Irvine Sel­lar

Pi­o­neer­ing fash­ion retailer turned prop­erty de­vel­oper who gave the Lon­don sky­line the Shard

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

THE LUNCH dur­ing which Lon­don’s glass pyra­mid, the Shard, was con­ceived, didn’t start well. Prop­erty de­vel­oper Irvine Sel­lar, who has died aged 82, had flown to Ber­lin to meet star ar­chi­tect Renzo Piano to con­vince him to de­sign a tower un­like any other. It would be Lon­don’s own Eif­fel Tower – only more strik­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately Piano, it turned out, hated tall build­ings that he found “ar­ro­gant and ag­gres­sive, like fortresses.” A lesser man would have thrown the nap­kin but Sel­lar did not give up that eas­ily. Then Piano started sketch­ing on the back of the menu and within sec­onds the Shard had come to life. The two men shook hands on the deal.

It may have been Piano’s cre­ative ge­nius that, in­spired by “the en­ergy of the rail­way lines, the beauty of the Thames and the churches’ spires” cre­ated that iconic build­ing. But it had all started with Sel­lar’s orig­i­nal idea to build a “ver­ti­cal town” on the site then oc­cu­pied by South­wark Tow­ers.

Sel­lar had not in­tended to re­de­velop the for­mer Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers (PwC) head of­fice when he ac­quired it in 1998. It was sup­posed to be a “dry”, safe in­vest­ment in an un­ex­cit­ing area. But then the pub­li­ca­tion of a govern­ment white pa­per the fol­low­ing year, en­cour­ag­ing the de­vel­op­ment of high­rise build­ings near trans­port hubs opened up new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

But there were ob­sta­cles aplenty: the de­cid­edly unglam­orous Lon­don Bridge area, the op­po­si­tion of those wor­ried that the new build­ing would in­ter­fere with the view of St Pauls, sus­pi­cions of tall glass tow­ers post-9/11 and a very big ques­tion mark about

Sel­lar’s abil­ity to pull off such a huge project, given that he was not ex­actly heavy-weight in the prop­erty field. That the odds seemed so over­whelm­ingly stacked against it, ap­peared to fire up Sel­lar even more. He bat­tled against the op­po­si­tion of English Her­itage and came through a pub­lic in­quiry chaired by then deputy prime min­is­ter John Prescott.

The scheme had its sup­port­ers, among them South­wark Coun­cil and then Lon­don mayor Ken Liv­ing­stone, and fi­nan­cial back­ing from CLS Hold­ing and de­vel­oper Si­mon Hal­abi.

In 2007, how­ever, it all ap­peared to come crash­ing down when he fell out with his part­ners. Sel­lar, who had been bank­rupt once be­fore, looked set for a re­peat – and with the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis looming, find­ing new back­ers for such an out­landish project seemed un­likely.

But the wheel­erdealer ex­traor­di­naire again suc­ceeded against all odds: this time he turned to the Mid­dle East for back­ing and se­cured

£150 mil­lion from the Qataris. Now con­struc­tion of the

Shard could fi­nally get un­der-way.

Irvine Ger­ald

Sel­lar was born into a Jewish fam­ily in South­gate, north Lon­don, to

Es­ther and Jonas, a glove shop­keeper and man­u­fac­turer. Jonas’s fa­ther had em­i­grated from Poland where he was a boot-maker. Jonas wanted Irvine to be­come an ac­coun­tant and on leav­ing school at 16 Irvine trained with a firm in Clerken­well but was soon bored and left af­ter six months. In­stead, im­pressed by the wads of cash flaunted by his mar­ket trader friends, he bought a con­sign­ment of slightly faulty gloves and found a stall. He was in busi­ness.

That first stall was just the start and in no time five more were added. Soon he was man­ag­ing his fa­ther’s men’s out­fit­ters in St Al­bans where he started sell­ing the sharp suits favoured by the youth of the time.

But it was only when he opened his own shop in 1960s Lon­don’s most trend­set­ting lo­ca­tion, Carn­aby Street, that Sel­lar’s busi­ness took off. Mates, by Irvine Sel­lar, pi­o­neered uni­sex cloth­ing and num­bered 90 stores by the time he sold it in 1981.

Fash­ion had made him a mil­lion­aire but now he was ready for his next chal­lenge – prop­erty. He started the Ford Sel­lar Mor­ris com­pany, spe­cial­is­ing in out-oftown shop­ping cen­tres such as Stock­ton Re­tail and Leisure Park and made tens of mil­lions in an­nual prof­its.

But hav­ing bor­rowed heav­ily in 1989, Ford Sel­lar Mor­ris was brought down by the 1991 prop­erty crash. Sel­lar was made bank­rupt, los­ing £30 mil­lion of his per­sonal for­tune.

How­ever, the man whose short stature be­lied a larger-than-life per­son­al­ity and a drive to match, had a huge ca­pac­ity to bounce back quickly when life knocked him down.

And so it was: his climb­back started with the pur­chase of the old PwC build­ing, and the set of events that would lead to the in­cep­tion of the Shard.

But even as the “un­build­able” build­ing was tak­ing shape, the naysay­ers were pre­dict­ing dis­as­ter for the £1.4bn scheme. Who would pay the pre­mium prices needed to make it vi­able? Plenty of peo­ple, it would turn out and Sel­lar had the sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing his £3bn baby 97% let by Jan­uary this year.

Piano, the man who shared Sel­lar’s dream, called him “an ad­ven­turer” and a “very cre­ative man, a man with ob­sti­nacy and de­ter­mi­na­tion”. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion had not ended with the Shard, and Piano has been en­gaged by Sel­lar’s prop­erty com­pany to de­sign an­other con­tro­ver­sial project, a 14-storey, 775m glass ‘cube’ near Padding­ton sta­tion. The orig­i­nal plan for a 72-storey tower was shelved due to pub­lic op­po­si­tion.

Sel­lar sup­ported var­i­ous char­i­ties, in­clud­ing Nor­wood and World Jewish Re­lief. In 1986 on the Lib­eral Jewish Sy­n­a­gogue’s 75th an­niver­sary, he pre­sented it with the “Sel­lar Scroll” in mem­ory of his mother Es­ther and funded the scroll’s restora­tion in 2008. To­gether with his brother Mau­rice, he do­nated a mu­ral by Wil­liam Uter­mohlen.

Sel­lar mar­ried El­iz­a­beth Fitz­patrick in 1964. She survives him to­gether with their two sons: James – who has taken over the run­ning of the com­pany – and Paul, and a daugh­ter, Caro­line.


Irvine Sel­lar, born Septem­ber 9, 1934. Died Fe­bru­ary 26, 2017

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