PARIS — Employees of Vivarte staged a protest in front of the French economy ministry on Thursday to highlight the threat of widespread layoffs at the distressed French fashion group.
Vivarte’s new chief executive officer Patrick Puy has said he will close 97 shoe emporiums under the group’s La Halle aux Chaussures banner, combining them with apparel store La Halle, and put three brands up for sale.
The Kookaï, Chevignon and Pataugas apparel brands are on the block as the group struggles to pay back about 1.5 billion euros, or $1.59 billion at current exchange, in debt to four investment funds: Oaktree, Alcentra, Babson and GLG Partners.
Vivarte has already seen the number of brands in its portfolio drop from more than 20 to 14 since a leveraged buyout that put the funds in place as both the group’s creditors and controlling shareholders.
Fears that the group could be all but dismantled under Puy’s leadership intensified on Wednesday when French radio station Europe1 reported that the group was planning to sell another brand, the high-street shoemaker André.
“André is not for sale. This information is false,” a spokesperson for Vivarte told WWD. But union representatives continued to express their concern for the group’s future.
“We really don’t know which brands will be sold, closed or turned around,” said Christophe Martin, a representative for constituents of the CGT labor union at Vivarte who was present at the rally.
“They are too hungry,” Martin said of the lending shareholders, whom he said should be less concerned with paying themselves back and more focused on the future of the brands. “We need the company to put some money in stores so we can get our heads out of the water.”
“Shareholding parasites,” read one banner being carried by other members of the CGT union.
“For years now there has been no investment in stores, no support,” said Dominique Guilmain, a representative of the FO union who has managed a La Halle aux Chaussures shoe store in the southern town of Gaillac for 23 years. Guilmain said the company has both raised prices on shoes and pressured managers to keep less staff on hand since the buyout.
“We were priced at 30 to 40 percent higher than our competition at one point,” said Guilmain, adding that the store had lost customers by the time the price hikes were reversed. “And at the same time the service to clientele has gone down. Sometimes we only have one person running the store.”
Vivarte reported sales of 2.4 billion euros, or $2.54 billion, in its fiscal year 2015 — an estimated 11 percent drop versus the previous year. The company did not immediately respond to a request for more recent figures.
Vivarte’s board of directors ousted its last ceo, Stéphane Maquaire, in October after just six months on the job, and his replacement by turnaround expert Puy has put in question the company’s five-year recovery plan, which in its latest draft included a commitment to spend 500 million euros, or $530 million, on modernizing stores and systems. Puy is expected to present an updated recovery plan for the group in late January.
Inside the economy ministry, union representatives met with members of the cabinet of French industry secretary Christophe Sirugue.
“This gathering is intended to warn the authorities…of the danger of the massive layoff plan, which the ceo Patrick Puy and shareholders are getting ready to present in January,” the unions said in a joint statement before the meeting. “Unions will present their analysis of the Vivarte group, their demands for the immediate future, and the means they are planning to mobilize to defend their point of view.”
Vivarte is renegotiating its debts to the shareholding investment funds, on which it pays interest of 11 percent annually.
The group laid off 1,481 employees at its various chains in 2015. With an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent and presidential elections coming up in late April, the French government could face pressure to intervene by forgiving debt for the company, which employs around 17,000 people.
Jean-Louis Alfred, a representative for the CFDT union, said 51 percent of Vivarte’s staff are part time, and 80 percent are women. “This is already a precarious population,” he said. “You look at the silence of the political class, and you want to know where populism is coming from?”
Unions have not been the only ones to criticize the company’s current approach. Former ceo Marc Lelandais, who headed the company from 2012 to 2014, took to LinkedIn in November to call Vivarte’s board a group of “vultures of finance incapable of carrying out a real project.”
“Ten years without the investments necessary to stay in the race of globalized retail….Companies are being held hostage by a failed lbo [leveraged buyout] and strangled by debt repayments and interest,” Lelandais wrote on his feed. “Nothing is being done for 17,000 workers of whom 80 percent are women. Dozens of brand ceo’s and five groups zapped. What are the politicians doing?”