Robert Bensoussan remains unruffled by the recession. He tells Charlotte Hardie why this is as good a time as any to have bought high-end fashion label LK Bennett
For a man who last year poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the luxury goods sector just before a global recession, Robert Bensoussan is remarkably relaxed. The Spanish-born Frenchman is the first to admit that luxury sector sales are suffering, but he insists: “I’m serene. There’s no need to panic; times are panicky enough. Nobody knows when we will really hit the bottom but, come on, the UK is still a strong economy. This is an economy that still has money to bail out banks. I believe we’re relatively lucky.”
Then again, as one of the highest-profile names in the upscale sector and with nearly 30 years’ experience, Bensoussan understands the importance of long-term thinking.
Last year was a big year for his investment fund, Sirius Equity. Within a few months it bought high-end womenswear retailer LK Bennett from founder Linda Bennett for a reported£100m, invested an undisclosed sum in watch brand Bremont and partnered with Stirling Square Capital Partners to buy Italian fashion label Jeckerson for another£100m.
Would he perhaps have avoided the leap of faith with LK Bennett had he known what everyone now knows about the global economy? “No, I don’t think so,” he answers. “We came along at the right moment. We might have done better in price six months after, maybe, but that’s not the point. The point is we want to double this company at least in the next five years.”
Bensoussan fell into the luxury sector after business school in the early 1980s. The only appealing job offer was a finance role in luxury textiles – not because of the company but because it was in Brazil, he jokes.
Having gone on to run top luxury brands Christian Lacroix, Gianfranco Ferré and Jimmy Choo, the move proved to be a wise one. Jimmy Choo founder and former it-girl Tamara Mellon may be the media face most commonly associated with the brand, but from 2001 to 2007 Bensoussan was instrumental in taking it from a small shoe business to a globally recognised brand, achieving a near tenfold growth in value.
As he talks animatedly about his Bremont watch – its glass face polished courtesy of Rolls Royce to avoid sunlight glare – it is clear that Bensoussan is a man who loves the finer things in life. He certainly believes there is much scope to develop homegrown luxury.
“There is so much tradition in the UK and luxury is normally about tradition,” he says. “I don’t understand why the English don’t have more luxury brands, especially in leather. You don’t have something like Hermes.” At the suggestion of Mulberry, he looks slightly dismissive. “It’s not luxury like Jaguar or Aston Martin,” he says.
So what attracted him to LK Bennett? “I’ve been interested in it for many years. What I loved was that it is a company that started in the shoe business and is now 50 per cent ready-to-wear. Today it has an extremely well balanced business model that’s very resilient,” he says.
He has wasted no time in getting to work. He and new chief executive Margaret McDonald – former Banana Republic vice-president for Europe – are reassessing the design team, developing the bags side of the business and looking at building LK Bennett’s UK and international presence.
Bensoussan is confident about the retailer’s prospects, and believes it will do well during a recession as increasing numbers of people start to trade down from luxury shoes and accessories with their several-hundred-pound price tags to LK Bennett’s more modest offer.
“Every industry is the same,” he maintains. “There are people who do well during difficulties. In the downturn after September 11  we still did well at Jimmy Choo because we were a niche brand. If LK Bennett were a major international brand today I wouldn’t be that comfortable because you would lose more ground than you would gain.”
He concludes: “It’s exciting. You’re rowing against the tide and you need to be better prepared.” As someone with an impressive track record in luxury, his warning that there is “no space today for amateur retailers” seems all the more foreboding.
The finer points
2008: founded Sirius Equity to make investments in the luxury goods and retail sectors
2001-07: chief executive officer, Jimmy Choo, after acquiring a 51 per cent stake
1999: bought luxury retailer Joseph for£100m with partners CNP and LVMH
1999-2000: chief executive officer, Gianfranco Ferré
1992-97: chairman and chief executive officer, Christian Lacroix
1980-91: Roles in Brazil and Paris, including director for Lacoste, Charles Jourdan, Sonia Rykiel and Escada