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British fashion retailer French Connection reinvented itself in the late 1990s by relaunching as FCUK, with attention grabbing shock tactics apparently borrowed in equal measure from punk rock group the Sex Pistols and rival clothing retailer Benetton. Emblazoned on t-shirts and giant poster sites, that FCUK "accidental misspelling" was an enormous though controversial success for several years. While many mainstream fashion brands such as Levi's and Gap struggled to reinvent themselves for a new generation of shoppers, French Connection was firing on all cylinders through the late 1990s and early 2000s, with record profits and rapid expansion worldwide. Yet however daring its marketing may have been, French Connection's clothes were in fact considerably less interesting than those stocked at faster-growing rivals Zara and H&M, and the truth finally caught up with the company in 2004. That year, sales began to slow significantly, encouraging the company finally to drop the FCUK slogan from its advertising. That tactic failed to arrest the decline in performance.
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The advertising campaign that turned respectable French Connection into controversial FCUK began in 1997. Until that point, the group had relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth and magazine coverage. However, chairman and CEO Stephen Marks' attention was grabbed by the high-profile "Hello Boys" campaign for Wonderbra, partially conceived by controversial advertising executive Trevor Beattie from TBWA\London. He sought Beattie out and asked him to do something equally show-stopping for French Connection. The company was already using the term FCUK in corporate correspondence to differentiate its head office in London from the manufacturing centre in Hong Kong, known as FCHK. It took the twisted genius of Trevor Beattie to see the possibilities in the acronym and he went big with it.
The first ads appeared in 1997, a series of billboards and press ads shouting "FCUK Fashion", and showing no clothes, only models' heads. They created a storm of protest. A subsequent cinema ad featured 25 seconds of blank screen followed by the slogan "fcuk advertising". The company was forced by regulators to change the original version, adding dots between the letters to demonstrate that this was an abbreviation not a misprint. It still got a 15 rating from the censors. Many magazines refused to carry the accompanying print ads because of the suggestion it seemed to make about their main revenue stream, and these too were changed to read "f.c.u.k. advertisement". A series of suggestive, often controversial ads followed: posters jumbling up provocative words and phrases, which when unscrambled read "I want you" or "Come and sit on the sofa and give me a snog"; a billboard simply reading Subliminal advErtising eXperiment; or another featuring two unoccupied beach towels and the slogan "They're doing it in the sea".
This was hardly cutting edge stuff (and now seems in retrospect a little infantile), but back then the approach couldn't have worked better. The mainstream fashion industry was already suffering from upheaval as a new generation of shoppers spurned labels which they thought of as old-fashioned. Then celebrating its 25th birthday, French Connection should have been the archetypal mum-and-dad label. Instead the FCUK campaign successfully alienated a large proportion of those parents, while endearing the label to their offspring. At the end of 1998 even the Church of England went public with its disapproval of the brand's latest campaign, which proclaimed "FCUK Christmas". Of course nothing could more effectively ensure a popular audience among the kids themselves. There was a huge demand for t-shirts, bags and other items carrying the FCUK brand name, and the company milked these shock tactics for all their worth for several years.
In keeping with its hard new image the group was the main sponsor in 1999 of heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis in his battle with Evander Holyfield. In 2000, the group's first full-length TV commercial was subject to an equally high profile ban, for containing "an unacceptable level of innuendo". French Connection subsequently agreed to submit all its non-broadcast ads to the advertising Standards Authority for pre-vetting. However, perhaps even as intended by Trevor Beattie, the banning of the "FCUKinkybugger" ad generated more awareness than the ad itself could ever have done on its own. Indeed the banning of the campaign itself became the core concept behind another showy marketing concept, with posters and window displays redirecting consumers to the internet, where the ad could be seen in all its unbanned glory. Inevitably, the commercial itself was nothing like as outrageous as the ban had suggested. (Ironically, in 2002 Marks apologized retrospectively for the kinkybugger campaign, saying it had been "a mistake for the brand because it was not our core focus".)
From that point onwards, the growing challenge facing both Beattie and French Connection was to keep the momentum going. As the shock value of FCUK wore off, they needed to find alternative ways of grabbing shoppers' attention. In early 2002 the group promised to unveil an even more "eye-catching" campaign later in the year. This turned out to be a series of vast but comparatively tasteful posters around the UK, covering apartment buildings and office blocks. Shock value, however, was noticeable by its absence.
But there are always new markets to conquer and to offend. The name alone was enough to raise the temperature in more conservative US markets during 2003. The American Family Association, based in Mississippi, and Minnesota's Catholic Parents Online launched an orchestrated protest campaign against retailers stocking FCUK goods. This led to them being pulled from more than 400 stores owned by what was then Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), while other chains scaled back or dropped promotions around FCUK apparel. advertising for new fragrance lines FCUK Him and FCUK Her, produced under license by Shiseido's Zirh International subsidiary, was dropped by teen magazines Seventeen and Teen People following protests from parents and schools. As a result the company agreed towards the end of the year to rebrand the products as French Connection United Kingdom instead of FCUK to get them back into US shops.
In 2004 the company announced the launch of a new FCUK digital radio station, broadcast via its website. The station promised to "shake up" the radio industry, playing "none of the hits, none of the time". An advertising campaign for the station, however, once again roused the anger of regulators. A poster also deliberately misspelled other words in order to suggest more explicitly an ever before the link between the FCUK name and the common expletive. ("Fcuk FM from Pnuk to Rcok and back. Non-stop Fnuk. Fcuk Fm."). As a result the group was ordered to submit all its posters in advance for approval by the advertising Standards Authority for a two year period.
