The Interview: Rami Cassis, founder Parabellum Investments and chairman Hervia
Given Rami Cassis clearly loves fashion (and of course buying and building businesses) so much, it’s something of a mystery as to why he hasn’t entered the industry before now. But the founder of Parabellum Investments is here now, having acquired Manchester luxury fashion retailer Hervia in May of this year, and he has big ambitions.
Hervia has its famous store in Manchester, established in 1993 by Oscar Pinto-Hervia, and is known for its support of trailblazing designers such as Raf Simons, Maison Margiela, Rick Owens, and Yohji Yamamoto. It was also an early supporter of British design talent such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. As well as the store in Manchester, it operates the Y-3 store in London’s Mayfair and an e-commerce business.
Cassis (who has become chair of the business) intends to use Hervia as the foundation to form a new British fashion group. This group will be built through both organic growth and acquisition that could lead to it buying designer-led brands and other retailers, as well as the establishment of its own label. A move into childrenswear is also planned.
Cassis established his global family office Parabellum Investments in 2012 and has been buying and growing businesses in tech, mining and oil and gas. But he’s always had a high level of appreciation for it, citing Yohji Yamamoto, Brunello Cuccinelli, Palm Angels, Raf Simons, Maison Margiela, Rik Owens and Comme des Garcons among his personal favourite designers.
“What’s taken me so long [to get into fashion]? I think it’s self-confidence,” he tells TheIndustry.fashion over tea at Sartoria on Savile Row. “I grew up in a corporate world. I realised I was pretty good at running businesses for employers, so I decided to do it for myself. I’ve been doing it for myself and now I’ve turned into an acquirer as well as a hands-on investor, but typically in the areas that I’ve understood, so oil and gas, mining, software and tech. I’ve been into fashion since forever, but it’s taken me 10-15 years of working on my own before I could go into a sector that I’ve loved but never run as an enterprise.”
Cassis has a number of people in his business who work on deal flow and it was they who had identified Hervia as the perfect platform for his ambitions. “Hervia came up amongst others but many of the others that came up beforehand, culturally weren’t a fit,” he explains.
“What I liked about Hervia was that firstly I got on with Oscar – he is tremendously experienced – and I really like what they are about, which is unlocking the potential of bright, young, British designers. I think the British fashion industry has a lot of potential which needs unlocking by somebody who is willing to make the investment and take the risk,” he adds.
That somebody, it seems, is Cassis. He has his sights set on doubling or trebling the size of Hervia through a combination or organic growth and acquisition.
When it comes to organic growth, that means investing in Hervia’s digital platform to spearhead global growth and providing a platform for more designers. His belief is that other global platforms can’t give emerging talent the exposure they need to compete.
“British designers are somewhat squeezed by the superbrands and don’t get a look in. What I think is missing, without detracting from the tremendous businesses that they [global online platforms) have built is the intimacy with the designers and also the consumer.
“If you end up becoming a multi-brand retailer that has so many brands, you kind of lose sight about what the designers stand for. But you don’t know your customer very well either. The point of analytics is to bring that [consumer knowledge] of course, but I think there is a place for smaller, multi-brand firms that bring that intimacy and knowledge of their consumers, as well as of their designers and what they represent.
“There’s a fine balance in what you can serve as a large platform and what you can achieve as someone who is in touch with their consumers and designers and that’s the space I think Hervia can occupy,” Cassis adds.
Further organic growth can be had from potential launching a Hervia own label, which he envisages focusing on accessories in the first instance, and extending the brand into childrenswear. Cassis loves buying clothes for his 10-year-old daughter and thinks there’s huge potential for a more fashion-forward, gender-neutral and digital first approach to the market.
“Childrenswear offers a tremendous opportunity. First of all kids typically hate trying on clothes and kids up to a certain age don’t really need to try clothes on. But also, there’s room for a bit more fashion sense and more choice,” he explains.
While he doesn’t see a great deal of need for a physical retail presence for kidswear, he does have an eye on potentially expanding Hervia beyond the one store in Manchester and the Y-3 store in London.
“I think physical retail is an ongoing necessity because an ongoing number of consumers will want to know what the fabric feels like and will want to try things on. I think the future has physical retail in it, I don’t think it’s going to go entirely digital. It might be less of a requirement in childrenswear. But physical retail is important to represent the brands properly but also for the consumer experience. [Opening stores] is one of the things we are talking about,” he says.
One of the other things Pinto-Hervia and Cassis are talking about is acquisitions. “Either it will be acquisitions that will be complementary to Hervia that will help double or treble the size of Hervia, or they will be acquisitions within the luxury fashion brand sector but that will be a standalone business within a fashion group.” So, as well as supporting young, British designers through stocking them on Hervia, he could well end up buying their brands entirely? “Absolutely,” he says.
But, as with Hervia, the chemistry and what Cassis refers to as the “fundamentals” will have to be right before he makes a deal. “I have to like the designs, or at least appreciate them, I have to like the culture of the company and of individuals and I have to have some sense of connection with the direction they intend to take,” he explains of what will drive him to purchase a business.
One thing that won’t bother him is timing. It’s ironic that having waited so long to enter fashion, he should do so at one of the most challenging times in recent history. But then, maybe that is why he sees an opportunity?
“I didn’t consider the macro-economic environment at all [before buying Hervia],” he says. “If you wait for the best way to time a transaction, you’ll never end up doing one. Ultimately, I made the decision with my head and my heart had a big part to do with it. But I think if you’ve got a good brand and you’ve got a good product and you know where you stand in the market, irrespective of the macro environment, you can make a success of it.”
He also believes younger, smaller brands have a greater chance of success if they are part of a sympathetic and well-resourced parent group that will let them retain their sense of individuality but will also provide them shared access to business support functions allowing them to focus on design and building their brands.
“There’s a high level of fragmentation in the sector and if you can bring some of these brands together, there’s certainly a story there,” he concludes.
Cassis is certainly writing his own story in a sector he has thus far only admired from afar, and it will be one the market will be very keen to follow.
Main image: Rami Cassis photographed in the Y-3 store in London by Jeremy Lim on behalf of TheIndustry.fashion