LONDON — Robert Bensoussan is aiming to transform L.K. Bennett, the premium British ready-to-wear and accessories line worn by customers as diverse as Kate Moss and the Duchess of Cornwall, into an international success — much like he did with Jimmy Choo.
Last year, Bensoussan’s Sirius Equity and Phoenix Equity Partners purchased the 20-year-old brand and retailer from its founder, Linda Bennett, for an estimated 75 million pounds, or $124 million at current exchange.
Since then, Bensoussan has been building a new management team and planting what he hopes are the seeds of transformation from a conservative high street brand known for its basic wardrobe pieces into a design-driven international label with a luxury twist.
He’s drafted Margaret McDonald, the former Gap Inc. executive who launched Banana Republic in Europe, as chief executive officer, and Annick Gorman, former fashion director at Celine who has held creative posts at Cacharel and Galeries Lafayette, as the creative director.
Bensoussan, whose title is executive chairman, has revamped the design, sourcing and merchandising teams, and recruited Jimmy Choo veterans Alison Egan and Tara ffrench-Mullen, as, respectively, chief financial officer and head of operations, and communications director.
“Linda left us a company that still makes a lot of money, but there is opportunity to grow. Right now, 98 percent of revenue comes from the southeast of England,” said Bensoussan.
Annual sales are 65 million pounds, or $107 million, split evenly between clothing and accessories, and about 60 percent of the rtw business comes from dresses.
L.K. Bennett has 51 wholly owned stores as well as concessions in department stores such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Fenwick, for a total of 104 units overall. Bennett herself still owns just under 30 percent of the business, and is a member of the board.
“Our plan is to upgrade every part of the business — and put value back into the product,” said Bensoussan, who’s tapped Tiziano Vudafieri, architect of the Jimmy Choo stores who also has worked with brands including Gianfranco Ferré, Tod’s, Hogan and Sonia Rykiel, to redesign the stores. The first new concept store will open on King’s Road in London in November. The mood is “refined glamour,” according to the company. The color scheme is a soft powder pink, and the stores feature woolen rugs, midcentury-modern Swedish sofas and glass chandeliers.
The average new store size is 2,000 square feet, and the design features separate areas for clothing and footwear. The first ad campaign under new management has been shot by Horst Diekgerdes, whose work has appeared in Dazed & Confused, Numero and H&M Magazine.The company’s Web site will be relaunched in mid-January with the spring collection.
Prices range from 140 pounds, or $230, to 160 pounds, or $264, for shoes; 180 pounds, or $297, to 200 pounds, or $328, for a dress, and 250 pounds, or $413, to 350 pounds, or $578, for a coat.
McDonald said the goal is for L.K. Bennett to play in the same arena as brands such as Max Mara and Joseph. She wants to make the product “less basic and more design driven,” and give customers the chance to buy a broad range of day, evening and occasion wear.
There are also plans afoot, she said, for a second, higher-priced line, although she declined to give details.
L.K. Bennett has never had a wholesale business, and Bensoussan said he plans to change that, as well. He has his eye on the U.S. market, which he believes is the right place to take the brand. “We love America. Our biggest VAT [value-added tax] returns by far are from the U.S. customers. The U.S. is definitely part of our plan,” he said.
Bensoussan, an industry veteran who has worked with companies including Christian Lacroix, Gianfranco Ferré, Burberry and Joseph, oversaw the successful international retail rollout of Jimmy Choo, among other strategies. By the time he left his post as ceo in 2007, that company’s sales were 85 million pounds, or $167.5 million, and the brand had nearly 80 stand-alone stores. He remains a shareholder and board member of Jimmy Choo.
For L.K. Bennett, Europe likely will be the first port of call — it already has a store in Paris on the Rue de Grenelle — followed by Asia and the U.S. International expansion will begin in the fall of next year, and Bensoussan said he’s considering franchise agreements for stand-alone stores as well as wholesaling to department stores.
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