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NEW YORK — Lambertson Truex, one of the most sought-after independent luxury accessories firms, is entering the big time.

The world’s biggest luggage maker, Samsonite, has acquired a majority stake in the eight-year-old New York-based company after an almost six-month courtship. The top priority is to open Lambertson Truex stores around the world, as well as expand wholesale distribution.

Company founders Richard Lambertson and John Truex, who each built careers in the fashion industry with stints at firms such as Bergdorf Goodman, Gucci, ck Calvin Klein and Carlos Falchi, are now co-creative directors. They will focus on design and on the look of their yet-to-be-opened stores. The pair had been co-chief executive officers.

“The problem is not where to grow, but where do we start,” Samsonite president and ceo Marcello Bottoli said. “The three of us have a very clear [idea] in mind of what we want to do with the company. We’ve been flirting until now, and now we’re married. But we’re not in the business of trying to do things quick. We want to do it right. When you get a beautiful jewel, you have to stop and decide what to do with it.”

Lambertson Truex is known for its high-end bags and shoes done in rich leathers and exotic skins like alligator and karung. It has been an object of desire for firms seeking to invest in or acquire it.

Financial terms were not disclosed, although in an interview at the firm’s whitewashed showroom and headquarters on West 17th Street here, Bottoli said the relationship between his London-based company and Lambertson Truex is a partnership, not an acquisition. Industry sources estimated Lambertson Truex’s annual sales at $50 million.

The 96-year-old Samsonite has sales of about $2 billion at retail. Licenses, including Lacoste and Timberland, bring in another $1 billion.

With the new partnership, the hunt is already on for a ceo, and the firm is creating its first board of directors, which will include Bottoli, Lambertson, Truex, two Samsonite executives and a ceo. Lambertson Truex president Michele Ateyeh will serve in a consulting role.

Bottoli said the company may launch more than one store in New York, as well as units in major U.S. cities and international stores. Lambertson and Truex are personally working with an unidentified architectural firm to define the concept of the stores. The firm is looking for locations and will open shops as soon as possible.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Lambertson Truex has a robust wholesale business of women’s and men’s handbags, shoes, gloves and small leather goods, with stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s being key distributors of the brand.

The brand will aim for more wholesale saturation in domestic and international markets such as Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Russia. With its own stores and expanded distribution, Lambertson and Truex will try designing additional categories to first test in their own stores and to possibly wholesale to retail outlets.

“Retail is the future of true luxury bags,” Lambertson said. “That’s the place to be a testing ground for new product that we don’t have to depend on our retailers to promote for us. It’s also about the best level of customer service, although our retailers offer very high levels of service.”

Lambertson and Truex are also contemplating advertising, though there are no set plans. The pair will have more time to focus on the aesthetics of the line and the stores. They also will begin to make personal appearances to boost their profiles and to put faces to the company name.

“We’re excited to be focusing on designs, and to dive deeper into traveling and meeting with our clients again, and making new ones,” Truex said. “Our goal [when we started] was to own a luxury brand in America. You have Coach, which is hardly luxury, and Judith Leiber, but in the past 30 years there hasn’t been a luxury handbag brand in America.”

Lambertson Truex has persevered in the handbag market through the extreme embellishment and logo-mania of the past few years with its discreet bags in inventive shapes, lined in azure suede and compartmentalized with multiple pockets for the wearer’s convenience. In 2000, the founders were awarded the America Fashion Award for Accessory Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as well as the Accessories Council Excellence ACE Award for Best New Accessories Designer.

The company’s clutches are a mainstay among Manhattan socialites like Marjorie Raein, as well as celebrities such as Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez and Scarlett Johansson. Retail prices for the brand’s handbags run from $795 to $1,000 for an alligator overnight bag, while shoes range from $275 to $595. Men’s bags and shoes range from $395 to $550. The company also has a made-to-order business through which, starting at $3,500 at retail, a customer can choose any bag silhouette in any color, with their choice of hardware, while their name gets monogrammed inside.

“It’s pretty clear that Lambertson Truex is a good brand and has done a good job without a lot of capital,” said Andrew Jassin, managing director of the Jassin O’Rourke Group, a consulting firm here. “They’re in the travel luxury business, which is limited in that it’s not a fashion business. By [Samsonite] investing in other companies they get those benefits. These partnerships are very valuable to finance the opening of stores, the opening of in-store boutiques and to promote and advertise the brands properly.”

Ron Frasch, vice chairman and chief merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “They brought a great updated classic to our store. We do very much [business] with them and are anxious to find ways to enhance the business. The relationship with Samsonite will be very positive.”

Bloomingdale’s picked up the brand last year for six of its stores for women and five for men, in tandem with its recent push for luxury accessories.

“Lambertson Truex is a wonderful, upscale business,” said Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s. “The business has had strong growth over the past year. We look forward to the growth of this resource as we build our luxury accessory business.”

The brand is also sold in 85 specialty doors worldwide, including Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Mitchell’s of Westport in Connecticut and Ikram in Chicago.

“They’re not boring; they’re classic with an edge,” said Ikram Goldman, owner of Ikram. “They’re always reworking classic pieces into what we’re doing today. It fits into today’s fashion moment.”

Samsonite has been on a roll of late. In 2005, the firm named former Tanner Krolle designer Quentin Mackay as creative director. Last year, Mackay launched the firm’s Black Label line, a premium line of luggage and accessories. The first Samsonite Black Label store opens here next month, while locations in San Francisco and Boston are slated to launch in September. Stores are also planned for Asia and Europe, with a total of 30 stores to open by year’s end. Samsonite has 180 namesake stores in the U.S. and 104 internationally.

This month, Samsonite announced its latest designer collaboration with Alexander McQueen. McQueen will develop a collection of travel bags, luggage and accessories under the Samsonite Black Label brand. Bottoli added that the firm is not actively seeking, but is considering buying into other brands.

Frederick Schmitt, vice president of The Sage Group, an investment banking firm in Los Angeles, said, “[Lambertson Truex is] one of the few accessory brands out there with cachet. It’s tougher on the accessory side to find brands with recognition just in accessories. The fact that they were able to put together a partnership is good for Samsonite, as, although Samsonite is recognized for quality, it’s not a luxury brand — it has a wider appeal.”

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