LONDON — A question mark hangs over the future direction of Aquascutum after chief executive Kim Winser resigned suddenly.
Winser stepped down after her bid to buy the outerwear, ready-to-wear and accessories brand was rebuffed by Aquascutum’s Japanese parent Renown Inc. Her departure was first reported Friday on WWD.com.
According to industry sources, Winser broke the news to the 400 staff members during an emotional meeting at the brand’s Regent Street headquarters, and made her final exit later that day. A source close to Winser said she had no immediate work plans and would be taking a vacation.
A financial source said Winser, who joined Aquascutum in 2006 and who had been working on a management buyout for the past 18 months, had two solid investors behind her, and had expected Renown to accept the deal.
Although Winser never publicly discussed her plans for a management buyout, sources said she was eager to continue building and refining the iconic British brand, which was founded in 1851 and has been through a series of ups and downs since it was acquired by Renown in 1990.
The Japanese company, which has been struggling with losses and is about to undergo a major restructuring, put Aquascutum up for sale last October. Renown is also Aquascutum’s licensee in Japan, and operates about 200 stores in the region.
On Monday, a Renown spokeswoman confirmed Winser’s resignation. “We have no comment on this personnel change, since it’s our foreign subsidiary, and basically we make comments on domestic events,” she said.
She declined to say why the board had rejected Winser’s bid.
However, Takaaki Kawashima, a former chairman of Aquascutum and the former leading shareholder of Renown who left in November, believes the Japanese firm rebuffed Winser for specific strategic reasons. “Renown’s focus is to maintain Aquascutum’s profit base in Japan and Asia. They do not comprehend that the value of the brand, the core, the heritage comes from England,” he told WWD. “They just want to sell as much as they can in China and Japan. It’s a strategy that may work in the short term, but it will never do in the long term.”
The spokeswoman declined to comment on a report in the Sunday Times of London that Renown is in talks to sell Aquascutum to the brand’s Chinese licensee, YGM Trading.
“As for negotiation about selling the brand, we are continuously working on this,” she said. “There is no comment about which company we are talking with or which stage we are on.”
Renown bought Aquascutum because of its strength in the Japanese market, and over the next decade went through a series of on-again, off-again attempts to reenergize the brand, hiring new management, remodeling the Regent Street flagship and tapping new designers.
However, Aquascutum’s growth remained focused on the Far East, and the attempts to revitalize the company were ill-fated until it brought Winser on board in 2006. She had previously transformed Pringle from a producer of dowdy golf and knit wear into a luxury company.
For the fiscal year ended Feb. 28, Renown reported net losses of 12.3 billion yen, or $121.9 million. Renown’s shareholders plan to meet this Thursday to approve the appointment of a new president, Minoru Kitabatakem, who is expected to spearhead the firm’s restructuring plan.
Winser, who declined to comment Friday, joined Aquascutum with the aim of transforming it from a fusty maker of trenchcoats and outerwear into a luxury brand, and restoring its image in the West — much as Rose Marie Bravo had done at Burberry. She signed a series of licenses for footwear, ties, scarves and accessories and worked with designers Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler to update the brand’s collections. Last month, Winser said Aquascutum’s sales rose 20 percent in the first quarter, and that fall 2009 wholesale sales in Europe are up 60 percent year-on-year. She also confirmed the brand is on track to generate sales of 450 million pounds, or $697.5 million at current exchange, by 2010.
Aquascutum’s wholesale accounts in the U.S. include Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s. In Britain, the company is expanding its space at Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty and Harvey Nichols. “She has both nurtured and protected the brand throughout these difficult economic times, and during her recent negotiations and attempts to do an mbo she has come across grave challenges in Japan — both culturally and financially — from the board,” Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods, said of Winser.