Historically, brands often mature to the point that they use their distributive and production knowhow to launch or acquire other brands using the same infrastructure. But the influx of investment into digitally-native brands has forced many relatively nascent companies to transform into holding companies or brand platforms themselves at a relatively early stage in their life cycle. At the same time, some new brands—both digitally-native and traditional—have launched as holding companies in order to drive their founding mission from the get go.

In contrast, established traditional brands have moved to establish or expand their holding companies and brand platforms in order to continue growing and infuse freshness into their portfolios. Often times, newly acquired brands endow holding companies with lessons in innovation and technology, while the parent company acts as a VC or private equity firm, funding the smaller brand’s growth.

Featuring case studies on:

Class I Brands

Comme des Garçons, Harry’s, Michael Kors, Rimowa

Class III Brands

Bevel

The structure and framework of the report has also been updated from last year. Fast or Frivolous 2017 determined three brand classifications:

  • Heritage: Brands that existed before the internet, mainly as product and marketing companies that focused on designing and manufacturing reputable products, which they would distribute wholesale or via retail.
  • Digitally-Native Phase 1: Brands that took existing products and sold them on internet.
  • Digitally-Native Phase 2: Brands founded after 2012 that started online and worked to build communities around their products and create lifestyle brands.

We have revised our brand criteria to more accurately reflect interactions and evolutions within the landscape, decoupling the origin of the brand from the purpose it serves.

Origin

  • Digitally-native: the brand started online only.
  • Traditional: the brand started either offline or both online and offline.

Purpose

  • Class I: Product companies. (Many of these brands may pitch themselves to be “lifestyle brands,” but they remain product companies.)
  • Class II: Companies that create community around their products or brand for commercial benefit.
  • Class III: Brands that create products that serve as a vehicle that propel a value system or a movement forward.

All the data in this report comes from publicly reported information, book and data sources. Fundraising information comes courtesy of Pitchbook; Earned Media Value (EMV) via Tribe Dynamics.

We calculated averages or estimated when numbers from multiple sources differed. Because some of the brands we studied are private companies, we confirmed information to the best of our abilities.

Comme des Garçons (Traditional, Class I)

Comme des Garçons incorporated a number of labels built for different price points and customers, preventing the diffusion-line-dilution that many other brand platforms have fallen prey to, all the while benefiting the holding company.

Comme des Garçons started out as founder Rei Kawakubo’s fashion label, but in the ensuing years, Kawakubo used her creative sensibilities to design not only clothing, but a dynamic business. Today, there are a total of 18 brands incorporated into the holding company, each with a distinct personality that contributes a unique and supplementary purpose within the larger whole. In other words, the Comme des Garçons brand platform is like an organism whose many parts are constantly evolving, growing and adapting, thereby transforming the whole itself.

These 18 labels range from the high-end Noir and Homme lines to the more affordable SHIRT and BLACK. They also include the diffusion line PLAY and the most recent addition, the company’s first direct-to-consumer-only line, CDG. Notably, these lines are selectively dispersed across retail locations, which prevents oversaturation for the lines and the overall brand itself.

Despite offering a spectrum of price points, Comme des Garçons has always avoided the idea of a diffusion line, which CEO (and Kawakubo’s husband) Adrian Joffe believes water down brand equity:

“When you think of every single diffusion line, the name is shorter: Ralph Lauren becomes RL, Donna Karan becomes DKNY. When we did a second line for Comme des Garçons we deliberately made the title longer—Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons—because it wasn’t a diffusion line, it was an extension: the thing that comes off the real thing, so you keep the spirit. The concept behind it is not lesser than the first Comme des Garçons line.”

In this spirit, Comme des Garçons has grown horizontally and always with purpose, which ensures sustainable growth and fluidity between brands. The unconventionality of this business model also fosters mystique for the brand. As her business evolves, Kawakubo has balanced artistic output with financial considerations, using profit to further creative impulses without overscaling. Each additional line feeds into the greater ecosystem, playing off of other brands symbiotically, which has prevented cannibalization of any single line.

