As menswear brand Farah nears its 100th anniversary following 10 years of consistent sales growth, brand director Mark McCann has plenty to shout about.
In today’s turbulent retail climate – in which store closures, company voluntary arrangements and administrations are sadly becoming the norm – it is more unusual to hear of success stories. However, menswear brand Farah is one business that has been quietly bucking the negative trend.
The UK-based label, which is owned by American brand house Perry Ellis International, has been riding a wave of sustained success for the last decade. It has achieved 10 years of consistent sales growth and reported double-digit CAGR (compound annual growth rate) over the last five years via 750 points of sale.
The brand does not reveal further figures, but Perry Ellis International’s recent reports show total revenues rose 2% to $875m (£699m) for the year ended 3 February 2018, while adjusted pre-tax income rose 7.3% to $37.8m (£37.1m).
The phrase “strong and stable” might have been coined by former UK prime minister Theresa May, but it could apply to Farah’s recent positive history.
The classic business was in a period of decline. It was tough
Brand director Mark McCann is the man who has been driving this decade of growth. Since as early as 2006, he has led a low-key transformation, pivoting Farah from a mainstream trouser-focused label into a bestseller with broader, more trend-led collections.
As it prepares to celebrate its centenary in 2020, including new product launches and its first ever collaboration, McCann reveals the secrets to Farah’s staying power and how it is now turning up the volume to ensure continued success.
Boy and man
Born in Liverpool but raised in east London and now living in Essex, McCann began his career as a “Saturday boy” at menswear independent Baccus in Colchester. Progressing into full-time buying and wholesaling roles, he worked at Harvey Nichols and Joseph before co-founding sales agency Brand Progression in 1998, and menswear trade show To Be Confirmed in 2000 with Mark Batista, who still runs Brand Progression and went on to launch trade show Jacket Required.
In 2006, Perry Ellis contacted McCann and Batista to relaunch Farah through Brand Progression. Founded in 1920, by the mid-noughties, Farah had become synonymous with formal trousers, and the pair were tasked with creating a new, youthful identity. It relaunched for spring 07 via new stockists Selfridges and Urban Outfitters.
Off the back of his initial success, McCann was approached to move in house at Farah in 2008 as European sales manager. He became commercial director in 2012 and brand director in 2015, and now heads the commercial side of the business, overseeing sales, marketing, product development and design.
Coming in house and taking on the total business was a fresh challenge
“Coming in house and taking on the total business was a fresh challenge,” he says in Farah’s central London showroom. “The classic business was in a period of decline. It was tough.”
At that time, 99% of sales came from the “Farah classic” range, and were mostly trousers. Only 1% from the “fashion” side of the business.
Today, the brand exists as one Farah collection – recognised by its golden F logo – but is technically split in two: the “fashion side”, targeting 16-to-25-year-olds, which has grown from 1% of sales to 70%, while the core “lifestyle” proposition for a broader age range of 35-to-55-year-olds with more commercial product, now accounts for 30%. Wholesale prices for spring 20 main collection range from £12 for a T-shirt to £48 for a jacket.
What is more, while trousers were once its bread and butter – 80% of total sales – today the balance has shifted: fashion is split 30% wovens, 30% jerseys, 20% bottoms and 20% knits and outerwear. Today, Farah’s bestselling item is the Brewer Oxford shirt, which wholesales for £26.
It is this careful evolution of both sides of the offer that has been the secret to Farah’s success, allowing it to maintain a core customer while adding growth via the new fashion-driven collection. In the 10-year journey, McCann has smartly yet subtly reacted to consumer demand and fashion trends.
“As much as we say the menswear consumer is loyal – and the Farah customer certainly is – part of that retention is that we’ve managed to keep it exciting,” says McCann. “You can still move forward while holding a core identity, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t offer something fresh and exciting every season.
We’ve not stayed still, even down to adjusting our fits and quality and other details in small ways to keep updating
“We’ve not stayed still, even down to adjusting our fits and quality and other details in small ways to keep updating. We might have a best-selling style that’s been through four evolutions of changes or edits – to the collar, the shape of the arm – small things that the buyers and the consumers might not even notice.”
For McCann, colour is key. It livens up Farah’s core staples each season and allows the brand to nod to broader trends: “That’s where we inject newness. Of course, we sell navy, black, olive, khaki – the same as any brand – but [the Farah customer] isn’t afraid of colour.”
“I’ve known Mark for 25 years. He’s done an amazing job,” says David Weeks, buyer at three-store independent Xile, which has stocked Farah for 10 years. “He listens to Farah’s customers and reacts to what we ask for. It sells very well, and that’s because Mark has kept the brand at a certain level. It’s got longevity, and he’s built that.”
Wholesale now accounts for 90% of sales via Zalando, Asos, Next, Shop Direct and House of Fraser, as well as 120 UK independents including Xile, Pscyhe and Stuarts London.
