Eccentric master of the ‘hug zone’ with fashion in his blood
Ask almost anyone who has met Ray Kelvin, the founder and boss of Ted Baker, and it is more than likely they will have a story about being hugged. City analysts, journalists, staff, suppliers and bankers alike tell of the snappily dressed chief executive taking them in swift embraces or long and intense bear hugs, planting kisses or even demanding press-ups.
But this week Ted Baker removed the “hug zone” – a demarcated area outside Kelvin’s office – as the company began an overhaul of its culture as a result of more than 300 current and former staff signing a
petition calling for an end to “forced hugs” and alleged harassment by Kelvin. Staff of both sexes have complained not just of unwanted hugs but have accused Kelvin of ear kissing, shoulder massages and asking young female members of staff to sit on his knee.
The campaigning group says it has since sent more than 100 anonymised reports of alleged harassment to the Ted Baker board of directors.
Until this week, Kelvin’s hugs were just seen as part of a quirky culture at Ted Baker’s London head office, which Kelvin has described as part of “caring and loving people”. But since the Observer reported the allegations of harassment last weekend, a darker side to the Ted Baker culture appears to have emerged. Accounts of hugging
turning into an unwanted sit on the knee or a hand around the waist allegedly drifting downwards have emerged in the trade journal Retail Week. When the allegations were put to Kelvin by one of the magazine’s reporters he responded: “If they are happy to sit on my knee…” before trailing off.
Ted Baker has now called in law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate the allegations.
While there are some 400 staff at the group’s head office, industry insiders and former staff say that Kelvin is still at the centre of decision-making.
He has admitted as much: “I can be difficult. I am particular and I can be hard work when I need to be. But I think that’s respected.”
Kelvin, who will turn 63 next week, has fashion in his bones. His
father Alf owned a small blouse factory in Tottenham, he began working alongside his mum Trudie in the family tailor’s shop before he was 10 years old.
Kelvin began his business life by supplying womenswear to high street retailers in early 1970s via his Personal Contact group before seeing an opportunity to specialise in men’s shirts. He said he invented his Gatsbyesque alter ego Ted Baker as a way to separate himself from the brand – just in case it went bust.
He has kept a remarkably low profile in the world of fashion retail, where it’s not uncommon for bosses to be regular fixtures of diary columns or even front pages. That’s despite the fact that first wife Georgia Slowe, with whom he had two sons who are now in their 20s, was an actor in Emmerdale.
He married second wife Clare, with whom he has a daughter, in 2012. Kelvin has spoken out against his hatred of being seen to be flash and tries not to have his full face photographed.
The brand blossomed during the 1990s era of lad culture, when it sold “vomit proof” suits with special pockets to carry condoms. The company, which listed on the stock market in 1997, now has 544 stores worldwide and annual sales of £590m.
Kelvin prefers to promote from within, so many senior staff have spent more than 20 years at the company. He talks about staff as like family, and has been known to help pay for education or medical treatments. But several senior people have recently quit, including retail director Chris Browne and womenswear boss Catherine Scorey.
One friend says the atmosphere has changed amid tougher times on the high street. “He’s been allowed to whatever he wants to do. Perhaps he’s lost a bit of his moral compass in recent years and doesn’t realise not everybody wants to be hugged by their boss.”
‘I can be difficult. I am particular and I can be hard work. But I think that’s respected’ Ray Kelvin Ted Baker founder
Ray Kelvin, who does not like his full face being photographed, used to have a ‘hug zone’ outside his office