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French Connection Chief Eyes Millions on Sale of Brand He Built

After more than four decades at the helm of French Connection Group Plc, Chief Executive Officer Stephen Marks is preparing to sell the clothing company he helped create.

The company said it’s in the early stages of looking for a buyer, lifting its shares as much as 45 percent. Marks, who has a stake of almost 40 percent, is looking to sell after turning French Connection into one of the U.K.’s most recognizable retail brands before it fell on hard times amid the rise of Inc. and “fast fashion” giants.

Even after Monday’s surge, the company is worth only about 54 million pounds ($71 million), with its shares trading at about one-ninth their 2004 peak. French Connection has said, however, that it’s making progress toward returning to profitability later this year.

While Marks is the largest shareholder in the company, billionaire Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct International Plc holds about a quarter of French Connection. Ashley expanded his U.K. retail presence over the summer with the purchase of department-store chain House of Fraser, after investments in several other store chains in Britain and the U.S. A representative for Sports Direct did not immediately return a request for comment.

French Connection gained notoriety in the 1990s when it launched a marketing campaign that mashed together the initials for the company’s name and country of domicile in a cheeky acronym. Selling clothing emblazoned with phrases like “fcuk fashion,” it rode the “Cool Britannia” wave to international prominence before losing ground to bigger, nimbler rivals like Inditex SA’s Zara and Associated British Foods Plc’s Primark, as well as online sellers like Asos Plc.

Marks said in September that the company remains on track to return to profitability later this year, despite declining sales.