The Knight of the Shyster
The Dickotomy of Fashion. Sir Philip Green by Jake Walters for The Guardian
Words Pia Brynteson
Sir Philip Green, TOPSHOP; the fashion press, much of whom took it lying down. By Pia Brynteson.
News hit on the last Friday of November of another UK retail tycoon biting the dust. The Arcadia group entered administration after Green formally turned down an emergency £50m loan from rival Mike Ashley, Chief Executive of Frasers Group plc.
Green, having been a source of business information to the UK press industry for the past two decades, had remarkably managed to keep himself untouched by the media despite various rumours of scandal. Until, that is, the 24th April 2016 when The Sunday Times broke the story ‘BHS on the Brink as Rescue Talks Fail’ by current chief business reporter Oliver Shah. The article exposed the struggle for power between Green and Dominic Chappell (the eventual buyer of BHS). Shah went on to unveil the full story of Green’s shifty behaviour in an unauthorised biography titled Damaged Goods: The Rise and Fall of Sir Philip Green in 2018. He was retail’s most disreputable figure from then onwards.
With The Sun churning out headlines like ‘Flop Shop’ and ‘Morally Bankrupt’, Green was splashed across the papers when his retail empire finally looked like it was crumbling. However, even with Shah’s exposé, the fashion press remained quiet, unable to comment on the downfall of a man they once rubbed shoulders with on the front row of fashion week. "Whenever you get a press that’s clustered around one industry, you inevitably get people fishing for contacts in a distinct and defined pool" says Shah.
There is very little fashion criticism now. Everyone is biased and we are all part of the industry as opposed to objective outsiders looking in
Green was a treasure trove for fashion stories: collaborations with Kate Moss, partnerships with the British Fashion Council for the NEWGEN award and his role as a socialite partying with celebrities. Topshop in its heyday oozed influence, their designer collaborations were a way for the public to feel like they were getting a taste of high-fashion at a fraction of the price. In 2009, NEWGEN winner Christopher Kane dropped his third collection for the store. The Daily Mail wrote an article, at the time of release, headed: "Catwalk King Christopher Kane causes shopper stampede as he launches Topshop collection." Topshop’s PR Andrew Leahy stated: "It's quite a special collection in the sense that it's very much for the fashion follower." The store was Green’s golden ticket into the world of high fashion.
Topshop attracted fashion figures such as Kate Phelan, who after two decades of being co-creative director with Lucinda Chambers at British Vogue, moved to take on the same role at Topshop in 2011. "There was a sense of release when I joined; Topshop was a lot broader - I didn’t have to create Vogue there. I was also inspired by the relationship Topshop had with the fashion industry" says Phelan. The brand’s ability to work with up-and-coming designers and their appetite to get into London Fashion Week with their ‘Unique’ range meant there was an excitement and buzz around them. However, it became quickly clear to Phelan how involved Philip Green would be in every aspect of his business, limiting visions for the brand creatively. "Getting money out of [Topshop] to do creative things was very difficult. It was a game of cat and mouse, having to flatter Green into giving you the money to do what you wanted." Within two years Phelan had handed in her notice, "I realised I was banging my head against a brick wall." But, Phelan remained with the brand until 2017 whilst also being given a role back at Vogue by Alexandra Shulman: "I had the best of both worlds, I could fulfill myself creatively through the magazine whilst being able to continue my battles at Topshop."
However, her exit in 2017 marked the end of an era as the jewel in the crown of Green’s empire started to lose its shine. The rise of online retailers and Green’s refusal to invest more to help it keep up with the times led to key contributors like Phelan leaving: "I couldn’t see how he was going to allow the brand to really flourish. I was glad to be out."
Philip Green, front row at LFW in 2014 with Kate Moss, her sister, Lottie, and Anna Wintour.
