Having invested in and taken the helm at streetwear brand Fly53, Simon Smith is focusing all his efforts on growth, and is giving the business the structure it needs to make it happen
In March last year, venture capitalist Key Capital Partners (KCP) invested £3.6m in a 35% stake in streetwear brand Fly53. Simon Smith, a former managing director at young fashion brand Fullcircle, was the man who put together the investment having eyed the brand for a long time.
Smith says the potential was alluring. “I saw in [brand founder] Will Rigg someone with great talent for design and also for brand positioning. But what that raw designer and creative talent needs in order to flourish is structure,” he says.
“I had it in my mind to connect Will with someone who could add that to his business. I didn’t necessarily think that would be me. But it is and that’s great.”
The fact that Smith orchestrated this deal against the backdrop of a recession tells you two things. First off, he really wanted to do this. Second, he can be very persuasive. Smith smiles. “Yes, that’s true. The thing is, I don’t mind opposition. I like to be challenged because it makes me refine my thinking.”
And in the first instance, that thinking is all about those structures. “It starts with personnel,” he says, “and once you have the right people in place you have to give them responsibility.”
Previously, Smith says all business decisions were made by Rigg. “We now have weekly meetings. Will’s in there and his challenge is to focus on design, marketing and the creative aspects of the business, while previously he would have also overseen sales, production, logistics and finance.”
Yet Smith maintains Rigg remains the heartbeat of the brand. If that’s true, Smith is now the brainwave. His role is chief executive and managing director of Sabotage, Fly53’s parent company and, along with creative director Rigg and finance director John Bailey - ex-finance director at World Design & Trade (WDT), where he worked with Smith - owns an undisclosed stake.
The strategy, he says, is simple: growth. Smith plans to transform Fly53 “into a multichannel branded fashion business”, instead of a wholesaler with a bit of online and a few concessions. He says Fly53 will continue to focus on growing wholesale but will also open 10 Fly53 concept stores in the next three to four years. “We will expand our concessions operation from the three we currently have with our partner House of Fraser to 10 to 15 in the next two years,” he says.
Smith sounds pretty certain. And while he forecasts next year will be tough for the market, his first set of comparatives look good. The brand’s turnover [for the year to November 2009] jumped 19% year on year, making the retail value more than £12m.
It points to good leadership from a man used to being in charge after 20 years in and out of various managing director roles. But what’s he really like to work with? “Demanding,” says Colin Clarke, the former sales director of young fashion brand Firetrap, who was brought in by Smith to head Fly53’s sales. “But in a good way. I have lots of contact with him. At the moment it’s daily but that will decrease as more processes and structures are put in place.”
Mike Fell, partner at investor KCP, says: “He is good to work with; that’s why we chose to back him. He has a lot of experience, which he is applying to Fly53, and he delivers what he says he will deliver.”
And Fell is not perturbed by the economic climate. He says: “In times of flux like this people’s tastes change and they want new things. Ted Baker was a buyout in 1990. That wasn’t an easy time and look at that [business] now.”
Smith is a former associate director of Queens Park Rangers Football Club but is relatively coy about the purportedly glamorous world of professional sport. He prefers the supply chain now. “Previously everything was organised on an ad hoc basis”, he says, “but now we have everyone sticking to their critical path.” His first task at Fly53 was to launch capsule ranges for autumn 09, and thanks to his structured approach these were delivered bang on time.
KCP has just appointed a chairman to Fly53, who holds a senior non-executive position at another fashion company and whose identity is currently under wraps because of that other job.
Smith welcomes the extra adviser.
“I have John to ask if we can afford to do something, Will to challenge me over whether something will dilute the brand and the chairman will be there to ask me why we’re doing that something in the first place.”
But no matter the pressures, Smith is certain to remain calm. He is a measured thinker and exudes a sense of composure. He says: “I do get stressed but I have ways to cope with it. I find that people make some terrible decisions when they’re under too much pressure.”
Yet in an industry and a climate that places every brand under pressure, Fly53 is heading in the right direction. And the retailers have noticed. Jane Mahoney, director of womenswear independent Brilliant Disguise in Stroud, Gloucestershire, says: “The brand seems to have a better grip on the retailer’s point of view since it opened its own concessions. We want more product in season and that’s what we’re getting from Fly53 now.”
New customers are coming on board too. Paul Tallett, owner of menswear and womenswear independent Cayman Reef in Coalville, Leicestershire, says: “Autumn 09 was our first season and I’m really pleased. Unlike some brands which purport to have both the quality and the look, Fly53 actually does. This means it appeals to more than just the kids but the older customers get into it too. There’s real potential for it.”
Smith already knew that, and it sounds like his message is getting through.
What do you think has been the impact of the recession on fashion?
I think it’s made buyers more conservative in their approach; more fearful of risk. And this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If buyers only go for what is safe, and not what is new and enticing, that can be damaging.
What is your proudest career achievement?
The one that really makes me proudest is putting together the investment for Fly53 and assembling a team capable of achieving really great things, all against the background of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s.
What is the best-selling product you have worked on?
At Fullcircle, the melton coat was a big one that we really developed the market for and became a category all of its own. But in value terms it was the Hard Rock sweatshirt.
I was a new sales executive at Jefferson, selling contract clothing, and my boss told me to go and see the Hard Rock Cafe owner. I went along with no expectation and came away with an order for 500,000 pieces.
Who do you most admire in fashion?
I have to say Vivienne Westwood, because she has never compromised. It’s absolutely vital for any business to know where it is going and have that sense of direction, which she has. But more than that, the people I really admire are the unsung heroes of fashion. These are the hundreds of talented people that
form the bedrock of fashion but never get the recognition - I mean the people in supply or production or selling design samples, the ones whose talent is not traditionally recognised.
2009 MD and CEO, Sabotage, Fly53
2002 Returns to Fullcircle, World Design & Trade
2000 MD, Blues Filobranca Group
2000 Co-MD, Hay & Robertson
1998 MD, Fullcircle, World Design & Trade
1988 MD, Miles Jefferson
1988 Product manager, Levi Strauss
1986 Sales and product executive, Jefferson International