Reflections and thanks on a thirty-year client relationship: “it’s been emotional”

Thirty or so years ago, a year after I founded MBS on my dining room table, I had a call from the then CEO of French Connection, Mike Shen. This was to be my first retained plc client and the first rung on the ladder to becoming the consultancy that MBS is today. Mike awarded me five searches and all first tranches were paid upfront. About a month into the work, Mike called to say that things were not looking good, he was leaving the company and that he was handing my work over to the founder, Stephen Marks, who was returning to run the business as CEO. I have always been convinced that had the five retainers not been paid, things would have turned out very differently for me.

So in the Summer of 1991, I went to Bromley by Bow to the French Connection HQ. Having newly arrived to live in the UK, it seemed very far away from central London. I was taken into Stephen Marks’ office, which was minimal, with a large white desk, and on the shelf behind him were black and white framed photographs of Stephen and his friends from around the world. A man with presence, Stephen was dressed in what has become his uniform – pristine blue pressed jeans, a black polo shirt and white converse sneakers with no laces and no socks. Reluctantly, Stephen took the meeting with me. I was booked in for 30 minutes and an hour later, we were still talking.

This was the start of what was to become a 30-year working relationship for French Connection and the luxury brand Nicole Farhi. On first impressions, the person you think you are meeting when you meet Stephen is often very different from the person he truly is. He can be an intimidating man who is very direct – and he can sometimes appear rude – but in actual fact, you will not find a more loyal friend.

Stephen is loved by many. He’s a family man with four children he adores and is very proud of, and he’s a very good colleague for whom many have worked for decades.

And so this weekend edition is to remind us all of what an incredible history French Connection had under Stephen’s helm. It is to talk about the man who not only taught me about what it takes to run a global fashion business, but also the importance of always seeking the best, the different, the new and whatever’s on the zeitgeist. For me personally, it is written to celebrate my own pride at having had such a longstanding and enriching client relationship for over thirty years.

Perhaps most importantly, I hope this can be a way for the industry to say thank you and farewell to Stephen, now aged 75, as he leaves behind the world of retail and fashion. He is continuing with his two other passions, which have become business for him, too: the first is golf and the second is films, via the vehicles of Dukes Meadows Golf & Tennis and Marv Films, which is owned by, Matthew Vaughan, who Stephen has advised and mentored right from the beginning of his career – something that Stephen has consistently done with young people.

Stephen grew up in Harrow in North London, helping out as a kid in his father’s hairdressers. He left school at the age of 16 with big dreams to play tennis and in 1964, at the age of 18, he won the junior’s title at Wimbledon. Tennis back then was still an amateur sport, and he needed to find a way to earn a living.

So Stephen went to work for a coat manufacturer run by a family friend. “They gave me the most wonderful training, although I didn’t realise it at the time,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2001, “learning about everything from cloth buying to designing.”

Towards the end of the 1960s, Stephen went to work for designer and manufacturer Louis Feraud, where he successfully launched the Miss Feraud label. That success led them to offer him a position as a director of the company.

Although very young, Stephen knew then that what he wanted to do was to run his own company. And so in 1969, he founded Stephen Marks London Ltd, with just £17,000 in the bank. An apparel company, he did the designing, and he hired a pattern cutter and an accountant. Stephen has described himself at this time as “a salesman who had a sense of what was right and what was wrong,” and by 1972, the company was doing £700,000 in sales.

In that year, he travelled to Hong Kong and realised the potential of Asia. He also visited India, which he would have a very strong connection with throughout his fashion career. For him, he says, these trips shone a light on the price and quality that could be achieved – making affordable, high-quality fashion for young people.

Stephen met the French designer, Nicole Farhi, who became the company’s chief designer. And so French Connection was born, named after the movie The French Connection (Stephen later went on to be an investor and executive producer in the film business – involved in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and all of the Kingsman films).

French Connection grew both as a retail and a wholesale brand in the UK. Nicole Farhi was also transformed into its own retail format, with Nicole designing clothes under her own name and eventually being awarded a CBE for services to fashion in 2007.

