Stephen Marks: No Marks for subtlety

Not content with causing outrage with the FCUK ad campaign for his company French Connection, Stephen Marks has now put his money behind the film being tipped as the next Reservoir Dogs, starring one Vinnie Jones. Beverley D'Silva meets the millionaire who gets a kick from controversy. Photograph by Sam Piyasena

he London cabbie is a wonderful thing, omnipotent, opinionated - an all-seeing expert on human behaviour and urban trends. So, en route to meet Mr French Connection, Stephen Marks, at his Great Portland Street offices, I consult the oracle, and ask my cabbie.

"Er ... that's a film, ain't it?" he bellows back.

Yes. But I meant French Connection, the fashion chain, of which there are 10 shops in London alone. He must have seen the huge flagship store at the top of Regent Street? Now I come to mention it, he shouted, he believed he had. He does not tall over my next question, however.

"FCUK? I've definitely heard of that. We've all heard of that. It's in terrible bad taste. Terrible. Printing FCUK all over the shop? How did the bloke get away with it, is what I want to know?"

He just did, I say. On a million billboards, bags and T-shirts - even though the company was again censured by the Advertising Standards Authority in January, and was near the top of an ASA survey of most offensive ads released just a week ago.

This story of the cabbie amuses Stephen Marks no end. "The adverts made him chuckle, though, didn't they?" he asks, genuinely interested. "That was the whole point of the campaign - to be cheeky, to put a smile on people's faces."

Marks, who is 51, with a personal fortune of over pounds 40m, is smiling today - between bouts of grumpiness which threaten to spill over into hostility. "If a person has to ask how long a working day with us is, they've come to the wrong place," is a classic Marks dictum. He is a fully paid-up member of the Not Suffering Fools Gladly Club. But, for the chief executive of such a big, successful company, he is oddly monosyllabic. Perhaps he's busy? Perhaps he could think of at least a thousand things he'd rather do than sit here and be asked impertinent questions about himself? Perhaps he just doesn't give a FCUK?

His next project certainly suggests the last explanation. Not content with being the bad boy

of British advertising, he has now put his money into what is already being talked about as "the British Reservoir Dogs". Directed by 29-year-old newcomer writer/director Guy Ritchie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels stars hardman footballer Vinnie Jones on electrifying form as East End enforcer Harry the Hatchet.

Meanwhile, back in the real, day-to-day world inhabited by Marks, it is easy to see that he enjoys surrounding himself with beautiful things. The showroom interior is immaculate and modern, all smoked blue glass, but is booked for a redesign by whizzkids Din Associates, who refitted all the shops last spring. And then there are the staff, all beautiful, who zip here, there and everywhere on French Connection business, rosy-cheeked, corporate, and all young.

"Most people here are young - except for an old fart like me - because it's a young-thinking business," says Marks. "I suppose I am the equivalent of a newspaper editor. Everyone else does all the work and I vet it. I set the direction and my team pick up the ball and run with it."

Against his deep tan - perhaps explained by his house on the chic French Caribbean island of St Barthelemy - his silver beard assumes a platinum sheen. He could be Greek or Moroccan. He is a big-set man, slightly bug- eyed. What he's wearing today, mostly navy blue linen and wool, says anonymous, comfortable, expensive. Tasteful.

"Business is booming," he smiles. "The rest of the high street is moaning and groaning about the bad weather, but we've been sailing through. Perhaps what we have in the shops is very interesting, and the public want to wear it."

Marks's company is "sitting in the best position we've ever been in" since he started it in 1969. French Connection announced a 32 per cent increase in pre-tax profits for the year ending January, and is undergoing major expansion plans. There are 46 outlets in the UK and plans to open 10 stores per year for the next 10 years. Europe, Asia, Australia and the States are all ripe for expansion.

"We're building a flagship store in New York for Nicole, Nicole Farhi," says Marks of his ex-partner's label, which is part of the group. Then there's the money he made when the Hard Rock Cafe chain was sold in 1996 in a deal worth over pounds 300m. Founded by his best mate Peter Morten, Marks had a substantial share in it. No wonder Marks is said to be one of the 500 richest Brits.

Not bad for someone who very nearly lost it all, almost 10 years ago. Marks had to resign as chief executive of French Connection in 1989 due to disastrous figures resulting from the recession. He had to "go back to work" and over the next three years lent the company pounds 3.5m as part of a rescue plan.

By 1991, when he became chief executive again, he may have been an accidental millionaire, but he only got there because he's got ambition, determination and as much fight as flare. "It's true," says Marks. "I never had intentions of making a lot of money." He describes his background as "modest, working- class". His father worked back-breaking hours in his hairdressing salon in Harrow where Stephen helped out. "My father used to leave home at 6.30am and get back at 9pm, 11pm on Saturdays."

Marks's early ambitions as a tennis player - he played in the Juniors at Wimbledon - had to be sacrificed to earn a weekly wage. Passing on hairdressing - his father "earned enough to give us a comfortable life, but not that comfortable" - he joined a family friend in his clothes manufacturing business, where he learnt the trade before setting up Stephen Marks London Ltd. Its speciality was "tailored suits and coats", which he designed himself (there was only a pattern cutter and a female accountant in the business).

He set up French Connection with Nicole Farhi, in 1972, who eventually took over all the designing. Although their relationship ended in the Eighties, their business partnership continues to flourish.

"Stephen's overview is crucial. He's an excellent arbiter. He can see instantly if something is commercial or not," says Farhi. She designs for women of a certain age and pocket (and size), who have grown out of the teen look Marks found he was attached to.

"At a certain point you have to decide: do I grow up with it or keep at the same level I started?" says Marks.

