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A Sea Change in Luxe: Tough Market Favors Buyers Over Sellers

When sales of luxury products were riding high, it seemed just about any designer was ripe for acquisition. But now it's a buyers' market.

"There was a moment where a company could take the luxury of nurturing small brands," said John Howard, senior managing director and head of merchant banking at Bear Stearns, which operates a fund that invests in fashion and retail. Because of the difficult economy, Howard said there’s now no longer time for marginal brands to leach valuable time and money from healthier brands.

"A lot of the acquisitions had to do with ego on one level and a belief that the stock market would keep rewarding growth," Howard said. "There’s no more or less discipline in the fashion industry than anywhere else. Three to five years ago it seemed like anything was possible and that you could grow anything overnight."

But the state of the economy has not dulled everyone’s appetite for acquisitions.

"If anything, it’s an opportune time to buy because of cheaper leases for stores," said Stroll, who owns the brands Asprey and Garrard with his partner, Chou. "Prices, too, should be less expensive. Good companies are always a value and the great brands out there are becoming greater. I’m not saying that Silas and I are actively looking for more acquisitions, but if another opportunity like Michael Kors crosses our plate, then I’d be very excited to have it. Maybe we’ll buy five companies in the medium term, maybe we won’t buy any. It all depends on the opportunities we spot."

Stroll added that his criteria for future acquisitions is growth potential. "The companies we’ve bought are very young — in their infantile stages — and for the next 10-15 years they will be all about growth. For that reason, too, I think the economy has less effect on us than it would on a mature brand."

While Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon stayed on the sidelines during the last buying spree, he remains prepared to pounce on designer brands if the right one becomes available. Dickson North America president and ceo Charles M. Jayson said, "We are exploring many businesses that we believe have growth potential and are viable candidates for investment or acquisition.

"We continue to exercise a focused and disciplined approach, with the criteria being upscale or luxury businesses that are or can be evolved into lifestyle brands," he added. "We pay special attention to companies that can be enhanced by our wholesale and retail network of owned companies in the Dickson Group, like Tommy Hilfiger handbag and small leather goods in the U.S., the Harvey Nichols Group in the U.K., Paris-based S.T. Dupont and Dickson Concepts International Ltd. in Hong Kong."
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