The brand’s new chief executive says it is listening to stockists and has put its recent troubles behind it.
The new Nicole Farhi showroom, just off Regent Street, is only minutes away from the brand’s old Carnaby Street premises, but feels miles ahead of its previously ramshackle headquarters. Designed by new creative director Joanna Sykes as a backdrop to her new collections, it’s all muted greys and off-whites, and conveys a real sense of quiet calm.
The peacefulness of the room, which showcases Sykes’ autumn 13 menswear collection, belies what has of late been a torrid time for the brand, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary. As with most 30-year-olds, the landmark year coincided with some serious life changes.
It began with private equity firm Kelso Place Asset Management taking a majority stake, pledging to invest £15m over the next five years to get the business back on track before looking to expand into new markets.
In May, chief executive of four years Niki Scordi left the business, resulting in François Steiner being parachuted in, initially as an interim boss, and by summer the company was working through a restructure of the team, resulting in a handful of redundancies andpost closures.
Added to this, the past couple of years have seen a wave of discontent among a growing number of stockists, who complained that Nicole Farhi had “lost its way” and needed to “go back to basics”. And it seems responding to this was at the top of Steiner’s list when he officially took over the reins in July.
Most of the changes Steiner - the former managing director of Sonia Rykiel and Thomas Pink, as well as chief executive of Kenzo Mode - had to make were “fairly evident”.
He didn’t want to tamper with the identity of the brand forged over the past 30 years, but it was clear that a return to the origins of Nicole Farhi was needed.
“We spent some time defining what this brand stands for,” Steiner says. “You have to have a checklist to make this transform into reality, but you can’t do that before establishing what it is absolutely that you want to do.”
Exactly what that is, however, is difficult to define. Steiner offers the paradoxical claim that he is “unambiguously focusing all our efforts into transforming this brand into what it is”.
He admits it sounds fluffy, but insists this is how he won the confidence of Kelso and the people in control of the purse strings to take on the permanent role of leading Nicole Farhi.
Hiring former Aquascutum creative director Joanna Sykes to head up the design team was the most essential part of figuring out the brand puzzle.
Steiner gave Sykes free rein to reorganise the design team, breaking up the specialist teams to create a “different dynamic”. The work flow of the production and pattern teams has been tightened, as has the product development and garment technology side, while externally, several suppliers have been dropped and replaced by new ones.
Internally, there have been departures - with the roles not replaced subsequently, although Steiner demurs when the word redundancy is raised - leaving behind a “close-knit” team.
In short, the focus has very much been on improving the product - both the quality of the fabric and the design - in what appears to be a real acknowledgement of stockists’ earlier requests to get back to what Nicole Farhi was previously known for.
Sykes’ first collection hit the catwalks at London Collections: Men in January and was well received by critics as a return to form for the brand, and a sign of things to come for the new design team. The collection was also unveiled in its new London showroom, designed by Sykes with simple white walls and grey floor to “allow the product to express itself in a quiet way”.
In focusing on what the team does best, Sykes has also dropped menswear from the diffusion line Farhi by Nicole Farhi.
“We felt that you can’t get everything right. So it was right for us to focus on what we did best, to extract the essence and work with it,” Steiner explains. The autumn 13 Farhi by Nicole Farhi collection started being rolled out to buyers a fortnight ago, and according to Steiner there has been “a fantastic response” so far. “We’ve had new clients coming to see the collection and they are extremely pleased.”
But not everyone has been so impressed. Several stockists, including some of the higher-end department stores, declined to talk to Drapers about Nicole Farhi, with some recently having dropped the brand. Others explained they had lost faith after a series of problems. One indie owner, who still stocks the brand’s womenswear range but has dropped menswear since autumn 12, explains there has been a gradual decline in standards and he had yet to be convinced by the new collection.
“You can sense there isn’t the TLC in the company any more, and it’s become increasingly difficult to sell,” he tells Drapers.
“Nicole Farhi was a bedrock when we started 27 years ago, but we felt there was a lack of innovation and in the end they just didn’t deserve to get our order.”
Sykes’ new collection “needed a bit more testosterone”, he added. “It’s just like looking at little boys’ clothes in adult sizes. It’s a shame - I hope they haven’t lost it on the women’s side, but the menswear has become a bit pedestrian and they’ve completely lost sight of who their customer is or could be.”
One owner of a womenswear indie says she stopped working with Nicole Farhi two seasons ago, and despite acknowledging the changes at the brand, insists “it’s not a brand I would be going forward with”.
“It’s widely stocked in middle-of-the-road department stores, which is not where we want to be. And design-wise it went off the boil - it became very mumsy, with a high price point, and there were lots of quality issues - it wasn’t a commercially viable brand for me to work with.”
She adds: “They may well have changed designers but I’ve filled that gap now with other things so I won’t be looking out for them at London Fashion Week.”
Although Steiner stops short of admitting there was a problem, the label head acknowledges he has acted to improve quality - he selects a suit and a cable-knit jumper from the autumn 13 collection to demonstrate the attention to detail in the new range.
Stockists have also complained about poor communication from the brand - constant personnel changes and general unhelpfulness were cited - and again this is something Steiner has been keen to tackle.
“I’ve had several discussions with some of our major clients - firstly, because I am new to the business, I need to be introduced and listen to what they have to say, because they have a history with this brand that is much longer than me. I have no history here,” Steiner says.
“But we are also explaining everything [to them], the new product, and the new delivery process, which is going to be faster and more transparent. People appreciate it when you come to them with an open mind, but we knew what we want to do with the product and they need to hear that too.”
While the business is still righting itself in the UK, Steiner says there are no plans to “open the maps, empire-like, to conquer the world”, despite Kelso’s original aim of rolling out into Asia.
Much of the investment pledged by the private equity firm a year ago is going into improving the product and developing the team, and there are plans afoot to “reinforce” Nicole Farhi’s web presence.
“We are very much in marching order now,” Steiner says. “We will fine-tune a few things, and we still have a couple of positions we would like to fill, but if we weren’t in proper shape you wouldn’t have had this collection. Everything had to fall in place to get there.”