The UK accounts for 70% of the total, while remaining 30% of international sales dominated by Germany and France, with 130 European independent stockists.
“Farah is the go-to brand for great quality shirting. The slim Oxford shirt is a key style,” says Nichole Strydom, head of buying for men’s textiles at Zalando, which has stocked Farah since autumn 11. “Within the wide range of colours, the green mist and peach style is currently driving the summer sales.”
At Asos, which has stocked Farah for 10 years, the brand has become one of the online retailer’s bestsellers.
“It has been able to constantly reinvent itself as trends ebb and flow, and it is, and continues to be, a great fit for Asos’s twentysomething fashion-led customer,” says head of buying John Illingworth.
We’ve found we can be a lot more expressive, and test and trail [in our own stores]
“The instantly recognisable ‘F’ branding is key to its success, whether placed on T-shirts, shirts, jackets or knits. Along with the seasonal trends covered, it’s what our guy looks for from the Farah brand. It consistently stays relevant to the times, which is what all the great brands are built on – Farah being no exception.”
Although McCann describes independents as the “backbone” of Farah, he has also been smart to capitalise on the direct to consumer (DTC) opportunity, which currently accounts for 10% of sales via three own stores, Farah.co.uk and a concession in Topman’s flagship on London’s Oxford Circus.
Originally launched as a pop-up, the brand’s Covent Garden store in central London moved to a new, bigger location at 3 Earlham Street in September 2018.
Stores in Leeds and Brighton, picked for their large student populations, opened in June 2018 and November 2017 respectively.
“We’ve found we can be a lot more expressive, and test and trial [in our own stores], and drive more exclusive product,” says McCann. “We’ll look to be a little more progressive on what we test and trail trial? online too, as we’ve found real success there so far. As we build that DTC business, we will become more creative.”
Looking at archive pieces gives us the authority to try different things and offer something a bit different
As more and more brands pursue DTC channels, it can create tension between wholesale accounts. McCann admits Farah’s store openings did “ruffle some feathers”, but most accounts have been accepting. However, independent retailer Accent did drop the brand when Farah opened its store in Leeds, for example. So does he plan to grow that side of the business?
“As it stands, we continue to have strong double-digit growth across both, and we don’t see that trend changing on either side,” he says, adding: “Though we remain opportunistic with DTC, and will explore any opportunities that come our way.”
The next chapter in Farah’s history will be defined by 2020, its 100th anniversary year, which McCann says he has been patiently waiting for.
Farah will launch its first ever collaboration collections – one each quarter throughout the year. Its first is with premium British menswear brand YMC, pitched between Farah and YMC prices, from £20 for a T-shirt to £60 for a jacket wholesale.
“Farah was an important brand in 1970s and 1980s British youth culture, which is close to my heart, so it was an easy decision,” says YMC creative director Fraser Moss. “The vibe is playful and pays tribute to the UK Blue Beat scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. My favourite pieces are the plaid check slacks with pinched seam and matching plaid jacket.”
When times are tough, the best brands come to the fore
Sales books have only recently opened but buyers are already excited: “I’m looking forward to seeing the YMC collection,” says Xile’s Weeks. “I think it’s very sellable and will do well with our customers. The price point is great.”
There will also be a new archive collection of key styles from Farah’s 100-year history but in a typically strategic way, rather than simply “for the sake of it”, says McCann.
“Looking at archive pieces gives us the authority to try different things and offer something a bit different. For instance, because we have a big heritage in denim it allows us to bring it [back] and try new denim pieces in an authentic way. We can pull in lots from the archive but make it modern for today’s consumer in a way that makes sense.”
But with no let-up in retail challenges and no Brexit resolution in sight, how confident is McCann of the centenary year’s success?
“All I can say is that we plan for the worst and hope for the best. As a business and as a group, every different option has been looked into and we will react accordingly. Buyers are being more cautious but ultimately, when times are tough, the best brands come to the fore. We are a brand that continues to grow and for that reason I don’t see us taking a backwards step now.”
He also believes Farah’s position as part of the larger Perry Ellis group stands it in good stead: “There’s the security that comes with that. [Buyers are] assured that we can deliver, assured that we have the right finance in place and assured that we can provide the full service that a big business delivers. That security is reassuring.”
McCann is already looking beyond 2020 to international wholesale expansion built off the success in the UK.
“We have to be measured in our approach, though. We will go after it territory by territory,” he says. Farah has a presence in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, but will be specifically targeting Scandinavia and Benelux regions.”
As our interview draws to a close, McCann concludes with a smile: “Do you know what I love about my job? I didn’t believe that I would be here, in house, 11 years later, but now I don’t see me being away from Farah. It’s been a real journey. We’ve been relatively quiet in our development and growth over the last decade, but to be able to really turn the volume up at 100 years is genuinely exciting.”