Brand Builders: FiveGold

Rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave is doing more than just lending his name to this clothing range.

The Sydney Olympics was a defining moment for Sir Steve Redgrave in more ways than one. In the split second he was immortalised as Britain's greatest Olympian, he had just paddled himself to the dole. A 20-year career that earned him five Olympic golds, nine world championships and a sprinkling of Commonwealth titles had finally ended with what all elite sportspeople dread, retirement.

Yet, this year in Athens, Redgrave had another Olympic stunt up his sleeve.

At the Games with the tightest advertising controls so far, when he hugged a tearful Matthew Pinsent in front of 7m UK viewers, he was dressed head to toe in a new leisurewear brand: his own.

'FiveGold is my retirement fund,' quips Redgrave. 'But it's a real personal project, too, to provide good-quality clothes,' he says, while looking over Dove Mill, a 25,000ft former textile mill in Bolton which is the warehousing, distribution and design centre for FiveGold. Above the sparkling reception there are four levels, packed floor-to-ceiling with clothing.

Often described by fellow oarsmen as arrogant and difficult, the softly spoken Redgrave is actually mellower than the gritty persona depicted by the media.

He appears to realise that he is not a natural businessman, but even so, one thing about Redgrave is clear: he knows exactly what he wants.

He runs a fast-growing business that supplies the Freeman and Grattan catalogues and sells through independent menswear stores Astaires of Taunton, Eve & Ranshaw, Seahaven & Dartmouth and Smith Bradbeer & Co. It's a far cry from 2001, when he received all sorts of offers, including one approach to endorse socks.

'That definitely wasn't for me,' he recalls. 'But it set the ball rolling for developing an entire range of clothing.' The offer came from Manchester textile company Drew Brady, the hosiery division of The Ruia Group, an Indian textiles firm that was already a licensee for the Pringle and Jeff Banks brands. Redgrave persuaded the company to take a 50% stake in his own venture.

Today the FiveGold range comprises shirts, polo tops, sunglasses and, yes, socks. It's a deliberate move away from sportswear, a niche he feels is too narrow. 'I want to sell clothes that I would wear - that everyone can wear.

'I want them to be mass market, but not cheap, with tough qualities,' Redgrave says. 'If not, you can imagine the bad press - "Olympic hero sells tat".'

He still needs to convince big names such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Debenhams, which believe FiveGold may be priced too low for their customers. 'It's disappointing, but we're still talking,' says Redgrave. 'In the meantime I'd rather build up via independents.'

Another major distribution channel is the internet. 'The range is available online, which now represents 20% of our sales. We are basically using all possible channels.'

Promotion takes the form of regular catalogues to existing customers, email and viral marketing. He has also advertised in Sunday supplements.

Going back to his roots, FiveGold had a large merchandising presence at last month's Indoor Rowing Championships at Birmingham NEC.

Next year Redgrave will launch a range of 'activewear' - shorts, T-shirts and leisure tracksuits - and will target the 'grey pound' with clothes suitable for his new favourite sport, golf.

For someone who admits that he 'hates big, in-your-face brands', Redgrave certainly has big plans, but no detail is too small. He talks enthusiastically about developing the FiveGold logo to create greater brand presence.

'I deliberately didn't want my name as the name of the brand; I wanted the more obvious association, but the point made more subtly,' he says.

The logo is currently '5G', but Redgrave wants to move to a more abstract 'Nike-like icon' using five circles or rings. The International Olympic Committee might have something to say about that, but if Redgrave's ability to get one past them at Athens is anything to go by, it would be foolish to bet against him.

TIMELINE

2000: Steve Redgrave rows into the record books by winning his fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. The event marks the point at which he seriously contemplates his future marketability.

2001: Initial meetings are organised with a number of manufacturers about the possibility of endorsing various sports garments. A meeting with Ruia Group in January about socks is the catalyst for Redgrave to launch his own range. Ruia Group is more interested in sportswear at first, but is persuaded to move into the leisurewear market.

September 2002: FiveGold is launched. Initial publicity sees the company profiled in magazines including Hello!. Ads appear in rowing magazine Regatta to attract existing rowers, as well as in the Sunday supplements.

2003: The range expands to include golfwear and sunglasses.

2004: Redgrave wears FiveGold clothing throughout his Olympic commentating duties on the BBC. This year, the brand had a £300,000 turnover, and it should surpass £500,000 in 2005.

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