The Brand Collectors: How IP Managers Are Taking Over Fashion


The brand management revolution has already remade the fashion landscape — from Aéropostale and Brooks Brothers to Van Heusen and Vince Camuto — and it might just be starting. 

Jamie Salter’s Authentic Brands Group is the big player, agreeing last month to buy Champion in a $1.2 billion deal that will park the sports brand next to all the brands above, as well as Reebok, Nautica, Forever 21, Barneys New York and more than 50 other names. 

“When you break a brand away from an operating company, you take away the overhead, which gives the companies the ability to make more money,” said Salter, who leads Authentic as chief executive officer. “Then you go to the best-in-class partners who are experts in that category. So we buy the IP, license it out, spend a load on marketing and create the best social media platform.” 

Salter, who started Authentic in 2010, has played a big part in defining the latest iteration of this model — but he’s not alone.

WHP Global, Marquee Brands and others are also on the prowl, quickly buying up well-known brands and building them out with an approach that is heavy on licensing partnerships and light on operating costs. 

They are the dealmakers of the moment — stepping in just as the pandemic, e-commerce and the decline of department stores caused the traditional retail business model to not just fray, but disintegrate. 

Yehuda Shmidman, who founded WHP Global in 2019 and bought Rag & Bone in partnership with Guess Inc. this spring, said the retail sales generated by just the big three management firms — Authentic, WHP and Marquee — represent almost $45 billion. 

Rag & Bone Resort 2025 Ready-to-Wear Collection

A look from Rag & Bone’s resort 2025 collection.

Courtesy of Rag & Bone

“And it was zero 20 years ago,” Shmidman said. “We’ll be celebrating our fifth anniversary [at WHP] this summer and we’ve gone from zero to $7.5 billion. In the next five years, that $45 billion will be over $100 billion.”

Authentic alone has $29 billion in retail sales.

All together, the three leading brand managers weigh in with retail sales equal to more than a third of the global fast-fashion industry, which reeled in $123 billion last year, according to Business Research Co. 

Brand management isn’t just a trend, it’s turning into a force in the consumer space, breaking traditional fashion businesses down to their constituent parts and rebuilding from there. 

“Good brands are valuable,” said Allen Ellinger, senior managing partner of the investment banking firm MMG Advisors. 

It can take some creative dealmaking to get at just the intellectual property, so brand managers are often partnering up with operating companies as they literally divide and conquer. 

That was the case with Vince Camuto, which saw Authentic buy the IP and DSW pick up the operations. Ditto for Rag & Bone, where WHP took the IP and Guess the operating business. 

“It’s a good way of trying to solve the problem and maximize value at the same time,” Ellinger said.

Hot brands can always find customers and a home when it’s time to sell, but for many legacy names looking to do a deal, the brand management firms are the only real game in town.

Just like the luxury sector has big European brand houses like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton or Kering, the mainstream brands have IP houses.

“In America we actually have these brand management companies” consolidating the industry, said Jonathan Lazarow, a deal-savvy attorney and founding member and co-chair of Ambrose, Mills & Lazarow’s Corporate Group. “They’re monetizing the assets. And that in of itself is uniquely American. 

“Traditional private equity investors have looked at retail and said, ‘OK, whatever worked 20 years ago doesn’t work today. Whatever worked pre-pandemic doesn’t work today.’ So this idea that we acquire a brand and then IPO it or sell it upstream to a strategic, that’s just not working,” Lazarow said. 

“These other brand management companies have really changed dynamics,” he said. “It’s changing the way we view deals. It’s changing the way we go to market, and it’s changing the way that we value what matters.”

In chasing the value of the brand, much is left behind — from stores to sourcing to other back office functions and the jobs that make it all work.

It’s often a painful transition and it can leave brands in a very different place. 

Take Barneys New York, the beloved retailer that got priced out of its Madison Avenue store only to file for bankruptcy and get sold to Authentic. Now the Barneys name shows up as a section in one-time competitor Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship and online stores.

