Pierre Lagrange: ‘What I’ve done is disruption with respect’
Shortly before my encounter with surely the City’s zaniest financier, Pierre Lagrange sends a mischievous message. He has had “another cool idea”. We are to scrap the plan to meet in his Mayfair club. Instead we should lunch at his tailor — and it is his tailor. It is six years since he startled the worlds of fashion and finance by buying Huntsman, then the stuffiest of gentleman’s outfitters. I am, he says, to go to the boardroom, which was “totally wrecked” in an action sequence in the second Kingsman spy movie.
So it is that on a hot summer’s day I trot along Savile Row and into the Huntsman showroom, past two stags’ heads and rolls of dandyish tweed and up a flight of stairs. It’s easy to see how director Matthew Vaughn was inspired to make the Kingsman films after being fitted for a suit here.
The Kingsman conceit is simple. Outwardly it is an old-school tailor; in fact it is the front for a network of secret agents funded by eccentric financiers. My lunch companion fits the script. On paper the 57-year-old Belgian is a financial nerd: an engineer who as one of the earlier“hedgies” made a fortune in the decade leading up to the crash and then in its aftermath. But his back-story is rather edgier: innovator, fashionista, iconoclast, Harley rider and more. And secretive his HQ certainly is.
I rattle at the door at the top of the stairs. No answer. Back down a threadbare red carpeted flight of stairs I go. Only this time I stop on the first floor landing. Ah. There is a handle, camouflaged in the Huntsman tweed wallpaper. I knock. The door swings open. There is Lagrange.
He is wearing his cavernous smile and a thigh-length deep blue jacket with shirt unbuttoned to the middle. We are surrounded by exotic costumes. For more than 150 years Huntsman has dressed royalty from the House of Hanover to Hollywood. Lagrange laughs when I ask if his purchase was a classic case of a financial titan getting bored and investing in a plaything.
“It’s completely fair,” he says. “When people saw me coming they just thought ‘OK. Someone else is coming to play . . . ’ But my rationale was slightly different.”
Lagrange was in his heyday a master of the universe. In 1995 he was one of three co-founders of GLG Partners as a unit of Lehman Brothers who seized the moment to tear up the rules of investment management. They surfed the boom years with aplomb — spinning off from Lehman in 2000 and going public in 2007 — and then also the crash when banks all but shut down. They were bought in 2010 by Man Group for $1.6bn — not a good deal for Man, as it transpired, but that was not Lagrange’s problem. It was then that he became restless. He may be from a country associated with caution and calm, but this is a buccaneering Belgian who likes to push boundaries whenever he can.
“When I was running the hedge fund a great friend of mine said you need to look to do something else too. I did to enrich my life. I’m interested in millions of things. I’m on the verge of Curious George sometimes. I’m just curious about everything.”
We are perched at the boardroom table. It has hosted many a memorable meal in the Kingsman movies — not least, spoiler alert, a dinner when the spymaster played by Michael Caine ends up drinking his own poison in a glass of Napoleonic brandy. But before we can eat we have to go shopping. We are soon striding back downstairs to Nathalie, a deli 10 minutes walk away.
As we weave through Hanover Square he enthuses about an interview he has just read in the New York Times with Jan Morris. The 92-year-old writer’s life story has particular resonance. She was raised as a man, married, had children, and then in 1972, aged 46, had gender reassignment surgery. At the age of 48, Lagrange, then married with three sons, realised he was gay — precipitating one of the UK’s more expensive divorces.
“It’s an amazing article; it echoes for me. She is the same person and has a totally different existence . . . When I realised I was gay I was terrified. It was an extraordinary moment. I was terrified that people would not love me any more . . . and that people who trust me would not trust me any more.”
Nathalie’s manager races up to him. In a trice we have picked chargrilled broccoli with smoked paprika almonds, bulgar with graceburn feta and purple kale and a range of spicy salads. We delve into the wine enclave and opt for a 2016 Russian River Chardonnay.
As we march back with our goodies, we discuss the digital disruption of the media. His advice is simple. “Either eat or get eaten.”
