HONG KONG — Private equity firm L Catterton Asia, leading a consortium of investors including Groupe Arnault, has taken a stake in Gentle Monster, the quirky eyewear brand from South Korea.
With the investment, L Catterton Asia becomes the second-largest shareholder after the brand’s founders and kick-starts a strategy to grow the company into a billion-dollar business over the next six to eight years, up from the nearly $200 million it does now.
“I believe that across Asia there are only about six to eight brands that can achieve this level of notoriety, with a unique image, that’s differentiated among lifestyle brands,” said Ravi Thakran, L Catterton Asia’s chairman and managing partner.
“Over the last decade, first starting in Japan, then in South Korea, Taiwan and China markets, companies have made an effort to create brands with a unique character. For example, you see that in whisky with Yamazaki and Hibiki, in chocolate with Royce’, SK-II in beauty and Shiseido, but there are only a few. And when it comes to lifestyle and consumer goods or accessories there are even fewer. Gentle Monster is ripe for that,” he added.
Gentle Monster was founded in 2011 by Jay Oh and Hankook Kim and is known for its “weird beauty” and unusual retail stores. Each store is a highly unique concept and provides an experience that’s been likened to visiting an art gallery.
Previous brand collaborations include link-ups with Hood by Air, Henrik Vibskov and Opening Ceremony, and the actress Tilda Swinton.
“It stands for something unique, this real beauty,” Thakran said. “Beauty with a quirk, beauty with a twist. Second, the brand says I will present my product in the highest-quality fashion. Every store has a ‘wow’ factor. It may look like a bedroom, or look like a perfume store, or a store that looks like a very exquisite bar. It has the phenomenal ‘wow’ factor.”
Currently Gentle Monster counts 160 points of sale in 19 countries, including six overseas flagships in New York, Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hong Kong. A flagship is opening in the ION mall in Singapore this month.
The brand operates wholesale accounts but Thakran emphasized it is always directly controlled.
The South Korean market forms the company’s largest customer base, followed by China. Thakran said it would evolve quickly into a global brand establishing a footprint in all major cities including London, Los Angeles, Dubai and more.
“We are looking at 25 percent CAGR on this company and we believe it’s going to maintain that momentum,” he added. “We can grow much faster but we want to control it.”
In the next 18 months, they are likely to explore new product categories, he said. L Catterton’s 2014 investment into leading South Korean agency YG Entertainment also makes a great partner for Gentle Monster.
“YG is the leading name in the sector, [representing] G-Dragon, Psy,” Thakran said. “It’s the number-one modeling agency, it’s the number-one television drama producer. Each of those arenas is a gateway. The founders of those two companies [YG and Gentle Monster] are good friends and they both have great respect for each other. Even before we completed our investment they already had been in talks with the South Korean stars of YG.”
Although South Korea is experiencing considerable geopolitical turmoil — with the head of large conglomerates like Lotte under investigation for corruption, the chief executive officer of Samsung sentenced to prison for bribery and the THAAD fallout with China leading to lowered tourist flows — Thakran said it was not a big worry for them.
“That is much more about the mass and large-scale tourism play, where we are not affected,” he said. China continues to account for a substantial part of the business, he said, but Gentle Monster’s global growth ambitions are not overly dependent on it.