Shortly afterwards, French Connection announced plans to drop the slogan altogether from its advertising, for a new campaign which simply hinted at the brand without stating it. The campaign, which launched in September 2004, was described as a "satire on advertising". More seriously however it became increasingly apparent that the novelty value of the FCUK slogan had finally begun to wane even among the most infantile shoppers. The group issued a shock profits warning in 2004, which it blamed on poor buying decisions. In reality, however, the FCUK clothes lines had long failed to live up to the hype generated by the slogan.
In 2006, a new commercial (directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones) stirred up more controversy, featuring two good-looking girls fighting with each other, before making up with a passionate lesbian kiss.
The group operates a small portfolio of separate brands. The main French Connection range of affordable and mainstream clothing accounts for around 88% of revenues. The group claimed retail sales worth £400m for 2012. However it is partnered by mail order womenswear label Toast, and low cost clothing label Great Plains. A new "edgy" fashion label, YMC, was launched in London in 2011.
In January 2009 the business operated 145 outlets in the UK, including concessions in several outlets owned by department store group House of Fraser. There were also 38 outlets in North America and 21 in Japan. A further 154 stores in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region operated under franchise or license. Total numbers have reduced since then to 130 UK stores and 13 in North America, but 250 licensed or franchised outlets.
The group's performance has remained under considerable pressure for several years since 2005. After hitting a six-year low in the 12 months ending Jan 2008 of £236m, sales began to improve the following year reaching £249m for the year to 2010. However, losses almost doubled to £12m, prompting the group to dispose of several assets. The group's upmarket designer label Nicole Farhi was sold to private equity backers for £5m, and plans were announced to close most of the group's retail operations in the US. Instead, the group agreed a deal with retail giant Sears, which started stocking the brand under the name UK Style by French Connection from Spring 2011. Clothing is produced under license by the local arm of Chinese apparel giant Li & Fung. Sears opened branded boutiques in 500 stores, supported by a significant marketing campaign. However, that contract ended in 2012, prompting another steady decline.
Reflecting the down-sizing of operations, reported revenues from continuing operations for the year ending January 2011 fell to £205m, and have continued to decline steadily since then, to a low of £178.5m in the year to Jan 2015. That year the group reported a pretax loss of £1.6m, its third consecutive deficit, though lower than each of the two previous years. Accumulated losses for the three-year period are over £18m. Retail revenues slipped 12% to £103m, but wholesale increased slightly. However 2015 got off to a poor start as a result of a poorly received new collection. Losses for the first half alone doubled to £8m.
Founder Stephen Marks, aged 69 in 2015, remains chairman and chief executive of the group, and controls just under 42% of its equity. Neil Williams is operations director. Rhiannon Sager is brand & retail marketing manager.
Stephen Marks set up his first fashion business in London at the tail end of the 1960s, selling tailored suits which he designed himself. Three years later, his French-born girlfriend Nicole Farhi became his business partner, gradually taking control of all the company's designs. In 1972 they changed the company's name to French Connection, an oblique reference to Farhi's background as well as an unashamed attempt to take advantage of the attention then being lavished on the popular (but not very fashion conscious) detective movie released a year earlier. By the end of the 1970s, French Connection had established a strong niche for its affordable but stylish clothing.
During the 1980s, Marks and Farhi's personal relationship ended, but they remained business partners, with Farhi setting up her own more upmarket designer label under the auspices of the group. After going public in 1984, French Connection acquired a 50% stake in Best Of All Clothing, a US clothing distributor which then became its exclusive North American licensee. The company also began to open its own retail outlets, building up a small chain of eight British shops and one New York store by the end of the decade. In 1989, Farhi added a menswear line to her increasingly popular women's clothing.
By now, however, the business had run into trouble as recession bit deep into its profitability. Marks appointed a new chief executive, but remained chairman, investing a significant amount of his own money into the company as part of a restructure. The gamble paid off, and the business was back in the black by 1991. After disagreements with interim CEO Michael Shen, Marks took back the CEO role that year, and soon after appeared to develop a solid Midas touch. An early backer of the Hard Rock Cafe in London, he made a fortune when the business was sold to Rank in 1996. A year later he ploughed some of his cash into a little British gangster movie being developed by a couple of unknown filmmakers, one of them the son of a family friend. In addition to the financing he supplied the film's wardrobe. The film was Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, which went on to be a substantial international hit in 1998, earning Marks a handsome profit as well as a global audience for French Connection clothing.
At the same time, the company's sales and profits soared as a result of the new FCUK campaign. In 1996, group sales were £83m. By the beginning of 2004, after several years in which most other fashion retailers had watched sales plateau and profits fall, French Connection revenues had leapt to a high of £268m. In 2001, the group bought out its US partner to take sole charge of its North American operations, and also acquired a majority stake in British mail order business Toast. It also successfully broadened its range, unveiling a line of designer eyewear and footwear. Partnerships with other manufacturers brought branded watches (through Timex), grooming products, cosmetics and fragrances (with Boots in the UK), and an interior design range.
The company also unveiled a range of branded condoms and even FCUK Spirit ready-to-drink cocktails, produced under under license by Matthew Clark Brands. In fact, after only a year on-sale, FCUK Spirit was the first alcoholic beverage ever to be banned by the industry watchdog, the Portman Group. Responding to numerous complaints since its launch, Portman ruled that the drink appealed primarily to a market of underage drinkers, and should therefore be withdrawn. In late 2002 the group unveiled a range of international fragrances produced under licence by Zirh International, a US-based division of Japanese giant Shiseido.
Ironically, the general notoriety and accompanying success of FCUK overshadowed the more grown-up Nicole Farhi business which, in common with other designer labels, found the environment rather more challenging.
Last full revision 23rd September 2015
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