Tommy Hilfiger set to stitch up a merger with J-Lo

Troubled clothing group seeks sweetheart deal with Sweetface, Jennifer Lopez's fashion range
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The Independent Online

He's the leisurewear maker for every teenager from dropouts to swots. She's the pin-up who made big bottoms a fashion item. Now they could be working in tandem.

Tommy Hilfiger, the troubled clothing group founded by the eponymous American designer, is understood to be in talks to merge with The Sweetface Fashion Company, the group founded to exploit the J-Lo fashion range, based on the style of singer and actress Jennifer Lopez.

Though neither side will discuss the speculation, Wall Street, the New York garment district and the Hong Kong fashion industry are united in believing that a deal is on the cards.

Tommy Hilfiger is in trouble. The market value of the group, which is run out of Hong Kong, has collapsed since it fell into losses as a result of problems in its US wholesaling operation. A takeover by the American Jones Apparel Group fell apart earlier this year. And to add insult to injury, the company's chief executive, Joel J Horowitz, has said that he is stepping down. Mr Hilfiger, the honorary chairman and chief designer, is finding it hard to secure a new chief that both he likes and Wall Street will take to.

Meanwhile, the group is on the hunt for a deal. Mr Horowitz admitted this earlier this month, while also admitting to a $513m (£307m) annual loss, and Mr Hilfiger said he wanted the company to be "expanding into a multi-brand, multichannel business".

Analysts say that what the group needs is a younger, fresher brand, which it can turn into the Hilfiger of this decade.

Speculation has centred on Sweetface for three reasons. First, the J-Lo brand has taken the place of Hilfiger in many of the teenage markets that Hilfiger dominated only three or four years ago.

Second, Sweetface has a chief executive who could easily step into Mr Horowitz's shoes. She is Denise Seegal, the former president of DKNY, which she sold to LVMH, and the American fashion company Liz Claiborne.

The third reason is a family connection. Sweetface is half owned by Tommy Hilfiger's brother, Alan, with the remaining shares owned by Ms Lopez.

However, analysts are worried about how much Hilfiger, which last year had sales of $1.89bn, would have to pay for Sweetface, which despite its fast growth only has a turnover of about $100m.

The need for Hilfiger to make acquisitions to revitalise the business is believed to be the reason for the collapse of the purchase by Jones Apparel and an attempt to take the group private in a leveraged buyout late last year. The talk in Hong Kong is that the Jones Apparel deal is not entirely dead. The acquisitive US group, which owns Nine West footwear and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, recently obtained a new $700m line of credit from its banks which would fund part of a Hilfiger deal.

Wall Street is convinced that Hilfiger has to do something to sort out its problems. J-Lo would be the answer to a designer's prayer.