No one knows what French Connection's You Are Woman? ads are supposed to mean. But it hopes they will make its clothes the dernier cri
The adverts are as confusing as any French new wave film but, like arthouse films, they star beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes.
The latest instalment of French Connection's esoteric "You are Man?" and "You are Woman?" campaign sees a leggy model in a white jumpsuit glide by on roller skates while setting off fire extinguishers. In another irreverent image, a mustachioed metrosexual in a smart shirt stands in the sea astride an inflatable animal.
It's a million miles way from T-shirts emblazoned with "FCUK like a bunny" and "FCUK for England" which resulted in high street oblivion for the retailer in the middle of the last decade, when shoppers finally tired of the risqu� play on the UK brand's initials.
"What French Connection did with FCUK got people talking, but now they are trying to get people thinking," says Stuart Wood, global creative director at design agency Fitch. "Its clothes aren't that different from ones you can buy at chains like Reiss, but what it has always had is attitude. FCUK was a blunt instrument but it had attitude. But if you are over the age of 25, you are so used to seeing that slogan that French Connection had to do something radical to make you reassess the brand."
The slick ads coincide with the end of the retailer's financial losing streak. After two years of losses, its founder, Stephen Marks, will provide some cheer for retail investors on Wednesday when he reports profits of close to �7m. FCUK shares have more than doubled in value since Christmas and now stand at 124p, valuing the company at �119m.
Last year saw the culmination of a strategic review begun in 2009 with Marks, French Connection's founder and biggest shareholder with a 42% stake, agreeing to major surgery including the "personally very sad" decision to sell the loss-making Nicole Farhi brand. The sale to US private equity firm OpenGate Capital ended nearly 30 years of collaboration between Marks and Farhi, his former partner. The pair started the label together in 1982.
In addition to selling Nicole Farhi, the retailer also pulled out of Japan and Scandinavia and rationalised its US chain. The leaner business is now focused on French Connection as well as Toast and Great Plains, the upmarket clothing brands it also owns.
Numis analyst Andrew Wade said trading in French Connection's UK stores was likely to remain tough but added: "The core business looks on the right track, with good product and a sharper focus on stock and costs."
Lorna Hall of trend forecaster WGSN says the conversational tone of the French Connection ads is very in vogue and is similar to that being used by brands such as Diesel. "Don't ask me what they mean," she says. "It's playful and unexpected, but people respond to that kind of communication."
The retailer's more sophisticated approach to marketing includes a Facebook page with links to products, and YouTique, an interactive video shop that allows users to purchase products by clicking on the items on a YouTube video. Will Woodhams, French Connection's marketing director, told one interviewer that so-called "social commerce" was increasingly important: "We need to be ready for Generation Z. These people were born with a BlackBerry in their hands ? even email is old-fashioned to them. So we need to be in their spaces."
French Connection's progress is largely down to the success of its wholesale arm, which sells to department store chains around the world. Fitch's Wood says there is a danger that UK consumers will be disappointed if the stores aren't as interesting as the adverts: "That's where these brands can really let themselves down. It will be interesting to see how much legs this has got."
Retail experts are also concerned about the slew of companies warning of fragile consumer confidence. Last week Terry Duddy, chief executive of Argos owner Home Retail Group, blamed its profit warning on "difficult and volatile" trading in January and February. He said shoppers were sitting on their hands as worries about job security and rising living costs, such as food and petrol prices, snuffed out the impulse to spend.
Fashion retailers are contending with inflation caused by the spike in the cotton price. Alarm bells sounded earlier this month when Primark, famous for rock-bottom prices, said it had seen a "noticeable slowing down of UK consumer demand" since the new year. Debenhams boss Rob Templeman is also expected to be cautious about the outlook for consumer spending when the department store group updates the City on Tuesday.
Given that a pair of French Connection jeans costs around �70, compared with less than �10 at Primark, its domestic stores could be in for a rough ride. Hall is optimistic, though: "It is going to be tough for all fashion retailers. Shoppers who are still shopping are looking for investment pieces and clothes that have got real mileage in them. They might have bought three things from Primark in the past but are now buying one, more expensive thing. As long as French Connection has got its offer right, price is not necessarily a barrier to success."