As American as apple pie and semi-automatic weapons, denim has been somewhat side-lined, in fashion terms, over the past couple of years. In the style doldrums, denim was once the unassailable casual-wear category. 'Skinny', 'Spray On', 'Muscle Fit' or 'Ballet Fit', (I just made the last one up) are firmly out and the fugly Dad/Mum jean is a confusing ‘fashion’ concept to the average punter. Denim doesn’t quite know where it is right now.
Left - A timeless American denim image
So, it is timely that Levi Strauss & Co. launched their public offering onto the New York Stock Exchange, last week. They must know something we don’t.
The 166-year-old company first went public in 1971, but has been private for the last 34 years. The trading price of over $22 per share was well above projections and means the brand has a gross value of $8.7 billion. Before the sale, a figure of $17 per share was estimated.
“I’d say the fact the stock opened so much above the price we listed at suggests a certain amount of confidence in the company, confidence in the business results and confidence in the sustainability of our business,” Chip Bergh, chief executive, told the Financial Times.
Levi’s is the American denim original, and, like all original brands, it has considerable value. It also has huge potential. On its annual revenues of $5.6 billion, in 2018, a year-on-year growth of 14%, just 3% of it came from China. Even in a denim downturn, Levi’s made a profit of $542 million in 2018, (Adjusted EBIT). When the denim market does start to power away again, Levi’s is in one of the strongest positions to reap the benefits, being priced well below designer brands, but above the fast-fashion players.
For the rest of the denim market, it has been a struggle. Over the last 10 years, global jeans sales have climbed at a 3.5% compounded annual growth rate, slower than the entire apparel category, according to the analyst company, Bernstein. Leggings and tracksuits have replaced jeans in people’s wardrobe. Traditional denim just isn’t cool ATM.
In London, department store, Harvey Nichols, announced, last year, that its “Denim Room” would sell other non-denim products such as shirts and more casual clothing items. Once the cow-cash of the department store, the denim room is on the wane, like the category itself.
Last year, the huge American VF (Vanity Fair) Corp. was looking to sell their huge Wrangler and Lee jeanswear brands. They had previously sold premium jeans brand Seven For All Mankind in 2016. But, with no takers, VF Corp. is to spin off its jeanswear business, which includes Wrangler, Lee and Rock & Republic, into a new public company called Kontoor Brands in the first half of 2019. Kontoor Brands will remain in North Carolina, while VF will move the sports apparel and footwear businesses, including The North Face, Timberland and Vans, to its new corporate headquarters to Denver, Colorado.
Right - With skinny jeans gone, the denim industry needs a new trend/style to get consumers excited again. Not sure this style will fill denim manufacturers with much excitement for selling for those extra metres of fabric...
North Carolina was once the heartland of American denim production. Cone Mills White Oak Plant, the last selvedge denim mill in the United States, closed permanently on December 31, 2017. After 112 years in business, International Textile Group, Cone’s parent company, cited the reason as, “Changes in market demand have significantly reduced order volume at the facility as customers have transitioned more of their fabric sourcing outside the U.S.” The switch to cheaper, foreign made denim made this American denim factory unviable. It probably didn’t help that denim’s share of the apparel market and sales were declining. At one point, it was the largest mill in the world and is noteworthy for the “Golden Handshake” deal struck with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1915 to be the exclusive manufacturer of the XX denim used in the brand’s 501 jeans.
It’s not just American jeans brands that are struggling. This month, Diesel USA Inc., the American arm of the Italian Diesel brand filed for bankruptcy in Delaware. They blamed plummeting sales, a botched turnaround, pricey leases and unwavering landlords plus several instances of cyber fraud and theft. The Chapter 11 petition estimates up to $100 million in assets and as much as $50 million in debt. Diesel USA has 380 employees and 28 retail stores. It doesn’t plan to close, it wants a clean sheet in order to open new stores and refit some old ones. “Prior management began employing a real estate strategy that involved substantial investments in its retail stores,” Chief Restructuring Officer Mark Samson said in a court declaration. In an effort to put stores in “premium” locations, it entered into pricey leases, for example, its flagship on Madison Avenue in New York, just as its sales “dropped precipitously,” he said.
