Joe Shute, Callum Adams and Ben Rumsby
London | Rags to riches has always been the mantra of Sir Philip Green. He was the boot boy who started his career in 1973 in an East End shoe wholesaler and pulled himself up by his laces to fulfil his destiny as a self-made billionaire and knight of the realm.
At least that is the way he likes to tell it. He had in fact been educated at a private prep school before attending Carmel College in Oxfordshire, known as the “Jewish Eton”, and left aged 15 without any qualifications.
But the 66-year-old always seemed to prefer the idea of himself as an outsider barging his way into the Establishment, raking in millions – and celebrity friends – along the way.
When in 2016 MPs called for him to relinquish his knighthood following his disastrous sell-off of BHS which led to it going into administration with a £571 million ($1.04 billion) pension deficit and the loss of 11,000 jobs, Sir Philip’s retort was: “Why should I?” His reaction to the #MeToo movement and outcry over the Presidents Club Dinner at the Dorchester hotel was similarly bloody-minded.
Batting away the stories of young female hostesses alleging sexual harassment at a sleazy dinner for business executives – Sir Philip was one of those in attendance with his son – he said to a journalist: “There’s no stag parties, no hen parties, no more girls parading in the ring at the boxing – so they’re all banned?”
Born into a middle-class family in south London, his early years were financially comfortable, but not without hardship. When he was just 12, he lost his father, Simon, to a heart attack. After leaving school and moving into business he began buying excess stock from poorly-run retail businesses to sell on to shopkeepers.
He spent four decades gathering momentum in the retail world, sifting through ventures including denim brand Bonanza Jeans, which he bought for £1.1 million in 1985.
He added Topshop to his empire in 2002 through its parent company, Arcadia, and spent 15 years inserting the high-street brand – and himself – into high fashion culture. Supermodels Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne and Naomi Campbell were frequently pictured on his arm or seated by him on the front row of various catwalks. In the same year he acquired Topshop, the mogul celebrated his 50th birthday by flying 220 guests to Cyprus for a two-day party at the Anassa Hotel at a cost of £5 million. It was attended by Prince Albert of Monaco and reportedly involved 400 bottles of champagne, 1000 bottles of wine and 40 kilograms of caviar specially flown in from Russia and served on sculpted ice. His guests wore togas and paraded through the hotel grounds bedecked with flaming torches – Sir Philip the emperor of it all.
He married his wife, now Lady Tina, at Westminster Register Office in September 1990. They have two children, Chloe, 27, and Brandon, 25. The former has courted endless headlines for her jet-set lifestyle and recently had a baby with Jeremy Meeks, a convicted felon from the US who became a male model after his police mugshot went viral online.
When Sir Philip acquired Arcadia, Lady Tina was registered as the official owner. In 2005, it returned a record-breaking £1.2 billion dividend and Sir Philip’s status as king of the high street was assured. He became a well-known figure in the Mediterranean, with the family superyacht berthed in Monaco: a £100 million floating palace bearing the name Lionheart.
Two years before buying Arcadia, Sir Philip bought BHS, but this ended in 2015 when he sold the ailing firm for £1 to Dominic Chappell, an ex-bankrupt with little retail sector experience.
The following year, BHS entered administration. As the company folded and thousands of people lost their jobs, Sir Philip slinked back to his yacht.
Oliver Shah, a journalist and author of Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, recounted asking Sir Philip about his management of BHS, prompting a volcanic reaction.
‘Call me a liar to my face’
“If you want to come and call me a liar, come round to my office on Monday, call me a liar to my face and face the consequences,” Shah quoted. “How’s that, if you’re such a big f—— boy? Because you will get thrown through the f—— window.” This was the king of the high street as the public had never heard him.
The collapse of BHS could – and many argued should – have been the end of Sir Philip’s business reputation. A parliamentary inquiry described the £571 million pension fund shortfall as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
In October 2016 MPs passed a motion calling for Sir Philip to be stripped of his knighthood. David Winnick MP called him a “billionaire spiv”. Iain Wright MP, chairman of the business select committee, accused him of leaving BHS “on life support”.
He said: “He took the rings from BHS’s fingers. He beat it black and blue. He starved it of food and water and put it on life support. And then he wanted credit for keeping it alive.”
In February last year, after months of recriminations, Sir Philip agreed to pay £363 million to the BHS pension fund. The money was accompanied by an apology, if not for his own actions then for a year of “uncertainty” following the sell-off which he stressed was “clearly never the intention”.
Sir Philip has so far managed to cling on to his knighthood. But that might change following Thursday’s decision by Lord Hain to use parliamentary privilege to name him.
The opprobrium is turning to a roar.