All mouth and dodgy trousers … how the high street king be­came the unac­cept­able face of cap­i­tal­ism

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Stu­art Jef­fries

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

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