By Astrid Wendlandt
PARIS (Reuters) - Shares in LVMH (PAR:MC), the world's biggest luxury goods group, fell sharply on Wednesday after an unexpected slowdown in sales growth at its fashion and leather business, which includes the Louis Vuitton, Celine and Dior brands.
The share price was down 6.4 percent at 135.50 euros by 1140 GMT, a six-week low and wiping around 4.8 billion euros $6.5 billion (4.0 billion pounds) off the market value of France's fourth-biggest listed company.
The group, which also owns Ruinart champagne and Hennessy cognac, saw sales growth at the fashion and leather division slide to 3 percent in the third quarter, against expectations of 7 to 8 percent.
In a conference call, Chief Financial Officer Jean-Jacques Guiony blamed price increases in Japan for the slowdown, as well as softer demand for some brands.
However, one London-based analyst noted that Japan accounted for only around 15 percent of LVMH's fashion and leather sales, "so we did not get a full explanation".
LVMH has been trying to stem a decline in Louis Vuitton's sales growth by introducing new and pricier leather bags, which analysts expected would lead to short-term losses in sales.
"I understand that the repositioning of Louis Vuitton takes time and may be a bumpy ride," said Exane BNP Paribas analyst Luca Solca.
Before the results were announced, LVMH shares were up 4.4 percent since January 1, underperforming the overall luxury sector, which was up more than 20 percent.
Analysts said concerns about the future growth of Louis Vuitton had been exacerbated by the announcement this month that it was parting company with its star designer, Marc Jacobs.
Guiony said the recent launch of new leather collections had not come in time to have a meaningful impact on sales, and acknowledged that production was constrained by a lack of high-quality leather.
"Without these supply constraints, we would produce more than what we do," Guiony said.
Louis Vuitton shop assistants polled by Reuters last month said they had been provided with only a small number of new handbags, such as the Capucines model, priced at 3,500 euros, which had flown off the shelves.
LVMH has been buying tanneries to secure supplies but experts say the market is under pressure partly because the number of calves raised and slaughtered is driven more by demand for meat -- which has been in decline -- than by demand for quality hides.
In addition, China, the luxury industry's main driver since the late 2000s, has started to run out of steam in the last year due to an economic slowdown and a government crackdown on gift-giving.
Guiony said Vuitton's sales in mainland China were "flattish" but, thanks to sales to Chinese tourists, overall sales growth to Chinese customers was in the "mid-single digits plus".
Guiony said trends in watches and jewellery had slightly improved in China, but not in fashion and leather.
He said trading remained difficult in Europe, particularly for perfume and cosmetics, where sales were "flattish".
LVMH's overall sales grew 2 percent in the third quarter. Organic growth was 8 percent, of which 6 percentage points were accounted for by the relative weakness of the U.S. dollar and the Japanese yen against the euro.
(Additional reporting by James Regan; Editing by James Jukwey and Kevin Liffey)