U.S. executives affiliated with the Marithé + François Girbaud jeanswear business tend to not burn their bridges behind them.
Robert Stec had two runs at the helm of the brand’s licensed operations in the U.S., first with VF Corp. during Girbaud’s U.S. heyday in the Nineties and then again as chief executive officer of Passport Brands Inc. beginning in 2007. When Stec left Passport, formerly I.C. Isaacs & Co., last year to join Hampshire Group Ltd. as president of its Hampshire Brands unit, the search for his successor concluded with another former resident of the Girbaud galaxy, Bob Arnot.
Arnot, who spent 18 years with I.C. Isaacs before leaving as head of Girbaud in 2003, has returned to Passport as president. The reunion follows stints at Perry Ellis International Inc. and Robert Graham as well as a series of global consulting engagements.
Passport has held the license for Girbaud men’s and boys’ jeanswear since VF gave it up in 1997, and its rights to the name in male apparel run through 2016.
“My primary focus is to put more fashion in the line and bring more ‘wow’ factor into the product assortment,” he said. “We’re working on that for holiday now, but the impact should be clearly visible for spring 2014.”
Holiday will see the launch of the Rouge Collection, expected to provide new takes on washes, details and trim. Although he has no visions of Girbaud being transformed into a premium denim player, Arnot plans to upgrade the product and instill it with enough excitement to bring typical retail prices into the $75 area, as opposed to the $50 zone in which they now reside.
“Girbaud is a real high-fashion brand in Japan, but in the U.S. I don’t think of it as a premium denim line as much as I consider it ‘sophisticated street,’” Arnot stated.
Currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s been about 20 years since the North American business peaked under VF, hitting volume in excess of $200 million, and both licensor and licensee have faced a series of daunting challenges since. Volume in the U.S. is now estimated to be about $15 million, according to market sources.
Girbaud entered the French equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last June but was able to restructure after Fibres & Fabrics International, a large Indian supplier, came to the rescue with a 15-year licensing deal that provided it with capital and rights to the Girbaud name in previously unlicensed markets.
After changing its name in 2011, Passport attempted to branch out with two additional product initiatives, the Flow Society lacrosse lifestyle brand and an arrangement to bring Italy’s Brandina the Original handbags and accessories brand to the U.S. Neither achieved the critical mass hoped for, and both have been abandoned.
That leaves Girbaud as the single brand in the Passport portfolio. In his second tenure at the helm of the North American operations of the brand, Arnot would like to extend it to additional product categories, including activewear and outerwear, and possibly even a return engagement in women’s.
“There’s plenty of room in this market for clearly differentiated jeans, jeanswear and sportswear and a good opportunity to build the men’s and boys’ portion into a very healthy $50 million business without pushing it too hard,” he said. “Not everybody wants to wear Americana.”