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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Cashing in on a luxury lifestyle
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Alex Bell and models at Chic launch
Mr Bell admits to having a Cartier watch and a stack of branded clothes

If you had a spare 5,000 knocking around, what would you do with it? Snap up some designer threads, grab the latest must-have gadget, splash out on a Balenciaga handbag?

Or would you rather "brand up" your savings? After all, you no longer have to be a millionaire to do so.

Alex Bell, chief executive of Dominion Group, thinks that's what many punters would be keen to do.

The self-confessed brands victim has just launched the Chic investment fund, which gives investors a chance to take a punt on the booming luxury market.

Accessibility

The fund - designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible - will enable savers to grab a slice of 61 big names covering 2,300 brands including Miu Miu, Stella McCartney and Ralph Lauren.

Mr Bell admits that designer names are now common currency, they have left behind the "super-beautiful, super-elite" and are now accessible for most of us.

So he decided to capitalise on the concept with the Chic investment fund.

Can the fund capture the imagination of the general public?

"It's something everyone talks about anyway, so it makes for a very interesting investment," he says.

And with most people struggling for downtime after a hard day at the office, they don't want to come home and wade through a turgid investment portfolio, he argues.

"I was looking for an investor prospectus that was really good and solid and that people could understand, and interesting to both guys and girls."

Customer question

But does it appeal to the punters?

Sauntering around the chic New Bond Street and Jermyn Street area of central London, it seems most people would be willing to give it a chance.

"It's definitely a good idea. There's lots of possibility," says Sabeen Altaf, of Washington DC.

A huge amount of work has gone into Chic - it's easy to discount it as frivolous but it's deadly serious
Alex Bell, Dominion Group

In fact, the product piqued the interest of one hedge fund manager, who dashed off to find out more details - for "research purposes", naturally.

And the prospective investors may well be onto a good thing.

According to a recent report by consultancy Bain & Co, global demand for upmarket goods rose 9% last year, while forecasts predict further growth of 7.5% this year and 8% in 2008.

"Investing in luxury brands is investing in a very dynamic industry showing significant growth potential, particularly in Asia, China, Japan and many other markets, including India," says Susanne Seibel, consumer and luxury specialist at Grey Shrike Capital.

Yet while many of the men and women on the streets found it an intriguing proposition, Italian Hermione Grassi was more circumspect about the plan.

"I'd have to have a look at it and talk to someone about it," she says.

"Everyone says it's so easy to make money, and it's always the people without money who invest and lose everything they have," she adds.

Future worries

Some critics have dismissed the fund as mere froth, a proposal that jumps on the bandwagon of targeted investment funds that include ethical and green propositions.

Ralph Lauren and models on catwalk at fashion show
Designer brands are no longer out of reach of the ordinary consumer

While Chic may seem like the place the smart money will go, some experts do have a word of caution about relying too much on a name.

"It's very tempting to be simply guided by brand name, but that's a very subjective position to take as a guide. It's not straightforward.

"A good handbag doesn't necessarily mean a good company - there's a danger there that it may not be so good," Ms Seibel warns.

Other experts have voiced concerns over how robust the fund may turn out to be.

While it may cash in on aspirational trends right now, rising global interest rates may curtail that spending, they warn.

But Mr Bell dismisses the idea, saying that consumer trends are changing.

"Back, say, 10 years ago, you could say that when interest rates went up and mortgages went up, it meant you cut down on luxury spending.

"But there's been all sorts of studies by groups like McKinsey and Bain & Co, and their results suggest a change in expectations.

"People now are so focussed on work that they will have some comforts and luxury all of the time. It's a change in spending patterns," he adds.

He also believes that investors will want to "invest in what they know", rather than pile into stodgy funds targeting the usual suspects of BT, Glaxo and other FTSE 100 giants.

"A huge amount of work has gone into Chic - it's easy to discount it as frivolous, but it's deadly serious," says Mr Bell.

Designer draw

And the draw of the luxury brand seems hard to resist.

Victoria Beckham attends Glamour awards in Chanel outfit
Public appetite for designer goods is partly fuelled by celebrity exposure

Within two hours of launching its literature in Japan, Chic had run out of supplies for the whole country. For the whole of Asia, it ran out in a day.

"I was grinning like an idiot at the news, it's outrageous," says Mr Bell.

In fact, he believes that Asia could be Chic's main growth driver.

Ernst & Young has forecast that annual sales of luxury goods in China will jump by an annual rate of 20% a year until 2008, from more than $2bn in 2005.

Further figures from Dominion itself, based on Goldman Sachs data, show there are currently 40 million Chinese consumers of luxury goods which is set to rise to 160 million over the next five years - three times the population of the UK.

So the question is, will the designer revolution continue?

SEE ALSO
Permira scoops stake in Valentino
16 May 07 |  Business
Ethical fund 'tops league table'
09 Feb 07 |  Business
Ethical investment made easy
20 Dec 05 |  Business

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