An optimist will look at COVID 19 as a opportunity. From the current crisis in fashion and retail will come the chance to snap up valuable brands at distressed prices. But, what makes a brand truly valuable?
Left - 1950s Teddy Boy in his classic Crombie coat
It usually starts with the name and whether it has any longevity, goodwill or future.
If that name has entered everyday lexicon then it is a very rare and valuable asset indeed. Joining the likes of Sellotape and Hoover, it rarely happens in fashion when a brand becomes the generic term, but Crombie is one such brand.
Meaning a formally tailored, three-quarters length covert coat with a contrasting velvet collar, the Crombie coat had recently become associated with the likes of Nigel Farage and Del Boy and a kind of dated city boy look.
J&J Crombie Ltd. was founded by John Crombie and his son James in Aberdeen in 1805, making it one of Britain's oldest brands. Starting as a fabric manufacturer, Crombie moved into making coats to supply armies in America and the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Crombie lists Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy as distinguished wearers. From 1995 to 2004, Crombie also held the Royal Warrant as a supplier to the Prince of Wales.
A modern classic, a Crombie coat was retailing for around £900, but that is now on hold.
The brand’s home page currently reads, “In light of current world events, we have now fully suspended our retail, wholesale and supporting administrative operations until further notice. We will continue to monitor the global situation and hope to resume operations in the fullness of time. We’d like to thank our many clients for their custom and patronage and wish everyone a safe and healthy summer.”
Right - 1980s Car Dealer Arthur Daley in his Crombie
The brand has been up for sale for a while. It was formally announced in March 2020, when owner, Alan Lewis, 82, through his investment company, Hartley Investment Trust, told Drapers, “We are willing to divest non-core assets such as Crombie, which we believe would be of particular interest to a focused fashion business with the infrastructure to efficiently scale up this brand internationally, or to a retail chain looking to bolster its portfolio of unique intellectual properties.
“Crombie’s worldwide trademarks allow for expansion and diversification into a wide range of product categories, including cosmetics and accessories.”
Crombie has one store located at 48 Conduit Street in London which it sold in Nov. 2019 to a private Chinese buyer for £9.9 million with the intention of Hartley Investment Trust still occupying the building. Crombie’s turnover to the year ending March 2019 was £523,000, with a loss before tax of nearly £300,000, this was an improvement on 2018 when it was nearly £400,000 on a turnover of £430,000.
Hartley Investment Trust has interests in banking, property, energy, leisure and retail. Lancashire-born Alan J Lewis, CBE, a former Conservative Party Vice-Chairman told the Yorkshire Post in 2012, “I came here (Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire) and took over Illingworth Morris which was a public company, which was in trouble and owed the banks about £50m with 6,000 people employed and I turned it around from a substantial loss to a substantial profit and shares went from 13p to 186p.
“We concentrated on ensuring that we invested in the high margin business, low volume, rather than high volume, low margin business, so really concentrating on the quality end and the creative end of the business, and that made an awful lot of money.”
In the 1980s, the group was one of the world’s biggest wool textiles manufacturers handling almost half the wool imported into the UK. The Illingworth Morris group included up-market knitwear maker Hawico, worsted spinning operations Daniel Illingworth, suiting makers Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, chemical business Westbrook Lanolin, Woolcombers, Winterbotham Strachan & Playne (the world’s leading supplier of cloth for tennis balls and billiards tables), and Crombie.
Left - Three out of the four Beatles are wearing Tommy Nutter suits on the Abbey Road cover
Mr Lewis took the company private, making vast profits and a net lender to the money market – heralding the formation of Hartley’s investment banking division, Hartley Investment Trust, in 1983.
Hartley divested many of the brands with the implosion of the UK’s textile industry, turning many of the old textile mills into residential property and business centres, but retained the ownership of Crombie.
Another important brand Lewis owns is the iconic tailor, Tommy Nutter. In 2014, after a four year high court battle, Lewis agreed to buy the rights to ‘Nutters of Savile Row’ which left him free to use the Tommy Nutter brand.
The year before, David Mason's 'Nutters Holdings' won the right from the UK's Intellectual Property Office for the Tommy Nutter trademark to be revoked from J&J Crombie due to non-use. Mr Lewis was ordered to pay costs of more than £3,000. However, he appealed against the decision, arguing that he had kept the name in use. A spokesman for Mr Lewis said at the time, "Crombie owns the Tommy Nutter brand, and every season a range of Tommy Nutter branded clothing is available in Crombie stores in the UK."
Previously, Mr Lewis had been in talks to sell ‘Tommy Nutter’, a brand he had started with Tommy Nutter in the early 1980s when he had parted ways with business partner Edward Sexton and ‘Nutters of Savile Row’, to a subsidiary of Fung Capital - the private investment arm of the billionaire Fung family of Hong Kong. The deal never materialised.
Tommy Nutter produced a variety of legendary designs under his own name - including Jack Nicholson's Joker costumes for the 1989 Batman movie - while Crombie supplied him with the cloth. He died in 1992.
What we have here, if sold together, are two of Britain’s greatest sleeping menswear brands. One traditional, loaded in history, the other, a pioneer and icon of tailored fashion, but both heaving in icons from statesman to superstars. Confucius once said, “The gem cannot be polished without friction” and, while it would take substantial investment to bring these menswear two brands back, they have a natural sparkle and value most brands don't.