"I didn't want to make clothes for 50-year-olds. Women look better at 18 than they do at 50." Aware that he's on a sticky wicket, he adds, "Even though there are some brilliant, sexy women aged 50 around these days."

It was from this high point in fashion that Marks made his first foray into the film industry. He'd been approached by producer Mathew Vaughn, the 22-year-old son of a family friend, about investing in a low-budget British film set in the gangland of the East End of London.

"At first I said to Mathew, 'You've got no chance.' I wasn't helpful," he says candidly. "Then I went to see the film he'd worked on, The Innocent Sleep, starring Michael Gambon, and I was amazed, having been party to the financial constraints he'd been up against."

Lock, Stock's script, by Guy Ritchie, also clinched it for Marks. He'd thought about getting into the film business for a long time, but had never found the right project or was too busy. "I read it and I laughed ... I've read about 20 scripts in as many years and you don't normally laugh that easily because they're quite tricky to read. It made me want to meet Guy. And when you meet Guy, well, he's really a terrific ... guy. He gave me confidence. I thought this is a very commercial proposition."

"The fashion and movie industries are similar in that you're only as good as your last production. In fashion, we work with scraps of material, a few sketches, to visualise our collections and produce something the public likes. I'd like to think reading a script draws on the same sensibilities."

So Marks joined the other backers, including his friend Morten, and Trudi Styler, whose husband Sting has a cameo role. The eventual cast also included Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher, and that impressive debut by Vinnie Jones. Then there is leading man Nick Moran and Jason Statham, both sharp good-lookers who have modelled for French Connection. Marks lent the film-makers the services of his lawyers, and gear by French Connection, making for a particularly well-dressed movie.

"I'd say my part was minimal. I can't see myself changing careers but just because I make clothes doesn't mean I don't have other interests."

Of course, I say. But one doesn't see David Hare producing a fashion line. "Why not? His wife does," he laughs.

Choosing Hare as an example was a genuine slip. The dramatist is, of course, now married to Nicole Farhi. She would seem to have gone from a man of few words to one of many. Marks invited Hare to the screening of the film - and was delighted to hear that he laughed at this dark, comic thriller, as did the critics. "Perhaps I got the guys going ... " he says of the project. "I like to help talented young people who know where they want to go and just need a bit of help getting there. I started off with nothing, and know how difficult it can be to get things together."

Some critics have compared the shock-violence in Lock Stock - in one unforgettable scene, Vinnie smashes a villain's head to pulp in a car door - with that of Reservoir Dogs. What does he think of that?

"Terrific," he says, drolly.

You think the violence is terrific?

"I think the controversy is terrific. Everybody complained about FCUK - and it did us nothing but good. If it's not controversial who's going to be interested?"

It's true that the ad campaign, built on the subversion of a simple four- letter word, has been the making of French Connection. Marks hadn't touched an advertising agency in 10 years, had completely lost faith. Then he was driving along Chelsea Embankment and saw a giant projection on Battersea Power Station - the Hello Boys! Wonderbra advert starring Eva Herzigova. "I almost crashed my car, the image was that wonderful."

Marks tracked down the person behind the ad, Trevor Beattie, and took him on to revamp French Connection's advertising. Beattie went to the company headquarters, saw a staff member wearing a T-shirt with the FCUK logo, loved the idea and decided to "give it loads". Since then the company has sold 100,000 T-shirts bearing that design.

"This is our third season with the fashion campaign, which I'd say is the best since Levi's. The property developers want French Connection in their shopping centres. The City is much more aware of us."

Yet he is dismissive of the opinions of the "nine or so people who complained" about the campaign to the Advertising Standards Council. In fact, according to the most recent ASA lambasting, 60 per cent of those surveyed found the FCUK ad campaign objectionable. One of the more high-profile critics has been journalist Lynda Lee Potter, who berated the campaign in her Daily Mail column.

"That was a joke," sniffs Marks. "We were delighted she'd never wear our clothes again, because to look at her she wouldn't be doing us a favour."

Does he have a hint of journo-phobia? "I don't have a problem with journalists ... " After all, his wife, Alisa Green, was a fashion editor, I say.

"I have a problem with her," he sniggers. "No, she's great. Best thing that ever happened to me."

He met Alisa at a magazine launch (of the short-lived Mirabella) in 1989, at the height of his business problems. Rumour had it that he asked her to marry him the next day. "That's not correct. I asked her that first evening." It is one of the anecdotes he enjoys relating. "I was stopped by two different people at the party, who each asked me whether I was getting married. I said no, I'd never get married. It was a silly rumour. When the third person asked me, I set eyes on Alisa, who was looking particularly gorgeous, and I said to her: "Excuse me, will you marry me?'"

They tied the knot in 1993, and now have Ella, who's almost four, and Joshua, one and a half. Marks also has a daughter, 21-year-old Candice, with Nicole Farhi, who has just got her MA at the Sorbonne, and is "a superstar" in his eyes.

Alisa styles all French Connection's advertising and new ventures, such as their recent mail-order catalogue, and helped devise the Bath collection, with perfumier Jo Malone, and a range of lingerie.

The couple's tastes obviously gel: when they went house-hunting in St Barthelemy, they both fell in love with the house on Flamands Beach, and had to have it. Alisa supervised the renovations, stripping everything back to the bare essentials.

Is it important to Marks that his partner has an active career?

"Well, I'm not going to want to be with a dummy," is his tart reply.

I suggest there might be some shades in between.

"Are there? I'm a very simple guy. I don't see the shades. I see black and white. Either someone's worth being with or they're not. I'm not impressed with people who sit at home all day long."

The next advertising campaign, due at the end of August, is eagerly awaited by the industry. "It will be equally as powerful," is all he will say. A man of few words he may be, but he gets his point across

'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' opens 28 August

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