First Round: Followers of fashion

Judging by its recent acquisition of J.McLaughlin, US firm JH Partners appears to be firmly in the preppy camp also occupied by Jack Wills, part-owned by Inflexion Private Equity, and Tommy Hilfiger, once owned by Apax Partners.

Described as “An American brand that represents a sought-after preppy lifestyle” – presumably one enjoyed by the ranks of Ivy League-educated private equity executives in the US – J.McLaughlin apparently also offers “high-touch customer service appeal”. First Round isn’t really sure what that means, but sincerely hopes it’s non-invasive.

Still, the company clearly knows its own mind, even if it’s less familiar with basic grammar: “A tradition of dressing. With an edge of surprise. We’ve been reinventing American classics, with a nod to fashion, and a wink to tradition, since 1978,” its website claims, modestly.

Private equity is also on the fashion trail on this side of the Atlantic, too – and in fairly inventive ways.

In October Apax announced a joint venture with Karl Lagerfeld, backing the fond-of-silver-fingerless-gloves German designer’s new clothing label. Modestly entitled ‘Karl’, the label will apparently specialise in “rock chic”. So ripped jeans and stuff, First Round can only assume.

Apax has already enjoyed one notable success in this field, of course: when it flogged Tommy Hilfiger to Phillips-Van Heusen in March last year for €2.2 billion, it generated a very tidy 4.5x return. But having had a big hit with a very American brand, it now wants to repeat the trick with a very European one. (As does Permira, which is backing Hugo Boss’ push into new markets).

Then there’s Providence Equity Partners, which has dipped a toe into the lemon-scented waters of European fashion by acquiring an Italian college that specialises in fashion and design – presumably with the hope of striking up a partnership with the next Karl Lagerfeld, before he/she gets famous enough to insist on it being a 50/50 split.

Financiers and fashion might sound like a ‘sandals and socks’ type combination. But since this appears to be one of the few sectors of the economy that seems to be flourishing despite the downturn – apparently lots of fashionistas continue to have more money than sense – you can see the appeal…