The BLACK label, for instance, formed during the 2008 recession, providing a lower-cost option to shoppers, and thus allowing them to continue exploring the world of Comme des Garçons at the same time that other brands were scaling back operations or folding. For PLAY—one of Comme des Garçons’ cheaper lines that amount to 12% of Comme des Garçons’ revenue—the brand developed its own logo, the bug-eyed heart, which distinguishes it from other lines but still has a place within the larger platform. Another interesting example is CDG, the company’s newest brand, which comes with a broad price range—$50 to $800—and includes a wide number of SKUs and collaborations. By creating a new brand with a distinct purpose and personality, but selling it direct-to-consumer, Comme des Garçons is able to experiment with and strengthen its direct sales channel instead of simply launching another direct-to-consumer brand.

In developing many of these lines, Comme des Garçons has also invested in and promoted talent from within, building on its expertise while welcoming new voices. Designers behind lines like Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, the now-shuttered Ganryu Comme des Garçons and Noir Kei Ninomiya act autonomously and own their respective distribution channels, delegating and disseminating talent evenly throughout the Comme des Garçons platform. (This is in contrast to Warby Parker, where former founders or employees went on to start Harry’s and Away.) In its short-term collaborations with individual designers such as Gosha Rubchinskiy, Comme des Garçons will also provide production and sales infrastructure, in addition to offering other assistance, helping the design partner to realize his or her vision to the fullest degree.

Finally, Comme des Garçons’ fragrance business utilizes partial licensing agreements, which keep creative under the Comme des Garçons roof, making licensing less risky. In 2002, for instance, Comme des Garçons began working with Puig, a Barcelona-based company that manufactures and sells perfume designed and packaged by Comme des Garçons to fragrance stores. But in order to experiment with more conceptual scents, Comme des Garçons licensed “Comme des Garçons Parfums” to Puig, in addition to creating a new, fully autonomous label, “Comme des Garçons Parfums Parfums” for its more experimental perfume endeavors. Most customers could never tell the difference between who was making what, preserving the company’s flexibility to experiment with multiple production and distribution methods.

Harry’s (Digitally-Native, Class I)

Harry’s Holdings was more of a forced decision than a conscious choice, but also plays to the company’s strengths in vertical integration and quest for category expansion.

After its latest $112 million raise in February 2018, Harry’s announced plans to expand its product assortment to both male and female personal care, household and baby products. To realize these developments, Harry’s formed a holding company, Harry’s Holdings, to make investments in and acquire other brands, as well as incubate its own, launching Harry’s Labs for research and development purposes. In February 2018, Harry’s took a minority stake in Hims, a digitally-native brand that sells products for men’s hair loss and other wellness-related needs. Then, in October 2018, the company debuted the first new brand under its holding company umbrella: Flamingo, for women’s razors and blades, shaving cream, wax kits and body lotion, all of which are sold à la carte.

The reasoning behind Harry’s decision to form a holding company remains unclear—was it a forced decision or a conscious choice? The large capital raise surely necessitated the move, as Harry’s now needs to pay back investors, and can do so more fruitfully by activating and purchasing new brands, thereby acquiring broader swathes of consumers. But questions remain about whether the proposed “synergies” that come from having a holding company, whether on the back end (financing, supply chain) or on the front end (customer acquisition) can actually pay dividends. So far, no one has proven this model can work in the digitally-native space.

Walker & Company—owner of Bevel and FORM—provides a foil to Harry’s Holdings in that it chose to launch as a holding company from the get-go, aimed specifically at providing a suite of brands that cater to consumers in an underserved market. Harry’s Holdings, on the other hand, is self-inflicted: The brand couldn’t earn enough revenue to provide returns to investors, which forced the company to look to opportunities elsewhere.

