What is it about London women and the shoe business? The similarities between Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon and LK Bennett's creator Linda Bennett are striking.
Both hail from north west London, both had fathers who influenced their career choices and outlook, both built multi-million pound outfits in an indecently short time and, in 2004, put them up for sale.
But there they parted company. While Mellon secured £100m for Jimmy Choo, Linda Bennett walked away empty-handed, having failed to find a buyer willing to stump up her rumoured £75m asking price.
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Three years on, says The Observer, the "Queen of the Kitten Heel" is back, defying the worst conditions in years to launch a £150m auction. Even allowing for the chain's aggressive growth in that time, the doubled sale price shows some chutzpah. But there are signs that Bennett, 43, and her bankers at Rothschild, will pull it off insiders say there was a "healthy level of interest" in the first round last week (see below). LK Bennett serves the well-heeled mid-market. Celebrity clients are said to include Kate Moss and Penelope Cruz, but most clients probably have more in common with Cherie Blair and the Duchess of Cornwall.
Bennett is notoriously media shy: she hasn't given a big interview since 2004. An ungallant hack from The Sunday Times called her, "short, stocky... dressed head to foot in black" like "a rather beautiful hamster off to a funeral", so that may not be surprising. He was struck by the disparity between her look and her designs, which owe a good deal to Fifties glamour (her favourite film is High Society). He attributed her flair to Icelandic blood inherited from her mother, a sculptor. From her father, a London retail entrepreneur, she got financial sense. Growing up in Kingsbury, near north London shopping Mecca Brent Cross, she had a precocious fascination with shoes. "I still remember the day my mother told me that the sole of my favourite Start-Rite shoes was changing from leather to synthetic."
She learned her trade from bottom up. After ditching a management course at Reading University in favour of history of art, she got a place at Cordwainers the renowned shoe design college in Hackney. She worked on the factory floor for Robert Clergerie, followed by stints on the shop floors of Whistles and Joseph.
Bennett was 26 when she saw her chance: no one was producing affordable versions of the kitten heels being sent down cat-walks in the early 1990s; "a design-savvy public" wasn't being served. She opened her first shop in Wimbledon on £13,000 in savings and a £15,000 loan from Barclays. "She recognised the sort of affluent neighbourhood that, say, Marilyn Anselm spotted on Hampstead High Street when she established Hobbs," says The Observer.
Bennett's big break, says The Times, was "the ascent of the accessory". Shoes and bags "used to hover on the sidelines". Now they are fashion's "most heated focus" and have spawned for Bennett a 50-strong chain of shops, with outlets in Paris, Dublin and Jersey. Bennett, who has a seven-year-old daughter and is married to a man "who does something in the art world", owns 100% of the stock. She is selling, she says, because the business needs a stronger foundation for international expansion and "I want to spend more time with my family". For once, that may not be euphemistic.
Shoes that are in a class of their own
"I don't know her, but I do know her business and it is a class outfit. Who can blame her for wanting to cash her chips in?" observed retail analyst Richard Hyman of Verdict Consultancy in 2004. That attempt came to nothing, but this time Linda Bennett has a deadline to beat, says The Mail on Sunday. She is determined to sell before changes in Capital Gains Tax, which would see the taxman's take rise from 10% to 18%, arrive in April.
So who's in the running? Serious bidders are thought to include fashion chain Hobbs, owned by 3i, as well as several overseas investors. But in the teeth of a consumer slowdown the wisdom of the move is open to question. Downmarket shoe-chain Dolcis is a world away from LK Bennett, but its recent liquidation sent a shiver through the trade.
For now, LK Bennett looks fine, says The Observer. In the year to July, profits on sales of £45.4m rose sharply; the chain "defied wider market woes with underlying sales up an estimated 5% over Christmas". Bennett has ridden out downturns before, but the £150m question is whether she has built a brand that can withstand a prolonged tightening. In tough times, women downgrade their retail kicks to small items like lipsticks. But shoes are arguably in a category of their own the world may be going to the dogs, but there's nothing like a beautiful pair of shoes to lift morale.
That is the hope. In practice, it may be running thin. The International Herald Tribune reports an "abrupt consumer pullback" causing deep angst in New York's classier department stores. Sales of $300 shoes have not been immune.
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