Left - US Jeans Sales are starting to see an uptick
On a positive note, it appears that the denim slide has bottomed out and sales are seeing a slight uptick. According to Euromonitor International, American jeans sales, saw a year-on-year 2.2% growth to over $16.5 billion in 2018.
Denim needs Americans and the rest of the world to fall back in love with their jeans. It also needs a style that resonates with consumers and gives them a reason to buy a new pair. Fashion will play its part by offering new styles and ways to incorporate this most American of fabrics. It’s just a case of seeing which options resonate most with consumers. Denim's return is not a case of if, it’s when.
As luxury online marketplace, Farfetch, debuts on the New York Stock Exchange, I ask, is it a worthy investment?
This isn’t particularly scientific, but, recently, I was looking for a particular AW18 Dries Van Noten jacket I’d seen, in store, in Selfridges. It wasn’t on their website, so I tried Mr Porter. Nothing. So, then I thought I’d search FarFetch. With over 600 boutiques said to be affiliated to their network, and 375 luxury brands, you’d expect a decent selection to come up. Nothing again.
Left - Is Farfetch high on the list of your luxury searches?
Dries Van Noten isn’t the most ubiquitous of fashion brands, but without a large network of own brand shops, it is usually sold wholesale to designer boutiques and is found in the majority of luxury department stores. It’s big enough. It felt strange nothing was on Farfetch. This isn’t the first time this has happened and the reason why it wasn’t my first place to search.
Farfetch just had its valuation lifted and is set to be valued at between $4.9bn and $5.5bn in its initial public offering in response to investor interest in technology stocks. The shares have a price range of $17 to $19, according to an updated regulatory filing published this week. The original range was $15 to $17.
Joseph Wong, an investor in luxury fashion stocks such as Burberry, ASOS, Bvlgari and Mulberry, says “Farfetch assimilates some of the best independent boutiques into a common platform. What’s valuable is the technology and the list of stores they represent. For that diehard enthusiast, he/she can do a quick search for that elusive Off-White piece or vintage Chanel piece, with a click to buy option.”
The majority of IPOs are often overpriced. They are filled with hot air to give healthy profits to the founders and early investors. Not to mention the fees to the money men to maximise the price and get the listing on its way. Farfetch, established in 2007, is being marketed as more of a tech company, where the prices are higher, rather than a retail marketplace model which takes a percentage from each transaction sold through its website.
The most recent Farfetch results show revenues of $267.5m in the six months to June 30, 2018, and losses before tax of $68.4m. Farfetch had total revenues of $910 million last year.
To put this in the context of the market, Yoox Net-a-Porter (YNAP), which was acquired by luxury conglomerate Richemont recently, valuing the business at €5.3 billion, and matchesfashion.com was sold to private equity firm Apax for over $1 billion last September. In the 12 months ending Dec. 31, YNAP saw year-end preliminary sales reach 2.1 billion euros ($2.5 billion). Matchesfashion.com recorded group revenue of £293 million ($393 million) to 31st Jan 2018.
“From our research of the luxury fashion market, FarFetch led in terms of traffic capture between 2015 and 2017, and maintains a good reputation. It has a sound business model, good commercials and no flagged operational or customer issues.” says Fleur Hicks, Managing Director of onefourzero, a data analytics and digital research agency based in London.
“It is an ambitious listing price, but in the context of the growing luxury fashion market, this could see returns within the next months and years, depending on how ambitious your investment strategy.” she says.
The global fashion industry is, according to a 2017 McKinsey report, valued at $2.4 trillion. If it were ranked, alongside individual countries’ GDP, it would represent the world’s second largest economy. From 2014 to 2018, the luxury fashion industry was expected to grow from 3% to 17% of the total fashion market. Annual online sales growth was expected to be 17% in the US, 18% in the UK, 12% in Germany and a whopping 70% in China, according to the report.