This path isn’t necessarily futile—it makes sense for Harry’s to launch and invest in other health and wellness companies that build on its knowhow from its men’s shaving brand. Flamingo does just that by tapping into the $1 billion women’s shaving industry—though it’s a new customer base for Harry’s to go after on the front end and has a healthy share of competitors (Billie, Oui Shave, Gillette and Schick), the company’s expertise in male razors gives Flamingo a competitive advantage on the back end. But Flamingo will have to perform well, and be the first in a string of many other successful brands for Harry’s Holdings to achieve what it needs to in order to pay back investors.

Michael Kors (Traditional, Class I)

The company’s post-IPO fundraising has forced it to continue growing via acquisitions, which may revive the holding company, but not necessarily the Michael Kors brand.

At its peak in December 2011—30 year after launch—Michael Kors filed to go public, raising $944 million as the single biggest public offering in U.S. fashion history—previously, Ralph Lauren held the title when it filed for an IPO in 1997, raising $882 million. The IPO valued Michael Kors at $4.6 billion.

However, with its IPO, coupled with the company’s struggles in subsequent years as it cannibalized luxury sales with its own diffusion lines and overextended wholesale reach, Michael Kors was forced to pursue other growth channels to make the necessary returns. This became particularly necessary after the company missed its sales targets in the second half of 2014—between 2015 and 2017, annual revenue decreased 4.8%.

In July 2017, the company acquired Jimmy Choo for $1.2 billion, catalyzing plans to become a holding company of global luxury brands across fashion, shoes and accessories. Though an uncommon move for a luxury brand, which typically hone their luxury brand or go down market, Michael Kors had likely exhausted the first two channels for its own brand, therefore seeking to supplement sales and growth with a premium priced shoe brand—a market that was growing at the time of the merger.

Then, in September 2018, the company changed its name to Capri Holdings and purchased Versace for $2 billion with plans to grow the fashion house’s sales to $2 billion, build its retail footprint to 300 stores (up from 200) and expand ecommerce operations. These decisions highlight Capri Holdings’ assessment that Michael Kors has reached a plateau and that in order to continue growing, the company must take on other brands—the same path Harry’s has embraced with its holding company as it looks for new growth opportunities through other brands.

Given Michael Kors’ track record, the major risk for the Versace and Jimmy Choo acquisitions is that the parent company dilutes their respective legacies and brand equity, oversaturating them in the mass market like it has with Michael Kors. However both Jimmy Choo and Versace’s creative teams remain in place for now, and neither brand plans to focus on diffusion lines (Versace merged its diffusion line Versus into Versace Jeans, and decided to fold Versace Collection in November 2018, directly after the acquisition).

If Michael Kors is able to let these luxury brands do what they do best—sell full-price luxury—while ramping up their ecommerce and owned retail efforts, the holding company will likely reap higher gains to help meet sales targets and provide returns to investors. So far, this has been true for Jimmy Choo, which accounted for approximately 4.7% of Capri holding’s 2018 revenue, despite having a much smaller owned retail and wholesale presence than Michael Kors (811 total combined doors compared to 4,373).

Overall, these acquisitions will be a net positive for Capri Holdings, but it won’t save the Michael Kors brand, which will need to continue scaling back its retail footprint—both wholesale and owned—and taking steps to sell more products at full price. However, rebranding as Capri Holdings does distinguish the Michael Kors brand from the holding company in its quest to become a global luxury conglomerate, which will help with the future success of Jimmy Choo and Versace, and may also help with the rehabilitation of Michael Kors as a brand.

Rimowa (Traditional, Class I)

Rimowa brings innovation to LVMH, but the brand is likely to see more growth thanks to its own efforts rather than the resources of its parent company.

Rimowa existed for 118 years as a family company before selling a majority 80% stake to LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), which owns 70 luxury brands from fashion labels to liquor lines. Under the October 2016 agreement’s conditions, co-CEO Dieter Morszeck will continue to hold the remaining 20% equity in the business, as well as his leadership role, thereby keeping Rimowa a family company.

