FABIANI & FOSCHINI: THE UNFORTUNATE MARRIAGE

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The acquisition of independent fashion brands is by no means uncommon, but I confess myself rather unpleasantly surprised to learn that South African luxury menswear label Fabiani had been sold to The Foschini Group for an undisclosed amount in 2011.

That Fabiani should, in one way or another, be sold was only inevitable. This being the case, however, I couldn’t help but find myself feeling betrayed by the label – not in Fabiani being sold but rather in whom it had been sold to. The Foschini Group.

Why?

For the simple reason that TFG is, by nature, a mass fashion retail group and Fabiani – its antithesis – is definitively a high-end menswear brand. (In fact, if one were to analyze the financial reports of The Foschini Group – and almost every other South African major retail group – one would soon arrive at the realization that the group is a financial group masquerading as a retail group. I will return to this matter later.)

To put it crudely, the incompatibility of the companies is such that it is as if The Foschini Group were manufactured in some Chinese sweat shop and Fabiani lovingly tailored in an Italian designer’s artilier.

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Benefits of the Fabiani/TFG partnership
But, lest I be accused of misguided brand fanaticism, let me confess that I can understand why the label’s founder and namesake would now choose to partner with TFG.

To begin with, the partnership grants Fabiani access to the retail giant’s considerable financial coffers. I think that we can safely assume that this was the central motivation behind the menswear label’s sale. Then there is the retailer’s operational, supplychain, retail and distribution, and marketing capabilities that Arie had to consider. And these were not to be easily overlooked.

Indeed, TFG chief financial officer Ronnie Stein in 2011 was quoted to have said that Fabiani would further benefit from the retail giant providing in-store credit, branded gift cards and online shopping, and opportunities to increase footprint, even through Markham stores

Fabian’s cash and succession concerns
Still, however, I think many have not considered an alternative motivation for the founder selling off Fabiani – namely liquidity and succession.

Mr. Fabian founded the label in 1978 and at the time of its acquisition it was 33 years old, independently operating seven boutiques in upmarket shopping locals. This is by no means a small feat for a South African independent high-end fashion house.

Cash in the pocket for Arie would afford him the opportunity to begin investing in other brands and or reinvest the money in Fabiani for further product diversification.

Then there is the matter of inheritance. The founder is no young buck, and for a man of his age, inheritance and the proper ordering of his estate must have been an increasingly pressing matter on his mind. A sale of Fabiani would ensure two very important elements of his estate: adequate money to bequeath to his beneficiaries and ensuring the appropriate creative and managerial succession of the fashion house in the future. Evidently, Mr. Fabiani concluded that The Foschini Group was the most suitable answer to both.

The risks that Fabiani faces
Motivations for the sale of Fabiani being considered, there are, however, some particularly serious risks that his label faces.

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One cannot underestimate the implications of TFG being a mass fashion retailer, especially of the category that are really unofficial financial groups. What does the mega retailer know of high-end fashion and the luxury consumer? I consider this acquisition to be a misguided attempt to respond to the growing aspirational market in South Africa, and the growing population of fashion-educated men.

For TFG, Fabiani presented the easiest route possible to service the increasingly sophisticated appetites of the South African man, in the cheapest way possible, with the least exposure to risk. At least this is how they saw it.

The gradual bastardization of the brand
But this situation for Fabiani presents the rather unfortunate risk of being managed by a collective of executives and managers whose strengths lie in the mass fashion market rather than the more nuanced aspirational to high-end fashion space. In lieu of this, the label runs the dire risk of being treated like its distant cousins, namely Markham, Donna Claire and Luella.

The very reason, for example, I will rarely be caught dead in a Markham store, simply because I do not want to be dressed like a teenager from the dregs of entry level middle class South African, featuring all the hallmarks of Asian factory-sown apparel distilled from the quagmire of misunderstood runway fashion.

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My initial attraction to Fabiani still remains the same even after all these years: the lifestyle of the brand – the celebration of male grooming and refinement, exclusivity, immaculate service from in-store style guides who make you want to work there, and the self-satisfying knowledge that you’d be hard-pressed to find another dressed in the same outfit as you. And I make not mention of the in-store Chivas Regal bars.

Simply, Fabiani, for me, has not merely been about the cloths but equally about the exclusive Fabiani experience. This is what has ensured the unwavering loyalty of many a South Africa men, and I can tell you one thing, none want to see Fabiani in a store the likes of Markham.

Such a situation will inevitably lead to to the gradual bastardization of Fabiani, stagnation of creativity and innovation, and the eventual alienation of not only the men who made Fabiani what it is but also the very same aspirant South African male fashion consumer that The Foschini Group so desperately wants – not dissimilar from the fate suffered by some of the brands acquired by the Platinum Group, and Young Designers Emporium since its acquisition by Truworths.

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Concluding my assessment of the risks faces by Fabiani in its acquisition by TFG, the greatest risk that the label runs is losing its autonomy and, therefore, the power to drive its design direction and growth as it sees fit.

After all is said and done, I once agiain lament not at Arie Fabian having sold his namesake but that he has sold it to The Foschini Group. Better that Fabiani had been acquired by a fashion group such as House of Monatic, where it would have been at home amongst like brands such as Carducci.

Parting thoughts: The best fashion investments are those that have good investor managerial oversight but are left to run almost completely autonomously; that, in as far as it is possible, the founding designer of the brand still leads creative direction; that develop excellent creative and managerial personnel succession plans; and that continuously invest in designer and artisanal personnel development.

Arie Fabian has since joined The Foschini Group and remains as the label’s brand director.

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