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Can Raf Simons kick start Prada to growth?

Marcus Jaye
29 September 2020

When designer Raf Simons was announced as the new “co-creative director”, working alongside Miuccia Prada, at Prada, it was welcomed as a meeting of two intellectual fashion minds. His first show, SS21, shown last week in Milan, in a digital format, was a return to Prada’s minimalist carpeted and matching curtained 1990s aesthetic. It was the most anticipated show of the new womenswear season.

Prada has had a growth problem in recent years, so, will this new creative impetus make a difference to a luxury group that is in danger of being left behind within the luxury segment?

The Prada S.p.A. group owns the Prada, Miu Miu, Church’s and Car Shoe brands and produces and distributes luxury leather goods, footwear and apparel, benefitting from a supply chain which includes 22 owned industrial sites. It also operates in the food sector with Marchesi 1824 and in the eyewear and fragrance industries under licensing agreements. The group employs nearly 14,000 people and its products are sold in 70 countries worldwide through 641 directly operated stores as of December 31, 2019.

Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons
Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons

Prada has been trying to inject growth in recent years by reducing wholesale and discounting, but it is trailing its rivals. For example, Prada and Gucci were once neck and neck as brands, both creatively and financially. They were the juggernaut fashion phoenixes of the 1990s. When one was name checked, the other wasn’t far behind. What changed?

In the 12 months ended 31 December 2019 revenues at Prada S.p.A. totalled €3.22 billion, up +2.7% compared with €3.14 billion in the same period a year earlier. Retail sales grew +4.1% to 2.63 billion euros. This is for the entire Prada S.p.A group which, as previously mentioned, also includes Miu Miu, Church’s and Car Shoe.

For the same year, 2019, Gucci revenue was €9.63 billion, revenue climbed by +13.3% on a like-for-like basis (+16.2% reported) and operating income leapt by +19.8%. The brand now accounts for over 60% of its owner Kering's revenues.

Prada SS21
Prada SS21

All of Gucci’s growth stems from 2016 when it was comparable in size to Prada in terms of revenue. Over the past four years, Gucci has grown its revenues to be three times that of Prada. Admittedly, Gucci has had unusually meteoric growth, but the Prada brand has been pretty much flat over these past four years.

While the Prada share price, listed in Hong Kong, has increased recently, it has bobbed along the 24HKD-35HKD range over the past five years. Its highs were back in 2013, when the stock hit around 75HKD. During the five years over which the share price declined, Prada’s earnings per share (EPS) dropped by 18% each year. The TSR (Total Shareholder Return) gives a more comprehensive picture of the return generated by a stock. In the case of Prada, it has a TSR of -23% for the last five years. While the Prada share price has struggled to rise, Kering’s and LVMH’s have soared.

Prada is in that predicament where it is big, but isn’t quite big enough. It’s luxurious, but not luxurious enough and, while it was once a leader, it hasn’t produced much that has stuck in recent years. It felt like Miuccia Prada had checked out, creatively, of the brand years ago. The last show by Miuccia Prada, AW20, before Simons arrived, put the signature triangular logo centre stage and was its most commercial for years.

In a statement up to 30 June 2020, Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli talks of a “growth trajectory temporarily interrupted” due to COVID 19. He said, “The first half of 2020 saw a temporary interruption of our growth trajectory which, in a situation of progressive control of the pandemic, we are confident will gradually resume from the second half of 2020, when our store network will again be fully operational. The excellent response of local consumers after the re-openings, confirms the desirability of our products and the strong relationship with our customers, which has been further strengthened by our continued focus on digital technology. The recent positive trends in all markets, combined with our solid balance sheet and financial position, allow us to look to the future with confidence today.”

On average, 40% of Prada’s retail network was closed from February to May 2020, reaching a peak of 70% in April. Its wholesale channel was heavily reduced, following the strategic decision taken in 2019 to strictly control all distribution channels to protect brand positioning and discounting. Prada said e-commerce had delivered triple-digit sales growth during and after the global lockdowns, while retail sales were down 32% and wholesale sales were down 71%.

Prada has seen double-digit sales growth since April in Mainland China, while South Korea and Taiwan, which didn’t experience store closures, showed a consistent double-digit trend throughout the period. Thanks to the contribution of these markets, the entire Asia Pacific region reported double-digit growth in June. The rest of the world was negative. In April 2020, Prada’s Board of Directors withdrew its recommendation to pay a dividend for 2019.

Prada’s difficulties during the COVID lockdowns aren’t unusual and will have been replicated by other luxury brands, but it doesn’t help its desirability and also the inability for Raf Simons’ new show to make an impact during this difficult time. Just 10,000 viewers tuned into the Prada Instagram live feed of the SS21 show and, according to analytics firm Tribe Dynamics, the show’s earned media value in the first 48 hours, an industry measure of third-party social media engagement, was 59% lower than the Spring/Summer 2020 show a year ago.

90s Prada
90s Prada

Many people have switched off from fashion, currently, and this will not have helped Prada make a splash with Simons’ collection. His first collection received warm reviews in a season without much competition. But, his return to the pared pack 90s Prada doesn’t answer the problem of growth. One good shoe is not enough, you need hundreds, and they need to roll over many seasons like the Gucci model. Gucci’s lack of seasons and huge choice of product shows how maximalism in fashion increases revenues. Looks that have more accessories than a Christmas tree are going to generate more sales. More choice is the answer for growth. It also appeals to more customers.

Prada has followed this model too, previously. Prada only really started to make money and get bigger when it moved from mink trimmed nylon to colourful striped fox fur scarves and crystal embellished dresses in the noughties. When the “Pradasphere” exhibit opened in Harrods in 2014 it illustrated what really sold to the contemporary Prada customer and it wasn’t minimalism. Minimalism hasn’t really made big money for any fashion business. Less isn’t more revenue.

Unfortunately for the brand, the planned Design Museum exhibition in London, planned for 2020, has been cancelled, which would have given it a boost. Details of a new collaboration between the Design Museum and Prada will be revealed in 2021.

Simons is a good designer and an influence, but his track record at Dior and Calvin Klein shows a limited understanding of what is commercial. Prada CEO, Bertelli’s relationships with past designers, such as Helmut Lang and Jil Sander, once owned by the Prada Group, was turbulent and Simons won’t hang around if the going gets tough (again). Prada was once one of the world's coolest brands, but it didn’t innovate when the likes of Michael Kors started copying its famous saffiano leather. Simons is undoubtedly cool, but will he be enough for Prada to catch up with its rivals?

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