LONDON — Stone, bronze and iron: Those eras have come and gone. Now a new age of leather is dawning with the big luxury brands sharpening their strategies in the soft accessories arena.
Luxury brands have always loved leather, but the big names are taking their relationship to a new level, investing in manufacturing, building up their offers and exploiting distribution opportunities worldwide for handbags, small accessories and gifts in particular.
Compagnie Financière Richemont is the latest group to make the push. “We see significant potential in leather goods,” said chief financial officer Burkhart Grund during the company’s 2017-18 results presentation on Friday, adding that Richemont’s plan is to grow its leather business organically through its existing brands, rather than rely on acquisitions.
“There are not many targets out there, so acquisitions are not a priority [right now],” he said.
Last summer, Richemont purchased Serapian, the high-end Italian leather goods brand, and has been using its factories to scale up production and develop expertise across the group. Grund said Richemont’s overarching strategy is to develop “creative and well-priced products” that speak to consumers’ needs.
Richemont’s leather goods decree came just 48 hours after Burberry’s chief executive officer Marco Gobbetti described his company as “very ambitious” in the leather accessories category, and said the brand’s new Belt bag was performing well. He said there’s an opportunity for Burberry to play in the price bracket of 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, which is slightly lower than where Dior, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermès and Céline are positioned.
Last week, Burberry said it had purchased its longtime Italian leather goods manufacturer in a bid to exert more control over its accessories offer, and work closer with the artisans making its bags and leather accessories.
A month ago, Gucci unveiled a Tuscan factory called ArtLab, its biggest-ever industrial investment. Dedicated to leather goods and shoes, which account for 70 percent of the brand’s sales, ceo Marco Bizzarri described the factory as unrivaled in the world.
Hermès International and Louis Vuitton also have both opened — or revealed plans to open — more factories for their own leather goods.
The power and potential of leather goods was a recurring note at Richemont’s results presentation, where the company reported a sales uptick of 3.1 percent to 10.98 billion euros, and a modest increase in net profit to 1.22 billion euros, due partly to higher taxes and extraordinary items.
At constant exchange rates, sales were up 8 percent in fiscal 2017-18. Stripping out the impact of 203 million euros in watch buybacks, sales rose 7 percent at constant exchange rates. Operating profit climbed 4.5 percent to 1.84 billion euros.
Grund said the plan is to scale up leather goods at Montblanc and continue to build Chloé’s offer under designer Natacha Ramsay-Levi. Cartier, which was famous for its leather goods decades ago, has potential once again in the sector, as do the other brands such as Dunhill and Maison Alaïa, which continues to operate following the death of its founder.
Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas, said leather goods — and handbags in particular — is a very attractive category. If the products are successful, brands can materially increase their sales.
“The problem is that it is easier for couture brands to expand into leather goods [think Chanel, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Dior] than for brands with an equity ‘root’ elsewhere,” Solca said. “The difficulties of footwear brands are well known: Tod’s, Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, etc. None of them has really succeeded [in handbags].”
“In the case of Cartier, this is an opportunity to introduce lower-priced products, especially in small leather goods. This is handy, as Cartier has little to allow middle-class consumers to get into the brand, and it was indeed successful in leather goods in the past,” Solca added.
Driving home the importance of soft luxury, Richemont confirmed Friday that Eric Vallat has been appointed to the newly created role of head of the group’s fashion and accessories maisons. He will join the Richemont’s senior executive committee, effective June 1. Vallat will report to Jérôme Lambert, chief operating officer.
Vallat has worked for Louis Vuitton Europe, Christian Dior Couture Japan, Bonpoint and J.M. Weston. Since 2014, he has been ceo of Rémy Martin.
Richemont principals didn’t offer up any more details about Lancel, aside from reconfirming that the company is still in talks with the Italian firm Piquadro about selling the French accessories brand. Lancel, which has always struggled for success in the Swiss giant’s stable, has a different market positioning from Richemont’s other fashion and soft luxury brands.
Johann Rupert, Richemont’s chairman, founder and shareholder of reference, said in a statement earlier in the day that an improved macroeconomic environment, steady progress on the company’s transformation agenda and a mixed currency environment marked the year under review.
At constant rates, retail sales were up 14 percent, while Asia-Pacific saw a 17 percent uptick in sales. Richemont’s main markets — China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Macau — performed strongly, with the region as a whole accounting for 40 percent of group sales in the 12 months.
Sales in Europe were down 2 percent at constant rates, impacted by the strength of the euro, inventory buy-backs and tight stock control, while the Americas and Japan saw a rise of 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
Jewelry sales rose 9 percent, while specialist watch sales were down 6 percent. Rupert said Richemont’s specialist watchmakers, which include brands such as IWC and Panerai, continued to focus on optimizing their distribution networks and adapting their structures accordingly.
He added that Richemont’s approach to the gray market remains “uncompromising. Over the period, we implemented further inventory buybacks and strengthened the approach to managing sell-in versus sell-out at our multi-brand retail partners.”
During the presentation, principals also talked about Richemont’s impending takeover of Yoox Net-a-porter Group — and the rationale behind it. It has acquired more than 95 percent of the shares and plans to delist the company from the Milan Bourse in June.
Grund said owning YNAP will help expose Richemont to the “soft luxury” side of the business — fashion and accessories — and also allow it to “leapfrog” into the realm of e-commerce. Richemont, like other luxury groups, had long been reluctant to embrace digital selling for fear of losing its perception of exclusivity and tight-fisted control over distribution.
Owning YNAP outright, Grund said, “will mean a quick advance into digital. We are strong in retail, and YNAP will be an asset in the digital field.”
Taking a question about who might replace Jean-Jacques Van Oosten, who stepped down as chief technology officer earlier this month for personal reasons, Grund said the decision about a successor would now be made with YNAP in mind.
“We’ll be looking at YNAP after the summer on a more detailed level and decide how to structure the technology setup,” he said.
Richemont also discussed its new watch brand, Baume, which is made from sustainable materials. It is the luxury giant’s first from-scratch watch creation; Richemont has acquired all of its other watch brands.
Baume has a customizable element with prices starting at $560 and stretching to $630. Its iconic series starts at $1,100 retail.
“We’re happy to see the birth of a new maison,” Lambert said. “We want to continue to recruit new clients to the luxury watch segment, and we see this as fine watchmaking for a younger generation, for clients who are into digital and into personalization.”