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It was while watching the Alexander McQueen documentary at the beginning of the summer - Read TheChicGeek Review here - when I wondered where the subsequent crop of young designer brands were.
The British based designers who were the generation after McQueen and showed so much promise - Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katranzhou, J.W. Anderson etc. - and despite some investment, just haven’t been able to scale up their brands in the same way McQueen and Stella McCartney were able to.
Left - Christopher Kane's only permanent store on London's Mount Street
I realised that this was a signifier of how the luxury market has changed and the days of nurturing fledgling brands into ‘Mega Brands’ are over. It illustrates the saturation in the market and it’s all about making big brands even bigger, today. “If you’re not going to be a billion dollar brand, then it’s probably not worth our time", is the new attitude. It probably explains the reason why Michael Kors recently bought Versace. Read more ChicGeek Comment here
David Watts, Founder, Watts What Magazine, says, “I suspect that this is more to do with the parent company realising that these businesses are not scaleable - or to the extent of other portfolio brands and cutting their losses.”
“In the current very challenging retail market and designer wholesale model not being as robust as it used to be, brands need to shore up cash and also give themselves a buffer,” says Watts.
“For the larger groups though, bigger really is better,” says Sandra Halliday, Editor-in-chief (UK), Fashionnetwork.com. “When they take on a brand, they want it to have billion dollar potential, or at least to occupy a strong niche that will guarantee high profit margins. The stakes these days are too high to do anything else,” she says.
When the Gucci Group invested in McQueen, Stella McCartney, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga in 2001, it signalled the moment the luxury fashion industry was in full expansion mode and opening stores all over the globe. Following that, there was a raft of investment in the generation after, with Kering - formally Gucci Group - investing in Christopher Kane in 2013 and LVMH investing in Nicholas Kirkwood and J.W. Anderson in the same year. Everybody was billed “as the next…” but it just hasn’t materialised. Well, not in consumers’ heads anyway.
Now, brands are going into reverse; fashion’s answer to “Conscious Uncoupling”. Stella McCartney just bought back the 50 per cent she didn’t own from Kering and rumour has it, Christopher Kane, is in talks to buy back the 51 percent stake from the French group after a 5-year partnership.
Right - J.W. Anderson single store in East London
Halliday says, “I think in Stella McCartney’s case there was a genuine desire to run her own show and given the strength of her brand, that’s understandable.”
“For Christopher Kane it’s probably more about Kering focusing its resources and its time on its big winners, and that makes sense with Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga doing so well and Bottega Veneta needing lots of TLC,” she says.
“It give them a certain freedom and with the knowledge and experience learned (hopefully) as being part of a large group that they know how to be more careful with finances and astute with merchandising and keeping overheads down,” says Watts.
“Staying small, focussed and niche with a direct to consumer model could work for some brands, but it’s also very tough to make serious money at that scale,” says Watts. “Of course, there are possibly different and extenuating circumstances for why these brands find themselves in their current predicament. What does it tell you that LVMH and Kering cannot make Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, Edun and Tomas Maier work…..gonna be tough for them as independents however the chips may fall,” he says.
Announced this year, LVMH has severed ties with Edun, Bono’s ethical fashion brand, and Kering has closed Tomas Maier, previously the Creative Director at their other brand, Bottega Veneta. These brands will have to regress back to start-up mode and think small again if they are to survive.
“In many ways, the future prospects of small designers hoping to break into the big time are quite depressing as the barriers to doing that are very high.” says Halliday. “But, on another level, the internet offers opportunities that didn’t exist just 20 years ago. The combination of a well-run e-store and a physical flagship can actually be a very cost-effective way of reaching the maximum number of consumers.” she says.
“Even if smaller labels can build profitable businesses, the chances are that the end result will be a hoped-for takeover by a bigger group, or by private equity investors, as that’s the kind of investment that’s really needed to make the transition into bona fide big-name brand,” says Halliday. “And all of that doesn’t even factor in what might happen if the luxury boom runs out of steam at any point,” she says.
Those brands fitting somewhere between these smaller designers and the giant groups are making their play for their futures too. Versace has already taken shelter in a bigger American group and other Italian family brands are sensing this shift and deciding on which side of the billion dollar divide they aspire to be on. Missoni opened its ownership up to Italian state-backed investment fund FSI for a cash injection of €70 million, in exchange for a 41.5 percent stake and rumours continually circle around Ferragamo suggesting they are looking for investment or a new owner.
Belgian designer, Dries Van Noten, recently sold a majority stake in his eponymous fashion brand to Spanish cosmetics group Puig.
“Dries Van Noten is 60 and after 30 years if he keeps creative control and remains chairman of his brand, then cashing in a huge stake gives him financial security, and also Puig brings cosmetics, beauty and fragrance know-how,” says Watts. “It could be huge for a brand such as Dries Van Noten - it’s a win win for him on paper.”
“Most people who are outside of the fashion (production) industry really have no idea both how complicated it as and how hard it is to make money,” says Watts. “Fashion wholesale is broken and fashion retail is in freefall,” he says.
Disappointingly, the focus has moved away from talent to bankability. Young designers who were previously given a leg-up with investment look too high a risk and expensive for today’s investors. It seems that only those brands breaking that billon dollar turnover ceiling are worth focussing on. You can increase profit margins by making less, but in larger volumes and become a more dominant force. It is more of a risk having fewer brands, but you can win bigger and Kering is clearly taking pole position right now.
Read more ChicGeek Comments - here