The Interview: Richard Gilmore, Managing Director, Fred Perry and Adam Waterfield, Managing Director, George Cox
This week saw Fred Perry, or rather Fred Perry Holdings – part of parent Japanese company Hit Union - acquire long-standing Northamptonshire footwear brand George Cox for an undisclosed sum.
The brands have been collaborating for several years on adaptations of George Cox’s most signature styles like the leather monkey boot and famed creepers, which were first introduced in 1949, though the brand was actually established way back in 1906.
George Cox’s most familiar products will remain, but the new deal will see an extension of its collaborative range with Fred Perry and a greater focus on digital and e-commerce sales. In a joint Q&A - firstly with Fred Perry’s Managing Director, Richard Gilmore, and then with George Cox’s Managing Director, Adam Waterfield - we ask them what the acquisition really means to both brands.
Richard Gilmore, Managing Director, Fred Perry
Why is George Cox seen as a strong acquisition for Fred Perry and why will it be beneficial for both brands?
For George Cox it brings the skills and investment that this new ownership structure provides, enabling it to offer the brand experience to a wider range of people around the world.
We’ve never made a secret of our wish to buy iconic British brands and leverage the capabilities associated with Fred Perry Holdings’ long-term investment strategy, and in turn be able to access the global niche distribution network and digital expertise of the wider group and our partners.
Why take this step now in such uncertain times?
It was the right acquisition before Covid hit us, but in many ways the shifts in behaviour that we’ve all seen in the last year have reinforced our reasons to purchase George Cox. It also reflects the fact that despite the current pandemic we continue to have a high level of confidence in the Fred Perry business model and also the strength and potential of all the brands that are part of our long-term investment plan.
As part of that longer term view, we will continue to explore how we bring some of Hit Union’s unique Japanese brands to a wider global audience. The new Jackman store, which we opened on 4 December, 2020, in Borough Market, is one such example, but again the emphasis will be on digital growth and niche distribution.
What will Fred Perry Holdings, or indeed the Japanese parent company, Hit Union, be doing to grow the George Cox brand separately to the Fred Perry brand?
The key word is in the question, "separately" it is vital from a brand story telling perspective. The focus is on digital led growth through our own channels across the globe, supported by interesting niche wholesale distribution and continued collaborations.
From Holdings’ perspective, having the financial security enables us to seed investment into Lavenham, George Cox, Jackman and so on. The long-term vision of our parent company is fundamental to the future growth.
How long has Fred Perry been collaborating with George Cox on footwear ranges and how did the relationship originally come about?
We’ve been collaborating since 2011, so 10 years this year. There’s shared subcultural roots going back decades and, simply put, as brands we’ve been going to the same gigs and pubs and cafes for years via our fans.
Do you see this as a real opportunity to invest and capitalise on a gap in the market?
It’s not necessarily a gap in the market, it’s more a case of talking to all those subcultures and customers who want something with a unique point of view, or attitude, something with depth, a real story, not ‘mass’ produced. There’s a demand for authenticity across the globe. A lot of our products with George Cox are made in England too, and are at similar price points.
Was footwear always an area that Fred Perry was looking to find the right avenue to explore?
We’ve had a very successful Fred Perry footwear business for over a decade. It’s more a case that it's an independent business in its own right, but as part of our group, with its own DNA. But, of course, the collaborations with Fred will continue as there is great synergy in some of our subcultural heritage and we think that we can add something into the mix based on our existing digital knowledge and distribution networks.
What will be the first steps taken in this new acquisition business-wise?
The initial focus in general terms will be based around research and development. It’s important not to rush the process and to really understand the heritage and the stories we want to tell, also to take time to consider how we construct and distribute the collection for the future. There will be a wider development programme within George Cox and, while the Fred Perry collaboration collections will continue, the focus is on George Cox as a standalone brand for a wider global reach.
Adam Waterfield, Managing Director, George Cox
Why is the company acquisition by Fred Perry Holdings good for the George Cox brand?
They have a track record of nurturing brands over a long period. There is some great synergy, with both brands being steeped in British subculture. We feel comfortable that the integrity of the brand will therefore only be enhanced.
Why are you doing this now? Has it been brought on – or hastened – by the coronavirus pandemic?
Not at all. We’ve been talking informally for a while, indeed it was agreed in principle before the pandemic, and if anything the difficulties of lockdown probably delayed things. But we are delighted to get there in the end.
How has George Cox been holding up throughout the last year?
Obviously bricks and mortar retail has been tough, but most of our B2B is in Asia which has been more resilient than the UK and Europe. Online has been well up on the previous year, so we’ve actually been okay at a difficult time.
