China's Ruyi, pretender to LVMH's throne, plots more 'affordable luxury' deals

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - China's acquisitive apparel firm Shandong Ruyi is targeting more global deals involving "affordable luxury" brands, under a push to establish the first high-end Chinese fashion empire to eventually challenge behemoth LVMH LVMH.PA.

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Its chairman, Qiu Yafu, who has led a spate of deals buying tailors Gieves & Hawkes to Swiss luxury brand Bally, told Reuters on Monday the company would focus on affordable luxury, where he sees growth even amid broader economic slowdown.

Qiu, a little-known billionaire with a low-profile even in China, has big ambitions in the world of fashion, where his growing empire is leading the race in China to rival established fashion houses in the traditionally European dominated industry.

The magnate, who started as an apprentice at the age of 17 at one of Ruyi’s textile mills, has built up control of a range of European luxury brands through aggressive acquisitions worth billions of dollars, including French fashion house SMCP and Britain’s Aquascutum.

Qiu, tall and wearing a dark fitted suit and red tie, said the broader Ruyi group wanted to become as big as LVMH, though added that wouldn’t happen overnight.

“LV is a world renowned god-like enterprise. It is our role model. We are still a far cry from it but that’s our vision,” Qiu, who was born in 1958, told Reuters during an interview in Hong Kong on the sidelines of a luxury industry conference.

“Would it take five years, 10 years, even longer, or for the next generation or a better team to achieve? It is a very important project and challenge. It may even be impossible. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn, imitate or borrow ideas.”

Qiu added the firm would “pursue” deals for quality “trend-setter” brands with sustainable development prospects, though he was less interested in brands he likened to “pop music, only catering to people’s tastes for a short while but not lasting”.

“Ruyi has firm and specific requirements and strategic positioning for fashion brands. We are always studying and watching brands that fit the positioning of high quality, high growth and high pricing,” he said.

Ruyi and Qiu are looking to help brands target China’s huge but slowing domestic apparel market, which research firm Euromonitor expects will hit 2.2 trillion yuan ($316.05 billion) by 2022, up around 10 percent from its current size. To that end, he said the firm would look to leverage big data and online stores to reach more shoppers.

The firm's pivot into fashion is part of a wider drive by Chinese firms that also includes conglomerates Fosun 0656.HK, which could lead to an increase in fashion sector deal-making.

Once a state-owned textiles firm, Ruyi was privatized two decades ago as part of a government reform. Its deal-making spree started in 2010 and has stretched from Japanese brand Renown to Hong Kong-based Trinity Group and textile brands such as Lycra.

With presence in 84 countries, Ruyi’s annual sales revenue has exceeded 20 billion yuan, Qiu said.

Reporting by Kane Wu, Pei Li and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Christopher Cushing