NEWS & EVENTS
THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Coach Expands Luxury Fashion Brand Buying Shoemaker Stuart Weitzman”
Stuart Weitzman’s strappy sandals have graced the feet of the actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. The Duchess of Cambridge sports his wedge heels.
Now, Coach wants in on the action.
Coach, the New York-based luxury fashion house, said on Tuesday that it would buy Stuart Weitzman, the maker of midrange luxury shoes, for up to $574 million in cash. Coach also said it would retain Mr. Weitzman, the company’s 72-year-old executive chairman and creative director, to lead the team whose styles have been in high demand on red carpets and in stores.
The acquisition is a rare move by Coach, which has so far preferred to expand its global business organically, from $953 million in sales a decade ago to almost $5 billion last year.
But Coach’s mainstay handbag business has slumped recently in the face of stiff competition as the demand for exclusive, pricier lines of luxury handbags soared.
A troubled outlet store strategy also weighed on the company’s bottom line and took some of the luster off Coach’s image.
Those difficulties prompted Coach to embark on a turnaround in 2013 that included paring back the steep discounts eating into its profits, and refashioning itself into an upscale lifestyle brand that spans shoes, coats and eyewear. Still, its efforts have stalled in the face of a drop in Coach’s sales over the last quarter and in gross profit over the last year.
Stuart Weitzman’s hip lineup of shoes and sandals could give that campaign a much-needed boost. Its top sellers include the $398 Nudist sandal, designed with thin straps and pin heels, which has become a celebrity favorite; and its 5050 up-to-the-knee boot, an international best-seller that retails for $635.
The label’s Corkswoon wedge pumps also shot to fame after Kate Middleton, then engaged to Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge and an heir to the British throne, wore a pair that received much media attention in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.
“Coach is at a place where it needs to reassert its luxury credentials,” said Jason B. Cohen, a luxury branding expert at The O Group, a creative agency in New York. Stuart Weitzman “isn’t Jimmy Choo, but it’s a very highly regarded brand that commands a significant price and is executing luxury as it should be,” he said.
The talent of Mr. Weitzman himself — known as a hands-on manager — is a big part of the brand’s allure for Coach, Mr. Cohen said.
“If Stuart Weitzman was not part of the deal, I wouldn’t be interested,” he said.
Mr. Weitzman sketched his first footwear at 16 during a visit to his father’s shoe factory in Haverhill, Mass., and that “was the beginning of my shoe creativity,” he says in a video on the company’s website.
He spent years working in his family business, and at the shoe company Caressa, before striking out to start a higher-end shoe line in 1986.
From the outset, he insisted on controlling the shoe manufacturing process, first acquiring Caressa’s stake in a Spanish shoe factory and later buying out the factory’s owners.
Coach will become the latest owner of the Weitzman brand; it has been controlled by Sycamore Partners since the private equity firm acquired the Jones Group last year. That transaction gave Sycamore not only Stuart Weitzman, but also other brands like Jones New York and Nine West.
Stuart Weitzman, which still manufacturers its shoes in-house, reported $300 million in revenue in the 12 months ended Sept. 30. The company said it had increased sales by about 10 percent during the last five years.
Mr. Weitzman has said that running its own factories helped the company keep prices significantly lower than other luxury shoe labels. Sandals from Jimmy Choo, for example, would come with a price tag closer to $1,000, and up to $5,000 with trimmings like Swarovski crystals and silk feathers.
In-house manufacturing also let the company move more quickly to meet fast-changing trends, Mr. Weitzman said in an interview with the website, Business of Fashion, in October. Though past the usual retirement age, Mr. Weitzman is known for his creative control of the company, asking each designer he interviews to sketch shoe designs on demand. Mr. Weitzman declined a request for an interview, saying through a spokesman that he was not authorized to speak ahead of Coach’s earnings, due later this month.
“Stuart Weitzman is a leading American luxury designer footwear brand with a solid growth trajectory and further significant domestic and international development potential,” Victor Luis, Coach’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Mr. Weitzman added in the statement: “In Coach, we have found a strategic partner that respects our culture, and offers the scale, resources and global business acumen to enable us to realize our full potential. We are excited to be working with the Coach team and leveraging its strong infrastructure to help us drive efficiency and expand our product mix to an even broader consumer base worldwide.”
Under the terms of the deal, Coach will pay an initial $530 million to Sycamore. If the shoemaker hits certain financial milestones in the first three years after the transaction closes, Coach will pay up to $44 million more.
The Stuart Weitzman acquisition is part of big changes at Coach. It hired a new creative director, Stuart Vevers, in late 2013 and appointed Mr. Luis, a company veteran who helped spearhead its global expansion, as chief executive last January.
Since then, Mr. Vevers, credited with reviving the luxury labels Mulberry and Loewe, has revamped Coach’s offerings in shoes, eyewear, watches and outerwear, and introduced new, pricier handbags like the Dakotah Fringe bag, which retails for $795. Now, almost a third of its bags sell for over $400, compared to just a fifth last year, according to research by Nomura, the Japanese investment bank.
The Stuart Weitzman brand will give Coach a strong foothold in women’s shoes, which come with lower margins but which shoppers tend to buy more frequently than bags, said Oliver Chen, a retail analyst at Cowen and Company, a New York brokerage firm.
“It gives them a jump-start in a challenging category,” he said.
Coach’s turnaround will not be easy, especially in North America, where retailers face cutthroat competition, said Robert Drbul, a retail analyst at Nomura. And Coach still has to figure out how to overhaul its discount outlet operations, which have been a drag on its business.
Still, the company’s acquisition shows that Coach is willing to go where it has never gone before to revive its business, Mr. Drbul said. “It’s a big step, and a logical step,” he said. “It’s a change in direction.”