There is reason to believe that LVMH’s acquisition of Rimowa benefits the luxury conglomerate more than the luggage brand. The parent company’s digital revenue increased 30% in 2017, reaching approximately $3 billion, but ecommerce comprised only 5% of total sales, pointing to LVMH’s need for Rimowa to enhance online growth as LVMH competes with other global luxury companies like Kering and Richemont, in addition to increasing its share of the luggage market in the face of Samsonite, which acquired luxury brand Tumi in 2016. This hypothesis is further bolstered by the 2018 launch of La Maison des Startups, LVMH’s new luxury startup accelerator, which matches early-stage companies with one of LVMH’s 70 brands as they collaborate on developing new services and technologies for the luxury market.

Though LVMH comes with money—the company reported $52 billion in 2017 revenue—and an impressive roster of brands, nascent brands or ones with a lot of potential have more offer LVMH than the other way around; it’s likely that the accelerator is meant to breathe fresh life into the conglomerate, sparking innovation and teaching LVMH new practices that help it evolve its own portfolio, without competing directly with the global luxury conglomerate. The Rimowa acquisition also seems to fall in line with other recent moves like LVMH Luxury Ventures, which allows the parent company to purchase stakes in promising luxury companies.

In the post-acquisition set up, LVMH can essentially act as a venture capitalist or private equity firm that will be able to fund the transformation and growth of Rimowa, which it needs to compete in today’s consumer landscape. Under the conglomerate’s wing, Rimowa will also be able to reduce its ad spend and enter premium brick-and-mortar locations. Given Arnault’s recent pivot to ecommerce, however, and as LVMH attempts to respond to shifts in the consumer industry across its plethora of luxury brands, Rimowa may be leading the pack rather than accepting advice from its parent. In any case, as Rimowa grows and stakes out a spot as both a digital and physical brand, it will contribute to LVMH’s growth, even if the parent company isn’t offering much.

Bevel (Digitally-Native, Class III)

Bevel launched as a holding company in order to cater to underserved markets in the long term.

Launching as a holding company from the get go, Walker & Company is balancing a long-term vision with sustainable growth. The company has raised only $33 million since launch—more than $400 million less than shaving competitor Harry’s, which largely pushed it to create a holding company in order to pay back investors. Bevel’s limited funding was undeniably tied to (largely white) investors’ skepticism of the brand, which they incorrectly saw as serving a niche market (in the U.S., its target customer base accounts for 50 million people).

But Walker’s initial financial struggle was in some ways a blessing in disguise, pushing him to find innovative marketing techniques and protecting him from overfunding and overvaluation. Instead of investment pushing him to create a suite of brands, Walker envisioned an ecosystem from the beginning that optimizes both products and the shopping experience for people of color. With its first two brands, Walker & Company has aimed to address this gap, spotlighting inclusivity in brand messaging, in addition to creating new ways to bring more people of color in touch with products made for them, and making these items as accessible as possible.

Bevel embraced a multi-channel strategy to better serve an underrepresented market.

In 2014—one year after Bevel’s launch—subscriptions grew an average of 50% month over month with a 90% repeat customer rate. By 2016, Bevel had 97% subscription renewal rate—the next year, sales also increased 200%. Despite the success with replenishment, Walker began wholesaling Bevel at Target (both in store and online) in 2016, as well as on Amazon and Jet—a decision that was likely not only about diversification, but also about providing historically underserved customers broader access and more entry points to the products.

The founder estimated a 50-50 split between retail sales and subscription sales in 2017. FORM then mirrored this retail strategy when it launched in 2017, selling at Sephora stores and on the beauty retailer’s ecommerce site, in addition to direct-to-consumer, right off the bat. While continuing down the wholesale path risks cannibalizing Walker & Company’s direct sales, maintaining both wholesale and direct channels enables the holding company’s brands to get in front of more shoppers in more places, which aligns with its larger mission. The hope is that customers will discover the brands in wholesale but then replenish through Walker & Company’s own websites. Moving forward, conversion rates will be important to watch—it’s unlikely that Bevel retains anything close to a 97% subscription renewal rate after permeating Target, Amazon and Jet, but if it can capture those repeat sales on its own site after a first purchase from the wholesale channel it will be worth it.