Peter Wolff

The Jewish Chronicle - - Obituaries - MARC WINER

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

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