“It’s a good business model within a growing marketplace.” says Hicks. “The return risks of minimised stock and holding outlays look to outweigh the risks associated with reliance upon 3rd party operations, such as delivery. It averages a 30% mark up and thus a 50-odd% margin on operations. Incredible for the fashion industry. Also, the growth rate - 60% this year - is impressive.” she says.
Right - Is the value in Farfetch in its tech?
“Of the competitor set we analysed, Farfetch represented 3.8% of the captured online traffic market, representing the market lead. This competitor set only represented 17% of the potential traffic available (based on digital demand and traffic) and therefore the headroom for brand and revenue growth is huge.” says Hicks.
Farfetch’s future growth is potentially going to come from its ‘White Label’ service supporting brands such as Manolo Blahnik, Christopher Kane, DKNY and Thom Browne in their e-commerce offerings.
Farfetch have announced many strategic partnerships recently to further enhance the value of the company. These include Chanel, Chalhoub Group, one of the biggest distributors of fashion and luxury goods in the Middle East and the modesty luxury retailer, The Modist. They have also partnered with brands such as Harvey Nichols and Burberry. This is spreading their risk and also leveraging their technical expertise. It’s what Ocado has done in food.
Wong says, “You also need to consider what they will be using the cash raised from the flotation for. When Prada was listed, it was to relieve the billion Euro debt, open more stores and provide an exit plan for the founders.”
Farfetch are investing heavily in technology and this does explain some of the losses. They hope they will be able to charge other brands handsomely for this and the ever important 'big data'.
Are there any potential waves on the horizon? “Digital commercial disruptors are most likely to threaten large behemoths like Farfetch.” says Hicks. “This would most likely come from Amazon or AliExpress fashion lines and/or new ways to purchase fashion in a more interactive way. It’s unlikely that this will be a quick transition, so if FarFetch remain on pulse with technological change and consumer movements then they should be agile enough to move with the technical and operational trends as well as fashion trends.” she says.
Wong says, “Businesses are keen to connect directly to consumers, and cut the middlemen: think Kylie Cosmetics, Pat McGrath. This is happening to media industry too: Netflix originals instead of via Sky or Virgin Media. Not sure if Farfetch have addressed such concerns before.”
“There is also the downside for retailers: I once noted a £1500 price difference on a stunning new season McQueen coat: the result of a weak sterling and import taxes levied by a store from the Far East.” he says.
According to Bain & Company, the luxury goods market reached a record high of €262 billion in 2017. Online sales jumped by 24%, reaching an overall market share of 9%. Bain & Company predicts the market will be worth $446 billion market by 2025. Online’s share is expected to be its fastest-growing segment, rising from about 9% to 25% by 2025.
I think you need to look at Farfetch in the context of being a major player in a fast growing market. The valuation seems to be based upon its potential and the appetite for this type of technology stock.
I don’t think the name ‘Farfetch’ is particularly well known with general consumers. They need to work on the parent brand and getting its name into the luxury consumer’s head for that initial search. They also need to feel like the Amazon of luxury: all the choice on one site, which takes me back to my disappointing Dries Van Noten search. They could do better with packaging and more Instagrammable things to raise awareness of the consumer side of the brand.
There also have a lot of variables. They have different stores buying different things in different currencies and it loses something of that personal touch that other retailers seem to nurture and one of the reasons you go to a retailer.
Left - The online market is growing massively and is set to grow from 9% to 25% of the luxury market
As for selling the tech. to other brands, I think this is where the long-term value is, but they need to be careful not to overstretch themselves and have too many fingers in too many pies. It’s better to do fewer things well. It feels like they are still working out the direction they are going in. They could easily focus on either sides of this business and quietly reduce the other. They need to grow revenues while keeping the costs constant or reduced. They just don't want to lose the momentum.
The price seems, initially, far fetched, (soz), but the long term prospects for luxury online is looking good.