Mr 'French Connection' means business

French Connection boss Stephen Marks talks fashion, films and "fcuk".

By Candice Krieger, March 1, 2012

Stephen Marks last appeared in the JC in 1961. He was a schoolboy tennis champion who could barely afford to join his local tennis club.

Fast forward 51 years and the former junior Wimbledon player has become one of the world's most successful - and wealthy - fashion bosses. He still holds a keen interest in tennis, owning an academy fostering stars of the future, but it is his French Connection retail brand that Mr Marks is best known for.

The fashion label has more than 300 shops worldwide. It has become synonymous with its simple and controversial "fcuk" advertising campaign, which launched in 1992 and helped establish the brand as an international phenomenon (more of that later).

Indeed his public company has become one of the world's most well-known retail brands but Mr Marks, by his own admission, likes to keep himself private. His closest friend in retail was the late Joseph Ettedgui of Joseph. "Other than that I have no friends in retail," says Mr Marks, sitting at French Connection's head offices in Camden, north London. "I'm a hermit. I hope that we have an individual feel about what we are doing. We are not looking to follow anybody else."

So, what is there to know about "Mr French Connection?" It turns out, quite a lot.

His ex-partner is French fashion designer Nicole Farhi - they have a daughter and two grandchildren. He loves tennis, is a member of the All England Club, co-financed Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, holds a Nevada gaming license and is an avid Arsenal fan.

But first up: the day job. Mr Marks, 65, set up what became French Connection in 1972. He was a promising tennis player, winning a plate at Junior Wimbledon, but the game was still amateur and he was keen to make a living. He started out in retail in the 1960s working as a salesman for clothing brand Andre Peters. He joined Louis Feraud to launch a Miss Feraud label. When the collection succeeded he was asked to become a director.

Stephen Marks

Age: 65
Job: Founder and head of French Connection
Lives: Knightsbridge
Family: Divorced with four children, two grandchildren
Enjoys: Films, tennis, golf, scuba diving
Celebrity friends:
Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, Eyal Ryan

"I asked if that meant more money," recalls Mr Marks. "They said: 'No but you can call yourself a director. I replied: 'You can call me a tea boy for all I care. I've been working my butt off and I think that as things are going so well I deserve some more money." So with £25,000; half from a friend and half from the bank, he decided to set up shop on his own.

"Forty years ago, if you went into a department store there would be a coat department, a blouse department and a blazer department with different buyers for all those departments. Nothing was coordinated. However in France there were names that did coordinated ranges - I suppose that was when I thought that we should change things."

He opened his first shop in Walton Street, London in 1972. It sold furniture and clothes. French Connection started trading in the late 1970s.

Today there are 350 shops and business, he says, is growing rapidly. It now caters for men and women and has a strong cosmetics range. In April it will launch a premium home range including furnishings and ceramics.

But the business has had a mixed time amid the tough climate. It reported pre-tax profits of £700,000 for the first six months of 2011 and revenues rose seven per cent to £102.8 million but the company has since announced disappointing Christmas results and financials for last year are likely to be lower than previously thought. Profits for the year to the end of January 2012 are expected to come in at £4.7million.

French Connection really hit the big time in the late-1990s when its famous "fcuk" campaign was launched.

"I was looking to take French Connection and put it in the front of people's heads," recalls Mr Marks. "I was driving along and saw a bra advert up in Battersea Power Station with Eva Herzigova on it. I nearly crashed my car. I thought: 'Wow, that's amazing.'" He got in touch with the advertising man responsible, Trevor Beattie.

French Connection used to send faxes back and forth between its London and Hong Kong offices using abbreviations, "FCHK" and "FCUK."

"There was no thought of it being rude," says Mr Marks. But Mr Beattie picked up on it and came up with the slogan. "We had been doing it for 20 years and it had never crossed our minds. I thought it was bloody marvelous. We didn't even have an advertising budget at that time but within four weeks we had the posters up and the rest is history. 'Fcuk' was a phenomenon." The campaign angered some and ran into counterfeiting problems but it helped transform the business. "Sales rocketed. Everybody became aware of it and everybody wanted it."

But times since have been challenging. In 2010 Mr Marks was forced to sell the loss-making clothing brand Nicole Farhi, which he launched with his ex. He admits it wasn't easy. "I'm not an accountant. I am emotional and passionate about what I do so of course it was difficult but as a public company we have to do the right thing.

"French Connection has traded quite well the whole way through but we had other issues where we had things that weren't making money. I always feel that if something isn't working, it's up to us to sort it out and make it work. If you have three of four things that aren't working, it's very hard to keep everything else going. It's a bit like spinning plates. You have to make sure they all stay up."

Perhaps if "spinning plates" had not gone so well, Mr Marks may have been destined for the film world. He is close friends with producer Matthew Vaughn, who spent six weeks in Mr Marks's house while working on cult-film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, directed by Guy Ritchie. Mr Marks was also involved in Snatch, Layer Cake and Kickass. "Creating a clothes collection and creating a movie are very similar. You need to have a good eye and be a good sounding board."

He has not lost his passion for tennis either, helping to establish academies in the UK and Israel. He counts Israeli tennis player Eyal Ryan among his closest friends.

Mr Marks is refreshingly candid when talking about the industry he has worked in for close to five decades. "When I first got into retail there used to be a store at Marble Arch called C&A Modes which undercut everybody's prices and give all the other retailers a major headache. They are no longer there but there is one called Primark which seems to be doing the same thing, obviously much better."

And then there is the internet. "It has changed the whole industry. Anybody that ignores e-commerce does so at their peril. I feel like a dinosaur. Everybody looking at computer screens is not my idea of the fashion business."

Has he been surprised by some of the victims of the high-street? "No. Does anybody miss the names that disappear? There are new people coming and new things happening all the time and it's up to us to keep abreast of it."

He adds: "I still feel that this is one of the most difficult businesses to succeed in. You have to constantly change things. The consumer wants to see something new in the shop each week." And Mr Marks is certainly committed to the cause. He edits all the collections and used to spend seven months a year traveling for work.

As for the future he intends to keep growing the business - there are new products and effective ad campaigns - spend time with his family, improve his golf and produce some tennis and golf champions, "and hopefully there will be some more movies." Mr Marks himself would make an interesting subject.

Last updated: 11:16am, March 5 2012