All the rage in the City? Fashion tycoon joins trend of selling shares for divorce

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Stephen Marks, the £250m man who turned French Connection into a fashion powerhouse, has become one of the most successful tycoons on the high street. Not surprisingly he has a lifestyle to match, with homes in Chelsea, St Barts in the Caribbean and the Hamptons outside New York.

Stephen Marks, the £250m man who turned French Connection into a fashion powerhouse, has become one of the most successful tycoons on the high street. Not surprisingly he has a lifestyle to match, with homes in Chelsea, St Barts in the Caribbean and the Hamptons outside New York.

This is the man who shared the 177th ranking with the Queen in this year's Sunday Times list of richest Britons. As his business career reaches new heights, however, the entrepreneur has run into problems in his personal life.

Yesterday he found the two entwined when he sold £40m of shares in the high-street chain to fund his divorce. Much of the money will go to Alisa Marks, who until last year worked with her husband as French Connection's creative director and who is partly credited with the money-spinning FCUK logo.

In selling off the equity, Mr Marks joins a select band of businessmen who have ended up liquidating tranches of stock in their companies to pay off their ex-wives. The payments have raised eyebrows about the size of the divorce settlements and questions about whether the companies themselves may be about to experience problems.

David Harding, the chief executive of the betting giant William Hill, sold one million shares earlier this month to raise £5.3m. Maintaining that he was still committed to leading Britain's second-biggest betting shop chain, Mr Harding said he needed the money to fund a divorce settlement with his former partner Lucia.

Similarly, the founder of the drugs company Skyepharma was forced to sacrifice shares in his business as part of a bumper settlement when his marriage came to an end. Ian Gowrie-Smith, the Australian who named his company after his daughter Skye, handed his ex-wife shares worth £6.5m.

In the latest example of equity for alimony, the ex-wife had a prominent role in the business. Ms Marks was credited with contributing to the idea of playing on French Connection's initials, creating the controversial logo that put the company on the radar screen of the fashion world and the conservative lobby. Although how much she will receive is not known, her divorce settlement could turn out to be one of Britain's most substantial. When they were together, the Markses appeared to be the epitome of glamorous bliss. Mrs Marks, 20 years her husband's junior, was a former fashion editor of Elle and Marie Claire magazines. The couple had three children and lived in one of London's most desirable addresses, The Boltons, in Chelsea, mixing with celebrities including Madonna and Sting. However, Ms Marks moved out of the family home at the end of last year, six months after she ceased to be creative director at French Connection.

The company would not comment on the official reasons for Mr Marks' sell-off. It released a statement saying only that it was "to meet personal requirements".

The move prompted a flurry of anxiety on the stock market that the 58-year-old could have decided to wind down his involvement with French Connection. Shares dropped 6 per cent on the news, reflecting the confidence the City has in Mr Marks, who left school at 16 and built his retailing empire up from nothing.

He had left school with one clear goal, to become a professional tennis player. As a member of the Middlesex team, he competed at junior Wimbledon in 1962. Without money to launch a sporting career, however, the son of a Harrow hairdresser opted instead for fashion and joined a women's wear company. He started his career delivering coats and making cups of tea.

The now flamboyant Mr Marks, who is still a keen tennis player and competes in veterans' competitions, met the designer Nicole Farhi at the French fashion house Pierre D'Alby in Paris. She joined his business and they had a child together in 1975. Ms Farhi is now the wife of the playwright David Hare.

French Connection, which also owns Toast, the new upmarket clothes and accessories brand, as well as the Nicole Farhi label, attempted to reassure the market that Mr Marks had no plans to jump ship to pursue full-time other interests, which include investing in films and restaurants. He will still own 40 million shares or 42 per cent of French Connection Group, and the company said that he would not sell any more shares for six months unless he had the support of French Connection's board of directors for the move.

Those who know the retailer - who holds the posts of both chief executive and chairman - say that he is showing no signs of tiring. While much of the day-to-day running of the 61-store chain is handled by its chief operating officer, Neil Williams, and its finance director, Roy Naismith, Mr Marks is still very involved in the business.

And he will not be reaching for the begging bowl quite yet. His holding in the company is worth about £172m.

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