Arrivederci, la dolce vita as Italians succumb to sharp-dressed French

Laura Chesters reports on why some of the country's proud luxury brands are selling out to foreign competitors

The man known as "the Wolf in Cashmere Clothing" has gobbled up Italy's best-known cashmere producer, as yet another family-owned Italian luxury business cedes control after two centuries.

Loro Piana, the Italian cashmere and wool brand that makes £12,000 coats made from the "golden fleeces" of the near-extinct South American vicuna, has been bought by Bernard Arnault's LVMH.

The €2bn (£1.7bn) purchase of an 80 per cent stake is the latest show of muscle from the French luxury giant, having already swallowed Italy's famous jewellery brand Bulgari for €3.7bn.

And it is not only LVMH that is on the prowl. Fellow French luxury behemoth Kering – formerly known as PPR – bought Milanese jeweller Pomellato for €300m last month.

This has left lovers of these luxuriant Italian brands scratching their heads as to why, after hundreds of years in family ownership, they are now selling out to foreign rivals.

Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas, thinks the Italian luxury industry "missed the boat" to create a large empire of its own.

He says: "Players like LVMH and Kering are so much larger now that thinking of building an Italian LVMH is preposterous. Besides, Italian would-be aggregators have failed in the past in quite high-profile circumstances: think of GFT or Finpart or IT Holding [big Italian groups that eventually sold off their brands due to financial problems]."

The dire economy in Italy hasn't helped. There is only so far a small firm can grow in an economy that is suffering, making it even harder to compete with multinationals that have greater buying power.

Mr Solca explains: "The advantage for Loro Piana is the massive synergies. Loro Piana is a great brand, but it is very small – media buying, retail negotiations, and category extensions [into leather, for example] will benefit from the LVMH scale and might."

Like in any family-run business, there comes a time to hand over to the next generation. While it could be that the latest brood of Italian businessmen and women are not up to the challenge set by their forefathers, succession issues become increasingly difficult to resolve once a lineage comes to an end or has spread to a multitude of different family factions.

The current chief executives of Loro Piana – Sergio and Pier Luigi Loro Piana – are in their sixties and a single heir to the family business was not clear. This scenario is common. Florence shoe designer to the stars Salvatore Ferragamo listed in Milan two years ago. The founder's son, Ferruccio, currently chairman of the group, decided to sell a 25 per cent stake via a listing because of the complex family shareholding. Salvatore had six children and Ferruccio also has six; there are 23 grandchildren.

Inheritance debates can lead to a complete sell-off. The French lifestyle brand Lacoste was sold to Switzerland's Maus Frères last year after a family row between father and daughter – descendants of founder René Lacoste, the tennis ace who won Wimbledon in the 1920s. The family couldn't agree on who would manage the business.

That Ferragamo listed in Italy and Brunello Cucinelli, who sells shorts for more than £300 a pair, successfully followed suit suggests Loro Piano could also have turned to the stock exchange rather than becoming part of a €65.4bn French empire.

Mr Solca concludes: "A listing would have been very well received by the market. But Loro Piana, obviously, must have thought this was an easier and quicker option for them. They [the brothers] get the best of both worlds: they keep their leadership position and they get the cash."

At LVMH, Mr Arnault has made sure his business has the teeth to snap up any brand he desires.

Erwan Rambourg, HSBC's luxury expert, argues: "It has a powerful M&A [mergers and acquisitions] strategy and some very high-profile Italian managers with connections and, maybe more importantly, very broad financial means. Spending €2bn in the blink of an eye can simply not be done by many."

Sergio and Pier Luigi retain 20 per cent and keep their top jobs at the house, although a series of put and call options means they may not choose to keep their stake for long.

At Bulgari, the family of founder Sotirio Bulgari sold about a third of their LVMH shares a year after they had received the stake as part of a share-swap deal in 2011.

As Mr Arnault digests his latest prey, he will already be on the look out for his next catch.

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