Getting money out of [Topshop] to do creative things was very difficult. It was a game of cat and mouse, having to flatter Green into giving you the money to do what you wanted
During Green’s glory days in retail, he exercised unrivalled power over the media - ringing up the papers to supply scoops on the world of business. "He knew how a well-timed leak could sometimes nudge a deal or dispute in his favour" Shah writes in Damaged Goods. Also telling the story of a guest at Brandon Green’s [Philip’s son] bar mitzvah in 2005, trying to sell a DVD of the event to the ex-tabloid News of the World: "Instead of running it as an exclusive, as it would have done with most other celebrities, the paper couriered the disc straight to Green’s office so it could be destroyed." The press wanted and needed him on side, extending far beyond the fashion desks. They weren’t interested in covering what Shah coined the "grittier end of things." By 2019, Sir Philip had multiple sexual assault and racism claims against him and although his grip on retail was slipping he had little in terms of financial consequences to show for it.
"His bullying was sort of public knowledge in the industry but no one had really written about it" says Shah, "it’s the same as Weinstein’s predatory behaviour was known in the film industry but no one really reported on it." The tyranny of Green was a story widely avoided by fashion journalists - "I suppose you can’t blame them, they are there to write about the collections, the glamour and the fun side of the industry. They aren’t there to dig into the numbers, but that means they are never going to get the good stories" says Shah. Philip Green’s involvement in the #MeToo and pension fund scandals were viewed, by the likes of Shah, as a classic example of fashion towing the line and not investigating. "They don’t want the awkward conversations."
The lack of objectivity in fashion has been bashed during the era of Green. Susannah Frankel, Editor-in-Chief of AnOther magazine, stated in an email "there is very little fashion criticism now. Everyone is biased and we are all part of the industry as opposed to objective outsiders looking in." However, this is the case whenever you have industry specific press. It isn’t fashion alone that is guilty of freebies. "There’s one classical critic who’s got a bad reputation for accepting press trips from record companies and then always giving a five-star review to the disc" says Ivan Hewett, chief music critic for The Telegraph. This being one of the press’s less attractive sides; the way people can be bought for access or to be part of a certain club. It leaves little room for objectivity.
Richard Caring, Chairman of The Caprice Holdings; most famously The Ivy and The Wolseley, was Green’s right-hand man during the height of his career. The year before Green was knighted, Caring was mentioned in the 2006 ‘Cash for Peerage’ scandal, where 12 businessmen loaned the Labour Party millions of pounds in return for the nomination to be knighted. Caring threw £2m towards Blair’s election campaign. Although this failed to grant him a peerage, Green made sure one half of the duo succeeded. Green and Caring who both exploited workers’ rights and allegedly practiced tax-avoidance, were able to exert influence over Government through power and intimidation.
Illustration by Patrick Blower
It’s the same as Weinstein, whose predatory behaviour was known in the film industry but no one really reported on it
"Everyone was so committed to keeping him on side because he was such a good source of information. People didn’t want to wind him up" says Shah, of the press. Green’s explosive temper was public knowledge from the start. One article from The Guardian in March 2003 titled ‘Philip Green: days of anger, shouting, abuse and threats’ quoted a phone call with the soon-to-be billionaire: "Ian Griffiths [former The Guardian financial correspondent], is some old cunt from The Independent. Please. Go and write about someone else. Do yourself a favour."
However, once BHS was sold in 2017 to Dominic Chappell for £1, Shah started digging. "I knew no one else was going to want to offend him" he says. Shah was subjected to countless instances of verbal abuse and threats of legal action. "It was a bright spring Saturday, and the king of the high street was threatening to kill me" reads the opening line of Damaged Goods. Shah revealed that underneath the stardust, the foundations of an empire were rotting. A rot which the fashion press failed to acknowledge.
The exposé of a billionaire is not a task to take on lightly and no one writing in fashion at the time felt they wanted to attempt it. Susie Rushton, current Deputy Editor of The Telegraph Luxury, profiled Sir Philip in 2007 for The Independent, during a time where she was moving from the fashion to features desk: "I now had little to lose in terms of annoying him, I made a bit of a specialty in interviewing egomaniac men at that time" says Rushton. "In my experience fashion journalists want to write about clothes, not scandals. And actually, what’s wrong with leaving the investigative journalism to those who specialise in just that?"
Perhaps if fashion journalists did hold the industry and players like Green to account, then maybe the fashion world would be taken more seriously. We are specialist journalists and there is no reason to let people off the hook. Let’s start by biting the hand that 'feeds' us.