All mouth and dodgy trousers … how the high street king became the unacceptable face of capitalism
As Sir Philip Green climbed the steps of his private jet last week to fly to London from his Arizona weight-loss facility after completing his self-declared attempt to shed nine pounds, a particular detail troubled me.
Forget for a moment the allegations of racism, sexual harassment and bullying the 66-year-old billionaire retail magnate this year tried to suppress with non-disclosure agreements. Green has rejected claims of abusive behaviour and insisted “there was never any intent to be offensive”. Ignore, too, that Labour peer Peter Hain last month used parliamentary privilege to get around a legal injunction and identify the Arcadia boss whom MPs accused of “corporate raiding” and “asset-stripping” as the man behind those allegations.
Set aside briefly that Burton’s ex-brand director Wesley Taylor, who is black, had walked out after a row with Green. He alleged Green used racially abusive language on numerous occasions. The matter was settled out of court. Green denied making racist remarks. Overlook what his biographer Oliver Shah claims Green once said to a female buyer: “You’re absolutely fucking useless. I should throw you out of the window but you’re so fat you’d probably bounce back in again.”
No, the detail that struck me was Sir Philip’s jeans. Was this really the one-time most fearsome predator in the retail jungle, the former king of the
British high street who invited
Kate Moss to design clothes for
Topshop, and who launched Beyoncé’s Ivy Park range of athleisure? Was this the guy who so effectively wooed prime ministers that he was knighted by Tony Blair and made a special adviser by David Cameron? Green’s mullet has long been bad enough, but what were those things at the other end of his body? Jeans with freshly pressed creases?
Green has never understood jeans. In the early 1980s he was running a shop called Bond Street Bandit and had a brainwave. Fiftysomething railway heiress Gloria Vanderbilt had made a killing from lending her name to a range of super skinny jeans. Perhaps Green by Oliver Shah, Portfolio Penguin, £18.99 From left: Anna Wintour, Green, Kate and Lottie Moss at London Fashion Week could do the same with Joan Collins. He got 1m pairs of Collins-endorsed jeans made on the cheap in Hong Kong and planned to sell them at £16.95 each. Only one problem. The 49-year-old actor wasn’t the right person to woo teen punters. Joan Collins Jeans flopped.
Thereafter, as Shah’s book details, Green concentrated on what he was good at: buying up ailing retail businesses, stripping their assets, paying himself and his family vast dividends, funnelling the money into accounts in the tax haven Monaco, before offloading the stripped carcass on to some sucker.
In 2000, for example, he bought British Home Stores for £200m and briefly oversaw a rise in the struggling department store’s fortunes. The resulting rise in pre-tax profits enabled the Green family to pay themselves nearly £420m from BHS in the early noughties. “Considering he had risked no money of his own, it wasn’t bad,” Shah notes.
At the time, though, the Guardian’s financial editor Paul Murphy was among journalists who studied BHS’s finances and questioned its valuation. Green, typically, went on the offensive with proto-Trumpian bluster, saying of Murphy: “He can’t read English. Mind you, he is a fucking Irishman.” The Guardian published the racist rant on the front page, prompting Green to do that rare thing, apologise – to the Irish. BHS’s profits collapsed from £38.5m in 2007 to a crushing loss of £62.1m in 2009, after which it never made a profit again.
We don’t know yet if the sexual harassment allegations will stick, although he categorically denies them, nor whether Nancy Dell’Olio’s claim that he once offered her £1m to spend the night with him is true. What we do know is that Green has been bad for some women. In 2016, for instance, he and his wife, Tina, took receipt of a 295ft yacht complete with gym and helipad for £100m. While they sailed the Mediterranean, BHS staff, overwhelmingly women, many of whom had subsisted on £7 an hour, contemplated the irony that Tina’s new Chanel handbag was worth as much as their £2,000 redundancy payouts. Women at the South Shields branch, lives ruined by their ex-boss’s virtuosity at the game of moral hazard, held up a sign saying “Fuck Phil Green” while other BHS workers petitioned him to sell his yachts (he has more than one) and pay the pensions.
Shah, the Sunday Times business editor, starts his book with Green threatening to chuck him out of the
Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street