An urban express store

Express filed for bankruptcy in April.

George Chinsee/WWD

WHP bought into Express in early 2023, taking control of the company’s intellectual property in a joint venture. The two parties went on to buy Bonobos for $75 million that year. But Express filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and WHP and its partners bought the assets in a court-supervised sale, keeping 450 stores open.

The close association with so many bankrupt and distressed names has given the brand management firms a reputation as deep-value investors. At the very least, they come to every opportunity with options. WHP bought control of the Express brand looking to form a kind of alliance with the retailer, and pivoted later when the chain failed.

But in truth, the companies the IP specialists buy — including Barneys and Express — were almost universally under serious strain before they showed up.

Heath Golden, president of Marquee Brands, which owns Martha Stewart, BCBG, Ben Sherman and others, said: “We don’t set out to buy bankrupt brands. We want to buy timeless brands and that means they’ve been around for a while.”

But bankrupt brands are something of a sweet spot for the brand management firms, as they don’t need all the baggage and want to just plug the intellectual property into their network. 

“We’re less fearful of buying a brand that on a P&L and on an owned basis went bankrupt because we’re changing the operating model,” Golden said. 

The scramble to grab fashion’s legacy brands features big names, big deals and some sharp elbows. The stakes are high with many of the names that have helped define fashion for generations hanging in the balance. 

Here, a closer look at the top players. 

Jamie Salter in sweater.

Jamie Salter

Courtesy

Authentic Brands Group

Inarguably the leader in this new business model is Salter, who has amassed an arsenal of more than 50 brands that ring up more than $29 billion in annual global retail sales.

He didn’t get there by himself. 

Authentic has some well-heeled investors like General Atlantic, Blackrock and Leonard Green, and connections with landlords Brookfield and Simon Property. 

Simon had been an investor, but recently sold its stake. 

“They made a fortune,” Salter said. “It gives me bragging rights, but it’s the best investment Simon ever made.”

Salter is often characterized as a braggart by market observers, but he’s proven he’s got the chops to silence his critics. When Authentic is mentioned in the same sentence as the other brand management companies, Salter bristles, saying his company is head and shoulders above the rest.

“I have 13,000 franchise stores and 25 percent of my business is entertainment based,” Salter said. In addition to its fashion empire, Authentic also owns the rights to icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal, David Beckham and Sports Illustrated. 

American film actress Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Mortenson or Norma Jean Baker, 1926 - 1962).   (Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Authentic owns the rights to the Marilyn Monroe name and likeness.

Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“And I have the best-in-class partners around the globe, by category and by territory,” Salter continued.

With its pockets flush with cash and its operational infrastructure, Authentic has become the 800-pound gorilla of dealmaking in the fashion field. But it doesn’t buy every brand that comes onto the market. Salter said, “Some years we’ll buy more than others, and sellers like our model more than going public — it’s a good model.”

As Authentic grows, it needs to stay on its toes to keep up its pace.

 Reebok x Anine Bing california.

A look from Reebok x Anine Bing.

Courtesy of Reebok x Anine Bing

“These companies have significant investors expecting big returns,” Ellinger said. “Jamie [Salter] used to be very happy writing checks for a couple of million dollars to buy brands. Now it’s hundreds of millions or billions because he’s got to move the needle.”

Competing against Authentic is not easy. 

“People have come to realize that if Jamie has made up his mind that a brand is going to be in his portfolio, he’s going to make it happen,” Ellinger said. “He just pushes other people out of the way. He’s a very aggressive guy and he may be willing to take some risks that others may not take.”


Authentic was headed for an IPO in 2021, but shelved those plans and has been busy building up the Reebok business, which it took on in 2022.

Salter said he’s not interested in going public, “but one day I may have to,” he said. “I don’t need the money, but it’s a big discussion around here. All I know is it’s not going to happen this year.”

WHP's Yehuda Shmidman.

