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Close up: Will Rigg, Fly53 founder

Fly53’s founder has aimed high since its takeover by JD Sports Fashion.

JD Sports Fashion has hogged the headlines in Drapers over the past few years. Whenever a young fashion brand comes onto the market, JD’s name is always thrown into the ring alongside Sports Direct as a frontrunner to snap it up.

Last February, Fly53 joined the JD ranks, with the men’s young fashion brand placed within the company’s design and licensing Focus Group division. When small labels get swallowed by larger businesses, many stockists often fear the worst, but Fly53 has thrived under new ownership.

Sitting in an Oxford hotel, in the Morse Room (a haunt of the fictitious Inspector Morse), Fly53’s founder and now Focus Group brand director Will Rigg says being part of a larger business is a good thing: “Everyone gets scared of these big corporations as they think they’re going to grab these brands.

“Some brands go straight in-house and the whole brand team goes, but if you look at it, how many brands get acquired and how many that happens to, it’s not that many. They are very careful to preserve what the brand is and what their requirements are. It wasn’t even a question whether we’d retain our own identity.”

A former JD employee confirms the Focus Group division has been kept separate from JD since JD bought an 80% shareholding in the business in 2011. “Focus does less business with JD now it is owned by JD than it did before,” he says, adding that Focus brands have to prove they are able to run a business that “can stand on its own two feet”.

Rigg doesn’t shy away from the fact that access to JD’s bulging contacts book is a bonus for the brand. “It’s great to have other people around who know about the industry and have skills you can learn a lot from, and it’s nice to go through a learning curve again,” he says.

“It’s a completely different thing for me to be able to work with a support network. On the one hand venture capitalist [which Fly53 was previously funded by] is great because you’re still in control of what you’re doing and you call all the shots, but there are a lot of other barriers.”

JD’s substantial support network has enabled Fly53 to push on with international expansion; in the past six months it has launched into the US, Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany and South Korea and is preparing to enter China and Hong Kong. “You can’t [expand as easily] when you’re a small brand, because you have to do some punitive deal as you don’t have the resource to support it. That’s one thing these guys do have - the resource, the legal expertise, and the contacts to make things happen.”

Despite Rigg and his team looking overseas, the domestic market is still hugely important and he says there are plenty of good stores in the UK. “I don’t think you can be a bad retailer at the moment or else you won’t survive,” he adds.

Rigg says that for branded menswear retailers, department stores are difficult to compete with. “The department stores have great potential. You can walk into House of Fraser and when they are laid out right, there are perhaps 20 menswear brands on concession. They all showcase a full collection, with very different brands, from denim and streetwear to classic menswear.”

Rigg may be part of a big fashion engine but he says it is brands’ responsibility to support independent retailers as much as they can. However, he points out: “It’s harder to support them now with the financial situation than it used to be. You can’t get insurance, so you have to take flight risks with people.”

The young fashion market has had a rocky couple of years, with brands and retailers succumbing to the tough economic climate. Young fashion brand Gio-Goi fell victim to the recession and collapsed into administration in January before being rescued by JD in February.

The brand has now been placed under Focus Group’s remit and will be revived before making a renewed assault on the wholesale market. Rigg says he isn’t sure when it will relaunch, and that for now the team will look to refocus the product and take it “back to its roots”.

“As a brand it had real character and soul. There is a position it can take in the market now and it’s very true to what it used to be. It will be a lad’s terrace brand but with a nod to rave culture of course, because that’s what it came out of. It’s relevant to the market and what was happening then is totally relevant now.”

Rigg also says Fly53’s music-inspired look is in tune with current trends. “The time is good for us product wise, because trends are coming back to the street thing, which we came from.

“Being part of the group has given us mental freedom to be able to re-engage with our customer, to be able to work out who our customer is,” he adds. The brand has now stepped back from trade shows and aggressive retail expansion so it can refocus on its product categories one by one. “We’ve actually dropped revenue quite significantly to be able to do that. We need to do that in order to grow. It’s not about grabbing every penny, it’s a very long-term thing.”

In the latest results published by JD Sports Fashion, Focus Group, an 80% subsidiary of JD, delivered revenues of £17.2m, making an operating profit of £1.4m.

A buyer from a streetwear indie that used to stock the brand says although he dropped Fly53 two seasons ago, he would look at the brand again in its current guise. “To start with the brand was nice and independent and street, but it started to look like a lot of other brands on the high street,” he adds.

However, with a degree of caution the buyer says he fears that the brand could be “tarnished” under its new ownership. “All they look for is huge volume, which is not necessarily what we want when it comes to clothing brand.”

However, Rigg disagrees, saying: “JD is spending an awful lot of money on buying brands; it’s not about doing some quick commodity products and whacking it in stores. It about building brands with their own value and reason for being. They all have to stand on their own two feet.”

Over the coming year, Rigg’s remit will expand and he has taken on recently acquired brand Gio-Goi. “My remit now is to manage those brands and develop those brands, nurture them and turn them into whatever they want them to be both from a creative and marketing point of view,” he says.

What becomes very clear is that change is afoot at Focus. Although Rigg is reluctant to go into any details, he tells Drapers that Focus Group is changing how it operates, from being a licensee to instead acquiring and developing brands on an international platform.

It appears Focus could soon have more brands under its belt, but Rigg won’t elaborate any further other than to say the group is “actively looking on all levels”. He adds: “We want to make sure we have every position of the market covered.

“There is a strategy which is much wider and much more brand centric than just being a retailer. You’ve got to think about the whole world - it’s a big market.”

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