Photo credit: French Connection.

But it was French Connection that remained the company’s flagship brand. In 1984, the company turned toward the United States, partnering with Michael Axelrod in a 50/50 joint venture Best of All Clothes (BOAC). Two years later, as French Connection prepared to boost its expansion in the UK, the company went public and listed on the London Stock Exchange.

But by the time I first met Stephen, French Connection appeared to be on the brink. The UK and the US were going through a recession, and in order to rescue the company from collapse, Stephen lent French Connection £3.5 million, set about rebuilding the company and hiring the best people to work for him around the world.

It was a very exciting client to have, and MBS grew with the success of French Connection. It was working with Stephen that I learnt never to compromise on people. As he built the team and the product improved, the share price over the next few years went from 3p to £6 and by 1996, the company was able to pay out its first stock dividends since 1991. But there was still so much more to come.

“It was working with Stephen that I learnt never to compromise on people. As he built the team and the product improved, the share price over the next few years went from 3p to £6 and by 1996, the company was able to pay out its first stock dividends since 1991. But there was still so much more to come.”

No high street fashion brand, other than the Gap, had had serious advertising campaigns or marketing budgets. But Stephen was always ahead. In 1997, he got in touch with founder of TBWA advertising agency, Trevor Beattie, and brought him on board to work as a consultant. Trevor happened to see a fax in the office where internally they had long been addressing the faxes to its Hong Kong office using the acronyms from FCUK to FCHK.

Trevor took the acronym and turned it into a UK phenomenon, and the rest is history. The FCUK advertising campaigns became a sensation around the world with some ads provocative, others clever and subtle but all brilliantly done, particularly the billboards.

The controversy surrounding French Connection’s new advertising campaign helped bring the company into the public eye. Crucially, the campaigns were coupled with very strong product, and French Connection’s sales took off, reaching £83 million in 1997 and topping £117 million by 1999. The company continued growing and expanding globally, and by 2001, sales reached £193 million.

The FCUK adverts continued to draw both criticism and complaints and when one of the campaigns was banned on national television, Stephen immediately launched a website featuring the full-length advert.

Thousands of teenagers around the world wearing “FCUK ME” t-shirts gave Stephen the impetus to bet on its future growth. He did some outstanding licensing deals, including beauty, fragrance, eyewear, watches, lingerie and homewares and opened fabulous restaurants including 202 in Notting Hill and Nicole’s in Bond Street and Fifth Avenue. Always an admirer of great brands, Stephen also bought the label Toast, which he went on to grow and then sell, which turned out to be a very lucrative deal.

Photo Credit: French Connection.

But Stephen’s real passion is everything creative. While he went on to work with some of the best known photographers, film makers and brand creators around the world, it was incredibly difficult to top that ‘hit parade’ moment of FCUK. The past decade has proved to be tough for the sector but in his generation of founders and owners in the fashion industry, Stephen along with very few others in the UK, can stand with dignity and elegance. (Some have let us down terribly).

Catching up with Anne Pitcher, Group Managing Director at Selfridges yesterday, she said to me: “Stephen is one of our industry’s real greats. Business partner, yes; mentor, certainly, and a true friend over many years”.

“Stephen is one of our industry’s real greats. Business partner, yes; mentor, certainly, and a true friend over many years” – Anne Pitcher, Group Managing Director at Selfridges 

Stephen will go down in UK business history as a great entrepreneur, a man always ahead of the curve and a very clever and successful businessman. His legacy will be the brand and one of the most memorable advertising campaigns in history.

For me personally, Stephen taught me never to compromise, to always seek out the best and not the obvious, and to never accept mediocrity. I, along with many around the world, salute you Stephen Marks and wish you well with the many ventures and adventures that you will continue to embark on, hopefully for the next 25 years and beyond.

Quick- fire questions:

Where were you born? Harrow, North London

Favourite film? The 1995 thriller, The Usual Suspects

Who is your mentor? My father who worked harder than anyone I know

What would you like your legacy to be?  Success for French Connection | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup