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Red or Dead to lend street cred

Retailing: Facia adds to its mix with right-on fashion
RED OR DEAD, the right-on footwear and clothing label, has broken through the glass ceiling many British designers hit as they seek to expand in a retail sector dominated by multiples. Its acquisition by Facia, the holding company behind some of the high street's less fashionable names, seems at first an odd match. But it offers valuable opportunities for both parties - and a possible example to others.

Facia's purchase is an extreme instance of a trend of mass retailers taking an interest in high fashion. By the same token, Graduate Fashion Week, the main showcase for young British designers (12-16 June at the Business Design Centre, Islington, north London),has for the first time secured sponsorship from a leading high street name - BhS, formerly known as British Home Stores.

Facia's first brand was the leather-goods chain, Salisburys. A rapid programme of expansion has since added Sock Shop, Torq jewellers (rescued from the receiver), Oakland Menswear (bought from C&A) and Contessa lingerie stores (acquired from Courtaulds) - all since last August. Other acquisitions are likely to follow.

The addition of Red or Dead was an altogether bolder move. Stephen Hinchliffe, the Sheffield entrepreneur who has built up Facia, paid "several million" for the successful designer and retailer, which had sales of pounds 10m last year.

Red or Dead's reputation rests on ground seldom trodden by high street retailers. It set out with the aim of producing "innovative, challenging fashion at affordable prices and on a non-elitist level". This ethos has expanded to embrace a variety of social and environmental causes. One range of clothing was made up by prison inmates. More recently, the company investigated the possibility of using fabrics woven from cannabis hemp.

Red or Dead "is a very fashion-forward brand," admits Facia's chief operating officer, Gary O'Brien. "You could argue that it doesn't fit in with any of our brands. But that was why it was acquired. Red or Dead create fashions for tomorrow. We will then utilise that knowledge within the business."

Its founders, husband-and-wife team Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway, knew their company had grown to a point where they needed to run things differently. They tried to bring in senior financial expertise, but ultimately decided to sell.

Mr Hinchliffe's was the "most understanding" bid, seeking to preserve the cachet of the label rather than dragging it downmarket by increasing the number of outlets.

Mr O'Brien hopes that Wayne Hemingway's creativity will benefit from the lifting of the administrative burden of a growing company from his shoulders. "Hopefully he won't be stifled. If anything, we're freeing him to be more creative."

The liaison is expected not only to produce new opportunities for Red or Dead but also to energise the other Facia companies. Bringing these high street names under the Facia umbrella has already led to a certain amount of cross-fertilisation. Torq jewellers now sells hats and handbags, for example. Sock Shops now sell more than socks (swimwear currently has pride of place) and is making efforts to jazz up its socks as well.

The Hemingways will continue to head the Red or Dead brand and will have "dotted-line" responsibility for design development across Facia's ragbag of companies. "It's not our aim to dictate," says Mr Hemingway. "The idea is not to make Salisburys the Red or Dead of bags. But we have proved that we can get it right, season after season, in terms of trends, so you'll see a change to a more product-minded attitude - towards being there at the start of some trends."

A circuit of introductory meetings has already given Facia companies some new ideas.

The untapped potential of the Red or Dead brand provides another reason for the acquisition. Facia hopes to develop the international exposure of the label, which is well known in Britain but less so abroad.

French and Italian designer labels are able to prosper internationally, notes Wayne Hemingway. Some of them even do so by capitalising on trends, such as "street style", that began in Britain.

The British companies that compete at this level, such as Burberrys and Aquascutum, satisfy a quite different market.

Mr O'Brien cites no precedent for this unusual venture. If it is successful, however, it may set its own precedent for other companies seeking an injection of creativity and provide a model for British designers poised for greater things.