ONE OF Britain’s largest clothing suppliers, Peter Wolff transformed himself into a major supporter of British theatre. The Peter Wolff Theatre Trust, launched with a £1 million gift, was designed to support new British playwrights in gratitude to the country that became his adopted home.
The son of Dora and Siegbert Wolff, he came to England with his family at the age of six to escape antisemitism. Wolff’s true education began at the age of 15, when his father was killed by a drunken driver. Wolff had to quit school and work to support his mother, but soon managed to turn adverse situations to advantage.
During his national service, Wolff ’s German name and accent placed him in an observation camp, where he learned photography, eventually landing a job with Life Magazine and later led to photographing actors for theatre playbills. In camp, he started a business organising coaches to ferry soldiers back to base from town after hours.
Wolff’s mother eventually started her own belt-making business. She encouraged her star-struck son to leave his job at the Embassy Theatre and find a role in fashion. So Wolff became a trainee at Marks & Spencer for a couple of years before going to America.
As a new trainee at Macy’s, he reorganised the store’s merchandise display, boosting sales. He soon became a buyer, his lively intelligence and personality garnering him lasting friendships, among them his first wife, Sylvia Knab of Switzerland.
Returning to London, Wolff rejoined M&S as a buyer and then merchandise manager. He bought into the lingerie firm SR Gent, eventually boosting its annual sales from £150,000 to £170 million. Wolff’s second marriage, to his clothing designer Susan Shaw, introduced a long era of dynamic growth for SR Gent. After establishing 15 factories in Yorkshire, Gent created a network of off-shore suppliers all over South East Asia. The business spawned an international chain of women’s stores with his wife’s designs.
A meeting with Jack Nicholson resulted in a Batman clothes range. Inspired by his son’s love of Lego, he launched a multi-million-pound children’s clothing business wi t h t h e Lego label, yet
rejected a similar offer from a cigarette manufacturer on moral grounds.
The flotation of his company in the early 80s made him turn to charity, supporting Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and Shenkar College.
The sale of SR Gent in 1998, gave Wolff the means to return to his original love, the theatre. In collaboration with non-profit theatres such as the National, the Donmar, the Soho, the Bush and the Hampstead theatres, the Peter Wolff Theatre Trust brought dozens of plays to the stage, including the Charlotte Jones work Humble Boy with Simon Russell Beal and Frost-nixon with Michael Sheen, many of which graduated to London’s West End.
Wolff next began investing privately in theatre productions helping fund the transfer of plays from non-profit theatres to the West End and beyond. After the success of History Boys, their gamble on the little-known work War Horse delivered an international hit now running in the West End, on Broadway and in Toronto. Wolff’s support of The 39 Steps, Yes, Prime Minister, Onassis and The Ladykillers brought him both critical and commercial reward.
In 2011 the Trust’s major donation to the Hampstead Theatre generated 30 new works over five years. The man whose credo was to fit 48 hours into every day, was an inspirational figure to many. Until the end he remained very close to his ex-wives Sylvia and Susan. He is survived by his sons David and Alex his daughter Holly and his elder brother Dan.
Peter Wolff: 48 hours in a day