The wine has an appropriately Hollywood label: Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut. Lagrange opens it with relish, and we both savour our first sip.
“Not bad at all,” he says.
“It’s great,” I add, thinking that usually at this hour on a Monday I am locked in a weekly personnel meeting with the FT’s editor.
“It could have been colder.” Lagrange is a man of precision.
His takeover of Huntsman had a rocky start. He bought it with his then boyfriend, the designer Roubi L’Roubi, whose ideas did not go down well in the staid world of bespoke tailoring. The two ultimately split, and Lagrange bought out L’Roubi’s stake.
“He had a totally different sensitivity to the Savile Row bespoke,” Lagrange says. “We agreed to disagree on that.”
The trick to running the tailor successfully is not dissimilar to running a hedge fund, he argues, but he admits that moving beyond finance was not straightforward. The product launches and marketing offensives of the fashion and film worlds — he was an executive producer of the Kingsman films — went against his methodical investing instincts. “I prefer things where there is more process and visibility.”
I run by him the response of Jo Ellison, the editor of How To Spend It, when I asked for her take on his Huntsman. “She said you’ve made the double-breasted suit badass again,” I tell him.
“What I’ve done is disruption with respect,” he says. “There is a generational shift about how you feel about wearing a suit. We have moved from you wearing it to go to the office to you electing to wear it because of the person you want to be in a portrait — powerful, sexy, seducing.” He points to pictures of clients including Marc Jacobs and Hugh Bonneville. In a characteristic Lagrange segue we start discussing Vladimir Putin via another Huntsman client — Henry Kissinger, an aficionado of the Manhattan branch that opened in 2016.
“Very interestingly, he said two years ago we cannot not deal with the Russians. It’s not a solution . . . Whenever we have done that it’s never been a good idea. We have to hold them close.”
And then he is back on how his experience at GLG helped him at Huntsman. He did have to soften his management style from his time in finance, “where people are really much more controlled”. But by using data he believes he streamlined “a feudal empire”. And his recipe for success?
“Simple,” he says, “investment in talent, and putting processes in place. In the hedge fund I was constantly taking from sports management. If you spend 50 per cent of your time doing a backhand as opposed to a forehand but you have got half the hit ratio you should try not to do that. It’s the same thing with managing money. If you spend 50 per cent of your time focusing on one sector but you don’t usually make money there you should focus on what you are really good at.”
In the first Kingsman film, the villain played by Samuel Jackson orders a McDonald’s burger to go with a bottle of claret. No such mismatch here. The crisp Coppola washes down the roasted courgette, Marinda tomato and chilli flakes a treat.
Lagrange adores Nathalie not least because you can input their bar codes on an app and find out the number of calories in each dish. It is classic Lagrange; he was an early techie and adopter of Big Data. When he ran the hedge fund, he constantly revisited “whether I can get this more safely or more repeatedly or more precisely with the man or the machine.” He has no doubt: disruption has barely begun.
“What we’ve seen is nothing to what we are going to see. We always focus on job losses from technology, but I think that 40 per cent of the jobs that a kid might do on coming out of university didn’t exist when he arrived.”
So how cut-throat was the young Pierre? “Ask my children or partners. I say things like they are most of the time. I don’t put on gloves and I don’t expect any gloves to be put on with me. In the financial industry that’s the norm.”
I see my chance to segue from fashion to finance. We must talk capitalism, I say. It seems beleaguered. Was finance before the crash too relentless in pursuing profit? Did it lose sight of society?
Lagrange is not one to feign guilt for an easy ride. He rattles out a staunch if traditional defence of Big Finance: intensity fuels not just personal success but also innovation; you can single out finance but many others were complicit in the excesses; it’s too easy to lambast the regulators.
“Everyone was basically spending a lot of money with low interest rates and buying bigger houses. So a lot of people voicing ‘it’s a scandal’ were on the take in a way.” Also, it’s easy to say there should have been better regulation, but it’s hard for regulators to understand what is really going on — although he thinks they have overreacted.
