Sophie Fiszman, a Paris finance executive with a taste for fashion, used to stick to European brands like Louis Vuitton (MC) and Gucci. No longer.
Now she shops at the Michael Kors (KORS:US) store on Paris’s tony Rue Saint-Honoré, joining a growing contingent of European consumers who have embraced the American designer. She recently bought a blue python-print bag at the store, pleased that she could find such a purse for less than 300 euros ($412).
“The price is very good for what you get,” said Fiszman, 53, who works as co-director general for OFI Asset Management. “I like the new style they have.”
For Michael Kors Holdings Ltd., the burgeoning appeal is letting the brand outpace European luxury handbag makers in their own backyard. After challenging Coach Inc. in the U.S., Kors is opening stores near those of European rivals, aiming to steal customers with self-described “jet-set” looks and relatively low prices.
The company’s European sales more than doubled to $140.3 million during the holiday quarter, accounting for 14 percent of its total revenue. The European luxury-goods industry, meanwhile, grew just 2 percent last year, slowing from a 5 percent rate in 2012, according to Bain & Co.
Kors’s European store openings are being met with “great anticipation” and goods are selling out, according to Chief Executive Officer John Idol. The designer’s record for getting trends right is appreciated by the European shopper, who is astute about fashion, he said on a February conference call.
The challenge for Kors now is winning over the holdouts -- Europeans who remain leery of American attempts to produce luxury fashion. The company also is less diversified than the industry’s giants and growing from a much smaller base. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA sells everything from cognac to fine jewelry, while Kering SA owns brands ranging from Gucci to Saint Laurent.
Europe’s residents and tourists buy 34 percent of the world’s luxury goods, according to Bain, making the region the single biggest battleground for high-end brands. Globally, the industry generated about $300 billion in sales last year, Bain estimates.
The European inroads have helped send Kors’s stock up almost fivefold since its initial public offering in 2011. The shares fell 3.3 percent to $89.54 at the close in New York, mirroring declines in broader indexes.
Before the financial crisis in 2008, more luxury consumers were loyal to their favorite high-end European brand and wore it head-to-toe, said Lorna Hall, head of retail and strategy for the London fashion forecasting firm WGSN.
“They wouldn’t slum it,” she said.
Then came the recession, followed by a slow recovery. The euro region’s economy contracted again in 2012 and barely grew in 2013 after an initial rebound.
In recent years, many European consumers have been adopting more “contemporary” fashion, which often costs less than designer goods, Hall said. The Internet also has fueled an internationalization of taste, she said. That means the typical European consumer may be wearing a mix of high- and low-end brands.
“She is more open-minded,” Hall said, “She might have a Michael Kors bag and Gucci loafers and a Zara top.”
European brands have sought to tout their exclusivity by opening fewer new stores and pushing up prices, said Robert Burke, founder of a New York-based luxury consulting firm. That’s created a particularly good opportunity for Kors to step in with more affordable merchandise, he said.
Mulberry Group Plc (MUL), for instance, tried to make its brand more expensive and suffered for it. After embarking on a plan to court more upscale shoppers globally, the Somerset, England-based handbag maker saw sales shrink in its last fiscal year. Mulberry lost two-thirds of its market value, and CEO Bruno Guillon announced plans to step down last month.
A Michael Kors bag is seen as a status symbol for “smart shoppers,” since it suggests that they spent less and got more, said Pam Danziger, founder of luxury research firm Unity Marketing Inc. in Stevens, Pennsylvania.
Not everybody is a fan. Maria Maortua, a 29-year-old developer of pop-up stores in Madrid, said she has never bought a Kors purse because she feels the label is overexposed and doesn’t produce true luxury.
“The brand name appears everywhere,” she said. “That is why I don’t like it very much.”
While Kors’s European blitz hasn’t appealed to everyone, it’s helped elevate the brand from relative obscurity two years ago. In February 2012, its European holiday quarter sales amounted to barely $28 million, and just 35 percent of survey respondents in the region were aware of the designer.
That compared with 70 percent in the U.S., where celebrities wear the brand and it has wider distribution. Michael Kors himself had gained fame for appearing as a judge on reality TV show “Project Runway.” The 54-year-old designer, who is based in New York, left that job in 2012.
Kors sought to boost its European recognition by increasing marketing and opening stores in high-profile locations. It ended last quarter with 76 European stores and plans to add 36 this fiscal year.
Idol believes the region can support 200 Kors retail locations in total, generating revenue in excess of $1 billion. Two years ago, he had only foreseen 100 stores.
Coach, based in New York, has opened stores in Europe as well, though it only has about as third as many. Kors also is expanding in the region faster than fellow American design houses such as Kate Spade & Co. and Tory Burch. Kors’s upscale locations include New Bond Street in London and Via della Spiga in Milan.
The company’s selling, general and administration expenses jumped almost 55 percent last quarter to $254.6 million, partly because of its higher store count and advertising spending.
The marketing is hard to miss, said Allegra Perry, an equities analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald in London.
“I was amazed at how much advertising there was for Michael Kors in Paris in the subway, at the bus stops, on the streets, everywhere,” she said.
At Kors stores open at least a year, sales increased 73 percent last quarter. LVMH and Kering (KER) remain much larger, though they don’t report directly comparable figures.
“We’re starting to take market share there,” Idol said on the call. Kors declined to comment for this story, as did LVMH and Kering, both of which are based in Paris.
Under 1,000 Euros
Kors uses the European formula of creating high-profile runway fashion, though it produces goods at lower prices and adds a dash of American novelty, Perry said. Most of its bags cost 300 to 1,000 euros, compared with 1,000 to 2,000 euros for its biggest European rivals, she said.
Kors has successfully appealed to the European aspirational customer, who has been hungry for new brands, as well as top-of-the-line shoppers, Burke said. The company also is siphoning off tourists, including Chinese travelers, who had been buying the French and Italian brands, he said.
“It appeals to the customer at the very high tier,” Burke said. “There are European consumers who might be able to afford any bag they want, but they want something that is fashion-forward and that is also very American classic.”
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