| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing Co Ltd (9983.T) and South Korean fashion conglomerate E.Land Group are separately exploring a deal for large U.S. apparel chain J.Crew Group Inc, people familiar with the matter said.
J.Crew, which was taken private by TPG Capital LP and Leonard Green & Partners LP for $2.8 billion in 2011, believes it should fetch at least $5 billion in any sale, one of the people said.
It was not yet clear whether either Japan's Fast Retailing or Korea's E.Land have held any substantial discussions with J.Crew about a deal.
E.Land, one of South Korea's largest fashion and retail companies, is in talks with potential partners, which could include an Asian trading house, for a joint J.Crew bid, a second person said.
While there is takeover interest from other companies as well, owners of J.Crew are not necessarily committed to pursuing a sale of the company, the people added. TPG and Leonard Green are in the early stage of exploring exit options for J.Crew, including an initial public offering, and have yet to make a decision on the timing and avenue of a potential exit, the people familiar with the matter said.
All the people asked not to be named because the matter is not public.
A Fast Retailing spokesperson said the company does not comment on speculation. Representatives for J.Crew and E.Land did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Leonard Green and TPG declined to comment.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Friday that J.Crew is in talks to sell itself to Fast Retailing for as much as $5 billion, citing a person familiar with the matter, saying the Japanese retailer approached J.Crew's management this week about potentially buying the company.
A fresh acquisition of a U.S. fashion brand would be consistent with Fast Retailing's growth strategy.
Chief Executive Tadashi Yanai has set a lofty goal of growing his company into the world's top apparel retailer by 2020 by quintupling revenues to 5 trillion yen ($49 billion), overtaking Zara's Inditex (ITX.MC), Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) (HMb.ST) and Gap Inc (GPS.N).
While Uniqlo's global expansion has been driven primarily by Asia so far, it's planning to accelerate a push into the United States, adding 20-30 shops a year to reach 100 outlets in several years. J.Crew would give the group a basic clothing line whose price range falls somewhere between Uniqlo and Theory, which Fast Retailing fully acquired in 2009.
Fast Retailing says M&A is among its options for continued growth, especially overseas, to help it expand its sales network and attract talent in markets where it is a small player. Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princesse tam.tam are among other brands acquired over the years.
To aid a push beyond the 17 stores it now has in the United States, Fast Retailing is looking at offering a more "3-D" fit for local customers, an executive told Reuters this week.
The company is also due to list Hong Kong Depositary Receipts on Wednesday in a bid to raise its profile in Asia.
Talk of a potential sale of J.Crew comes as the retailer is weighing a return to the stock markets as soon as this year. The brand is working with Goldman Sachs Group (GS.N) as it mulls a stock market listing, said one of those familiar with the matter.
Private equity firms have been looking to exit their portfolio investments through a public offering or an outright sale to another company, as equity markets rallied and debt financing conditions remained robust to allow for a large buyout.
Run by well-known executive Mickey Drexler, J.Crew is a multi-channel retailer of women's, men's and children's apparel, shoes and accessories. As of February, the company operates 330 retail stores, including 257 J.Crew retail stores, eight Crewcuts stores and 65 Madewell stores, according to its website.
In the fiscal year ended February 1, J.Crew's revenues increased 9 percent to more than $2.4 billion, while adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) rose to as much as $371 million, from $360 million in the prior year.
($1 = 102.0650 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis, Christian Plumb and Chang-ran Kim; Editing by David Gregorio, Diane Craft, Lisa Shumaker and Ian Geoghegan)