“We have to look at the big picture. The main reaction to the crisis was to reduce leverage, but leverage makes the system work. You’re not going to have sustainable growth without it.
“So yes, capitalism can be more compassionate, but it is not a dirty word. The alternative has been tried and doesn’t look too good.”
I turn to Abigail Disney’s attack on the gargantuan pay package of Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive. Lagrange has little sympathy with the critique. He is also very wary of mounting political pressure for rules on executive pay.
“Most institutional investors delegate to a couple of institutions to vote, and a lot of times they systematically vote against compensation of the top managers . . . And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of companies are not interested in being public any more.” You can’t just give in to public opinion on this, he adds.
“It’s nearly as bad as asking for a referendum on an issue like Brexit.”
Lagrange may be adamantine on the core of capitalism, but he has no truck with the Mayfair hedgies who noisily backed Brexit. It’s wrong, he says, economically and morally. As an immigrant he feels all the more strongly that “it’s lunacy to think you can keep people on the other side of the gate by just putting up a big gate. It’s a bad Game of Thrones episode.”
The only argument for justifying Brexit might have been calling for “a liberal Brexit, a Singapore of Europe, very liberal and a growth-oriented conqueror of the world”. But that was impossible amid the backlash against the liberal order. Anyway, he adds, Brexit is a “red herring”, a distraction from fundamental problems facing the British economy.
“When I left Belgium it was a joke that we were paying such high transaction costs when moving house. Thirty years later and the taxes have risen here dramatically in a way that has killed the economy. Britain was the most competitive place in Europe in attracting talent. It’s lost a lot of that.”
The previous day Lagrange played golf with one of his sons. The youngest has just done his A-levels, the other two appear to have split his DNA — one works in the art world and the other for a hedge fund. What’s his advice to their generation? Is the age of hedge funds over now that they have become quite plentiful and there are fewer arbitrages to exploit? “It might be the best time to start one,” he says impishly. “When we started in 1995 we thought we were late and that the good times had been had.”
But there are many other opportunities now, he accepts, with private equity looking especially attractive. “The inconvenience of being listed is that you can very quickly end up focusing on your stock price and be short-termist. There’s some beauty about being private, because people leave you alone and you can do what you want.”
I recall listening to a hedge fund manager reflecting candidly a decade ago how he had had the good fortune to be alive in the “most amazing” period to make a lot of money. Were you just beneficiaries of an amazing cycle?
“Definitely . . . the right people at the right time in the right place.”
As for the next generation, he muses, maybe healthcare and food are next in line for disruption.
This July he was back in the paparazzi’s sights when he married his boyfriend, a former Obama White House aide, Ebs Burnough, in Ibiza. As we move from the Coppola to coffee and polenta cake he marvels at how western society has changed and accepted same-sex marriage — but frets at the fragility of such freedoms all over the world, as reflected by his own anxieties when he realised he was gay.
“I had lived as a straight white successful male, married to a woman I loved and with kids I loved and having just a perfect life. From the outside and the inside I felt really good about it.” The transition happened, he says, “kind of nearly overnight”.
“It was amazing because I was the same person in everything that defines me — father, friend, businessman. I was thrilled that aged 48 I had finally admitted to something that I had buried, not knowing what was buried under there.
“But I was also terrified to lose the people I love and damage everything I had worked on for 30 years to build as a business.” He called Peter Clarke, the then CEO of Man Group. “We were in the middle of the merger acquisition — and I said ‘OK. Sit down. This is what is happening to me. I’m gay but I’m going to be in the office tomorrow. So it’s all good.’ ”
In the tradition of past moguls Lagrange is now a noted art collector. I head back from lunch reflecting on F Scott Fitzgerald’s line on the very rich: “soft where we are hard and cynical where we are trustful” — and wondering what I would buy if I had all the money I needed and wanted to “enrich” my life.
A few weeks after the wedding, in the name of FT research, I am watching the first Kingsman film with one of my amused sons, when I receive an email from Lagrange. He wants to discuss how blockchain can break the deadlock over the Irish backstop. Curious George . . .
Alec Russell is editor of FT Weekend