A chiselled, bright young thing welcomes you as you enter. Walking blindly onwards into the darkened emporium, the eyes of the monochromatic models in the blown-up, air-brushed artworks watch you make your silent way into the not-so-silent room of luxury and logos. Punctuated only by the thud-thud-thud of the incessant music, you move from one wall of floor-to-ceiling mahogany shelving to the other wall of floor-to-ceiling mahogany shelving. Your hands run across hours of carefully folded sweaters. And suddenly you have the most overwhelming feeling of déjà vu: haven’t you been here before? The answer is no, you have not been teleported to the United States and landed in America’s famous casual-wear Mecca, Abercrombie & Fitch. You are on Following a €2 million investment by Blarney Woollen Mills in early 2008, luxurious leisurewear has been brought to the Irish retail market in the form of Farrell & Brown. The brand manufactures casual clothing and accessories aimed at Irish shoppers and tourists alike from ranging from “18 to a cool 40”. As well as its flagship store on the doorstep of Trinity College at the intersection of Dawson Street and Nassau Street, F&B now occupy units in Tipperary, Killarney, and Blarney in Co. Cork, with the business doing “extremely well”, according to the company. However, as well as generating profits, the brand has also stirred up considerable controversy among consumers since its inception, as a result of its likeness to American brands Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister and American Eagle, which has fuelled speculation of possible litigation against the company by its trans-Atlantic counterparts. Furthermore, many commercially-savvy consumers have questioned what niche F&B hope to fill in the somewhat saturated sweatpant-chic market as Ireland sinks deeper and deeper into the credit quagmire. However, a closer look at the brand, whose logo is an Irish Wolfhound, reveals that F&B is emerging top dog in the domestic casual clothing market.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to one half of the design team at F&B, Paula Hanley, who professes to “eat, sleep and breathe” her fledging project since it hit the market this year. Hanley credits Blarney Woollen Mills CEO, Freda Hayes, with spotting the niche in the market that lead to F & B’s creation. “We wanted to create a young Irish brand that was sexy. The demographics of the visitor to Ireland has changed a lot in the past few years. There are more EU visitors than ever before, they are much younger and always on the look out for something different. I believe at Farrell & Brown we have successfully filled the gap”.
According to Hanley a lacuna in the market became obvious for an indigenous, “slightly sporty” clothing brand that would appeal to the new breed of young tourists coming to Ireland. Adamant to maintain creative control of the project and preserve Blarney’s trademark home-grown feel, F&B formed their own design team of Paula Hanley and Emma Wilson to head up the brand. With a wealth of experience in fashion buying and designing in such major high-street stores as Etam, Next and Dunnes Stores, the pair set about creating a line of “sexy, preppy, casual clothing”.
One feature of F&B’s marketing strategy that helped it to flourish was its surprise, overnight appearance on Dawson Street. Hanley states that the lack of advance marketing created an element of surprise and aroused curiosity in the consumer to discover the brand for themselves. Furthermore, Hanley identified two key factors as being key selling points of F&B: “Our strength is in our smallness, most definitely. Keeping the volume of garments in a particular line small is intrinsic to our success as a fashion retailer. In a mass produced world, it makes things extra-special. Also our products are keenly-priced, which is important to all consumers at the moment”.
And on the financial front, the F&B Wolfhound seems most certainly to be keeping the wolves from the door. The design team at F&B are said to be pleased with profits despite having the misfortune of opening as an unknown brand in the midst of a veritable economic apocalypse. However, a question mark still looms large over the brand. Comparisons drawn between F&B and US store, Abercrombie & Fitch, with shoppers saying both stores have similar clothing ranges, store design, bags and websites, have the potential to develop into litigation. In 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch filed a lawsuit against American Eagle, claiming that they copied their garments’ designs and closely mimicked Abercrombie & Fitch’s products’ visual appearance and packaging, specificially copying particular articles of clothing, in-store displays and advertisements. Despite the admission that American Eagle may have utilized very similar materials, designs, in-store displays, symbols, colour combinations, and patterns to Abercrombie & Fitch, the court ruled that there was not an excessive level of similarity to confuse potential customers, and ruled in favor of the defendant, American Eagle. It remains to be seen if A&F will launch a similar set of proceedings against F&B. With F&B’s prosperity growing, the reign of Abercrombie could be seriously undermined. A catch-22 situation could potentially arise whereby to avoid detection and prosecution F&B will have to remain “below the radar”, forfeiting growth and expansion into international retail zones, lest A&F detect their Irish market share diminishing. Furthermore, it is questionable whether F&B can recreate the phenomenal success of A&F, American Eagle and Hollister had here. The appeal of those brands lay in their exclusivity: unavailable here in Ireland, fans of the brand either clocked up serious frequent-flyer miles hopping trans-Atlantic to get their fix or were granted free rein with a parent’s credit card to indulge in online-shopping hedonism. The limited availability of the brands here conferred an aura of status and exclusivity upon them.
Hanley, however, is quick to deny the existence of any such parallels, stating that no litigation has been threatened. To her, F&B are “only influenced and not based upon brands such as Abercrombie, Polo Ralph Lauren and American Eagle”. Unlike the aforementioned brands, she says the company is not a chain and operates as a corollary to the Blarney Woollen Mills stores. Furthermore, she states that F&B have a different target audience to that of the large American multiples and so any issues regarding entering an already-bloated market are not pertinent to the Blarney-based brand.
And as for the future of Farrell and Brown? “World domination”, according to Hanley. But in the short-term, consumers can expect “fresh, clean colours like oxblood and pink” and an injection of even more “personality” into the brand next season as well as a bumper accessories line. The website is also undergoing a major overhaul at present, with the online store expected to go live shortly. Plans for “stand-alone” Farrell & Brown stores are also in the pipeline; however, Hanley stresses that the Blarney association will always remain. So despite the whispers of litigation and unsteady financial times for the business to contend with, the Farrell and Brown Wolfhound has shaken all elements of doubt as to its distinctness from Abercrombie from its shaggy coat and made an indelible paw-print on the Irish fashion front which will remain for many a season to come.