Yehuda Shmidman

Courtesy

WHP Global

Shmidman founded WHP Global in 2019 with a $200 million equity commitment from Oaktree Capital Management and an ambitious goal to deploy up to $1 billion in capital within five years. 

Last year, Ares Private Equity Group invested $375 million. “These groups are not buying brands,” Shmidman said. “They’re investing in them through brand management firms. They’re following the money.”

WHP’s first deal was for Anne Klein and today it owns a portfolio with more than 12 brands in three verticals — hardgoods, fashion and athletic — worth more than $7.5 billion in retail sales. Its holdings include Joe’s Jeans, Bonobos, Joseph Abboud, Isaac Mizrahi, William Rast, Lotto and Toys “R” Us, as well as investments in the Express brand and Rag & Bone.

“The most valuable piece of the puzzle is not the physical store, the operator or the supply chain, it’s the brand,” Shmidman said. “That’s what drives people to buy, and that’s why capital has come to this space.”

He said there are still “countless amazing brands” available in the market but “very few buyers.”

“There was such a radical disruption in the macro economy, a recession and supply chain disruptions, and that spooked buyers,” he said. “Brand management firms, which are new, have unlocked the opportunity to be the buyer of choice because we want to buy brands and provide them with the opportunity for growth.”

Shmidman said in the last 12 months alone, WHP has acquired one brand a quarter on average. “We now have 177 licensee partners in over 50 countries and are backed by very strong capital partners.” 

And much like Authentic, WHP has lined up retail partners to help it achieve its growth projections for its holdings. Shmidman’s company made a deal with Dick’s Sporting Goods to bring Lotto, an Italian soccer brand, to the U.S.; it partnered with Macy’s for Toys “R” Us, Kohl’s for Babies “R” Us and Tailored Brands for the Joseph Abboud brand.

Shmidman said there are plenty of brands to go around. 

“I believe all of us will be successful because there are more brands than brand management firms and the ocean is very big and there’s room for everyone,” he said. “We have unlimited capital to scale businesses, which is what you need to succeed.”

Heath Golden

Heath Golden

Courtesy

Marquee Brands

While the brand management firms are all using the same basic playbook, there are important differences. 

“We all have a twist on it, but at our core, we all buy timeless intellectual property that we then seek to monetize through partners globally in an asset-light manner,” Golden said.

“I prioritize organic growth and not being dependent on an acquisition flywheel,” Golden said. “That’s fairly unique in the sector. There are a lot of good assets for sale. The model works and it’s a winning model. You will see more good brands become available.

“Our first mission is organic growth,” he said. “Our second mission is to buy great things we can add in. The brands that work best in this model are brands that, when you close your eyes, a broad swath of consumers know it and can see it in many different categories. Either it’s there or you have permission to be there.”

Marquee’s portfolio includes Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, Destination Maternity, BCBG, Ben Sherman and Totes Isotoner, which the company bought last month in partnership with accessories manufacturer Randa Apparel & Accessories. 

Aoki Lee in red and pink BCBG New York skirt and top.

Aoki Lee Simmons modeling the BCBG New York capsule collection.

Courtesy BCBG

To bring those brands to life, Marquee, like the other IP specialists, has to be a master coordinator. 

Golden pointed to the company’s effort to build up Martha Stewart on Amazon with 20 different licensing partners. 

“If you go to the Martha Store, it looks like a home department store on Amazon,” he said. “That’s a lot of different companies doing a lot of different things with us doing a really good job of putting everyone in a swim lane and having product come out that looks like one company did it. We’re like the conductor that makes that all happen.”

That might be what it takes to go big today.

“The likelihood of us seeing another billion-dollar brand start from scratch is low,” Golden said. “What we all think is cool has changed and it’s been sliced and diced into smaller cohorts.”

Brands doing it on their own have to be great not just good at many things at once, from logistics and e-commerce to marketing and retail. 

“The world’s become one about collaboration, where you focus on a handful of things you do great and partner with others to fill out the whole circle,” Golden said.



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