just ahead of Ralph Lauren Corp.’s $14.5 billion.
Kors’ comparable sales rose 26.2 percent last year as net sales jumped 51 percent to $3.17 billion and profits increased 66 percent to $661.5 million.
Although fashion players often seek to stand out, the financial realm is usually geared toward fitting in. Investors are more easily sold a story that’s been told before, i.e. a company that in key ways looked liked Kors and talked liked Kors would be well received.
“People are always looking for the next hottest name,” said Simeon Siegel, analyst at Nomura Securities, referring to the handbag market. “To the extent that you can show a company that’s putting up great results in this category, investors will flock to it.”
Siegel said Kors’ personality is an important part of the company’s success.
“It’s not that easy to find both a product and personality that meshes really well,” he said. “Michael drives sales. John Idol…drives margins, they drive profitability. The biggest question in accessible luxury is balancing exclusivity, which you need, but also distribution, which is what gets you to the stage of Michael Kors. That’s a tough balance.”
Still, fashion is filled with lots of personalities. It’s the way the Kors persona has morphed into serious business results that stand out.
“I don’t think this is so much just about Michael Kors, which is a great name and he’s…a great guy, but this had just as much to do with Lawrence Stroll, Silas Chou and John Idol and the muscle they put behind this business,” said Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at investment bank MMG. “What they did was kind of impose Michael Kors on the industry. If you take a look at how strong it came out of the box, this doesn’t happen every day.”
Plus they stuck with it.
“There was risk when they came into the marketplace,” Ellinger said. “When they first relaunched Michael Kors, they hit some speed bumps, but they had the wherewithal and experience to fine tune the business.
“You need money,” he said. “You need experience. You need vision. You need strategy and you need a very talented team. This is not just about building a wholesalebusiness, this is about building a global licensing machine.”
It’s the global nature of the Kors business that appears to be the brand’s best hope for its own future, especially given its increasing ubiquity in the U.S.
“For now, it seems like Michael Kors is the next Michael Kors,” said Paul Lejuez, equity analyst at Wells Fargo Securities. “They do have a lot of momentum. You can look at their European business as their next opportunity. It makes sense to be excited about some of the opportunities they have globally rather than try to find one who’s going to displace them or show up on the scene in the same way they have in the U.S.”
The brand also has room to expand in Asia, although the designer, Idol, Stroll and Chou own Michael Kors Far East Holdings Ltd., which has the right to use the name in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
But it is the explosive nature of Kors’ growth in its home market that has also turned into one of the key concerns around the company.
Kors has become something of a victim of its own success and Wall Street has become increasingly uneasy about the company’s exposure.
“In the U.S., I am cautious on them becoming overdistributed,” Lejuez said. “Two-thirds of their sales at point of sale go through wholesale. To me, that’s a point of risk. As we saw with Coach, once they got to a certain size, they couldn’t push the productivity that much higher and I think that’s what Kors is going to run into in the U.S.”
Sterne, Agee’s Boruchow said the company’s managers “basically found anyone who wanted the product, which is everybody. When you’re doing that, it’s fantastic. It’s highly scalable. It’s highly leveragable. The problem with that is, sometimes when the brand starts to fizzle, you kind of get stuck.”
The analyst also noted that Stroll and Chou themselves have gotten out of their investment. During fashion week, the duo sold their remaining 11.6 million shares of the company — for $76.76 a share — and relinquished their board seats.
Then there are those who question whether anyone can be the next Kors. Often overlooked is that the company’s quartet started the journey toward mega-success more than a decade ago — long before the words social media or omnichannel were even around, and before retail consolidation really took hold. Many observers believe that, while there will be fashion firms that are hugely successful, the Kors phenomenon may now be difficult, if not impossible to replicate — and if a firm does, it’s as likely to be a Web-only phenomenon as it is a designer brand.