Last week's 69 per cent plunge in pre-tax profits at French Connection was more than just a symptom of the wider retail slump. The company also posted a nine per cent fall in UK like-for-like sales a day after discount retailer Primark reported a 12 per cent sales
increase. Sales at Next fell too, but only three per cent. The crisis at French Connection is laid bare for all to see.
After the advertising industry's doyen Trevor Beattie created the fcuk brand in 1997, punters flocked to buy the company's goods.
Two years later profits had risen by 32 per cent and fcuk expanded into everything from alcoholic drinks (fcuk spirit) to men and women's toiletries.
The brand thrived on stoking controversy. But sex does not sell like it used to. 'The fcuk brand was a brilliant idea,' says Lorna Hall, features editor of fashion industry mag Drapers. 'But they have hung on to it too long, to the point where it is not fashionable any more.'
It was a Drapers straw poll in 2004 that first showed the fcuk rot had set in. The survey of French Connection's all-important wholesalers found that many thought fcuk to be 'tired' and 'tacky', with one commenting that it was 'time to move on'.
Soon afterwards, French Connection distanced itself from the fcuk name, without abolishing the brand. Plans for lower-key branding emerged in July 2004, and the following month the fcuk moniker was dropped from a £3m advertising campaign.
Hall likens French Connection's problem to that of Burberry, whose
unwanted 'Check and Chav' moniker stuck long after it abandoned check clothing. 'French Connection will still have to fight that kind of perception even though it has moved away from fcuk,' she says.
French Connection head of PR Lorna Perrin says: 'Fcuk is interchangeable with French Connection as the company's name and so will continue to exist and be used. Branding on the recent autumn/winter collections has been significantly reduced and used in a softer manner – the logo is now used to offer more subtle branding. Fashions have changed and we have moved on, too.'
Perrin is tight-lipped about future campaign plans. But wholesalers and the media are all eager to know where French Connection will go next.
While the French Connection/fcuk brand accounts for around 85 per cent of the company's global turnover, the group also owns designer label Nicole Farhi, mail-order women's fashion range TOAST and 'fashion basics' range Great Plains.
The trouble is that for many, French Connection does not stand out as a premium clothing company. 'I think French Connection's problem is simply down to prices,' says Iroquois head of fashion Jo Reynolds.
'For many people, shopping is a pastime. They are not looking for an investment when they want a quick purchase. Competition on the high street is fierce from shops such as Zara, River Island, New Look and H&M, which have increased their level of quality while retaining competitive price points.'
While Perrin argues that French Connection offers similar price points to 'our direct competitors Reiss, Jigsaw, Karen Millen, Diesel, Miss Sixty and Whistles', it is on price that media perception has hung.
Fashion media focus
Shilland chief executive Peter Shilland points to Top Shop as able
to sell cheaper clothing with designer cachet, even managing to get involved in this week's London Fashion Week. 'Everything starts with the fashion media,' says Shilland. 'You need to get them to adopt your brands as a fashion ambassador.'
While praising French Connection's autumn collection as 'less sporty and more grown up', Glamour fashion director Vanessa Gillingham points to another problem.
'There seems to be a disconnection between the wholesale side of the business and how the company promotes itself in the press,' she says. 'All the best pieces are on display at photoshoots, but these do not make it into mass production for the stores.'
Writers such as Gillingham and Hall agree that French Connection has started to get its product right and recover its trendsetting credentials. But as Gillingham points out, in the fickle world of high-street fashion, torpor can be lethal.
'From a campaigning perspective, nothing has moved on at French Connection. People are constantly looking for the next thing. It needs to shake things up,' she suggests.
French Connection has been here before. In 1992, long before Beattie came up with fcuk, founding chairman Stephen Marks had to pull the company from the teeth of a recession in which it made an £8m loss.
No doubt French Connection will pull something out of the hat. But, like fcuk, the company's next trick will have to be edgy and different enough for fashion journalists to take notice.
- French Connection Timeline
1969 Stephen Marks launches fashion label under own name
- 1972 Renames as French Connection
- 1985 First shops under name of chief designer Nicole Farhi open
- 1992 French Connection makes an £8m loss
- 1993 Company moves back into profit
- 1997 TBWA chairman Trevor Beattie comes up with the 'fcuk' brand
- 1998 Churches call for withdrawal of Christmas shop window displays that bear the slogan 'FCUK XMAS'. Advertising Standards Authority takes action against the company
- 1999 Survey by market research group Roar names French Connection as one of the most coveted brands for 15 to 24-year-olds. Meanwhile, Mr Justice Rattee says the company is guilty of using an 'offensive and tasteless' slogan
- 2001 ASA rebukes French Connection for its 'World's biggest fcuk' campaign, slamming the phrases 'tomorrow sees
the arrival of the fcuk of your dreams' and 'fcuk Oxford Street. One humungous fcuk' as likely to cause 'serious or widespread offence'
- 2003 New York stores Macy's and Bloomingdale's remove fcuk-branded clothes from their shelves after protests by family values campaigners
- 2004 Trial of '191' store format in Notting Hill. New advertising campaign without fcuk slogan
- 2005 Pre-tax profits fall 69 per cent. Icelandic retailer Baugur increases French Connection stake to ten per cent