Lagerfeld’s Death Isn't Just a Loss of an Icon

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The death of Karl Lagerfeld at 85 is not just the loss of a fashion icon. It will bring the future of Chanel into sharp relief.

Lagerfeld rejuvenated the label, catapulting it from a tired licence brand to a luxury behemoth. With its distinctive double C logo, it appeals to both traditional wearers and reality TV stars alike.

While not all can afford its handbags, a Chanel lipstick is in reach, helping it to reach the holy grail of luxury – exclusivity and accessibility. It’s a lucrative combination, and the group generated sales of almost $10 billion in 2017.

The privately held company is owned by the brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer.

They must now decide on a replacement for Lagerfeld. Phoebe Philo, the former Celine designer, is among those that have been mooted as a successor.

But Lagerfeld’s death may also herald a more fundamental overhaul at Chanel. Speculation has escalated recently that the Wertheimers, both aged around 70, could be planning a generational change.

Last year the company published accounts for the first time. It has also regrouped dozens of subsidiaries into a single holding company in London. A year ago, it took a stake in the e-commerce platform Farfetch Ltd.

Analysts at Exane BNP Paribas have estimated that Chanel could be prudently worth well above 50 billion euros ($56.4 billion), in the same ballpark as Hermes International.

Lagerfeld’s Death Isn't Just a Loss of an Icon

It could seek a listing, but the company would also be a tantalizing prospect for the luxury megabrands, such as LVMH, Kering SA and Cie Financiere Richemont SA. All are awash with cash right now, after more two years of strong demand for handbags and Swiss watches.

Another possibility would be a combination with Hermes. They have similar business models – offering very costly items alongside more-affordable ones – and together would create another player to rival the industry leaders.

For any buyer, Chanel would be a big bite. But at the very highest echelons, prized assets come along once in a lifetime.

With Lagerfeld’s passing that moment could be moving closer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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