Will this new deal mean a much greater investment in the George Cox brand?
I think the most significant investment will be in time. Fred Perry has skills and tools that we will be tapping into that will enable us to develop the brand more effectively than we ever could on our own.
Will this new deal breathe new life into George Cox and allow you to develop, expand and grow the George Cox brand on a global scale?
It’s certainly breathed new life into a 61 year-old man! We have so many stories to tell, but have never really had the platform from which to tell them.
How do you personally feel about the acquisition?
Raring to go. Obviously there will be some apprehension, having only ever worked within the relatively constrained environment of a privately owned family business, but I’ve never been scared of a challenge. It’s also come at a great time with my son Alistair coming on board with his own set of creative skills and experience in fashion.
Why would you say it’s a match made in heaven?
While both brands have heritage and British subculture in their roots, they also complement each other very well. Our looks and their brains! We are both in our own way led by product, not hype.
Has it been on the cards for a long time?
Polite enquiries were made some time ago, but I never felt undue pressure and we just chatted about it from time to time, while continuing to work together successfully on collaboration product. We have quietly been improving our brand over the years and it just got to the stage where we felt we were either going to have to take a further step ourselves, having successfully rebranded and started selling online in 2017, or develop in partnership with someone whom we felt we could trust to respect our heritage.
Will you continue to produce your top tier George Cox footwear at your Northamptonshire factory?
Absolutely. But it’s not just stubbornness or sentimentality that makes us want to stick to our Goodyear Welted products made in Northamptonshire – it’s an important asset that the Japanese in particular appreciate.English made is commercially important, especially in Japan. It is a niche, but it is one that we feel is currently under-exploited in a number of markets.
What will change?
Any change will be quite organic. We will do what we are doing better, but we will also look forward to reaching out to more trade customers and consumers.
Will you further develop the Fred Perry x George Cox collections that have lower price points but perhaps a wider appeal and target market?
The Portuguese production has certainly given us the opportunity to make the brand available to a wider audience than is possible with Goodyear Welted footwear made in England. I could see us developing standalone products that bridge between the hard edge of our English production and the more casual products found in our current collaboration with Fred Perry. The challenge is to do this without undermining our halo products. Fred Perry actually do this very well, but it is by no means a trivial exercise.
What will be the first plans you will be putting in to place?
We are proud of our website for a first effort, but it is quite limited in its functionality. We want to make it a more exciting place to visit, and by engaging our customers get them enjoying a more vibrant selection of styles. That was always going to be a priority, but is even more so with what has been happening in bricks and mortar retail worldwide.
Will your role change in any way?
I am hoping to be afforded the time to be more strategic. Us old men like telling stories, so I’m looking forward to having an audience!
Is it an exciting time for the next chapter in the George Cox story?
It’s a whole new book. We are proud of how we have looked after the brand because it is very easy to get it wrong, but now is the time to carefully grow it, and I am confident that it is in safe hands. Going forward, the offer will be more cohesive, but with wider colour options.
What would you say have been the really defining times in the history of the George Cox brand?
The decision by my great grandfather to move from brewing to shoemaking in 1906. The development of the creeper or “Hamilton” by my grandfather George Hamilton Cox in the early 1950’s. Then making winkle pickers and casual crepe soles for modernists in the 1960’s. We were also at the forefront for chunky brogues and loafers for boys and girls for Northern Soul. Then there was the tie in with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood for Let it Rock/Sex in the early 1970’s.
There was also the introduction of rockabilly styles on a Dr. Martens’ sole in the late 1970’s, when it was hitherto associated only with work boots and shoes or skinheads. George Cox also became part of the post punk uniform, through Robot on the King’s Road and independents throughout the world. We built export markets throughout Europe, USA and Japan, culminating with winning the British Knitting and Clothing Export Council (now the UKFT) accessories award, the Queen’s Award for Enterprise and the Department of Trade Export award (Midlands) around the turn of the millennium. We’ve also had some great collaborations with the likes of Bathing Ape, Neighborhood, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, Human Made, Alyx Studio and, of course, Fred Perry.
How important will ecommerce and social media be to really making this new relationship work and pack a punch in the fashion footwear market?
It will be absolutely crucial. Fred Perry are leaders in this field and we are excited to learn how we can tap into their skill set to really up our game in this respect.
Will you be collaborating with any bands or musicians in 2021?
It is not something that we have hitherto reached out for, but it’s great that the likes of Yungblud, Olly Alexander and Northampton’s own Slowthai are fans. We should be established as the “go to” for creepers in the same way that Fred Perry is for the twin tipped shirt and Lavenham is for the quilted gilet. It’s a case of getting the story out there.