In 2002, Sir Philip Green spent his birthday party dressed as Emperor Nero. Nero, of all people. A swaggering, debauched, all-powerful tyrant with no moral compass and an iffy attitude toward women, whose ignominious downfall was widely celebrated by his own people. And this is whom Green chose to dress up as.
The choice of outfit should tell you a lot about the man. It should tell you that he really did see himself, unironically, as the figurehead of an empire. It should tell you that he needs to try harder to finish any history books that he starts reading. And, most importantly, it should tell you that he absolutely did not see any of this coming.
This has been a terrible year for Green. His once unstoppable Arcadia retail group is in free fall, with the clothing stores Topshop and Topman alone reporting pre-tax losses of more than $600 million. His reputation has been mauled amid accusations of racism, sexual harassment, and witness intimidation. In May he was charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault in the U.S. His rich and powerful friends are abandoning him by the truckload. Parliament has attempted to revoke his knighthood. Worse still, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Philip Green isn’t even a billionaire anymore. The humiliations never end: in February, Michael Winterbottom’s satire Greed, starring Steve Coogan as a vulgar, bleach-toothed tycoon based on Green, opens in theaters.
In May he was charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault in the U.S.
It is, by all accounts, a spectacular fall from grace. A middle-class self-starter, Green had an entrepreneurial spirit so pronounced that he was once the U.K.’s ninth-richest man; in 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair recommended him for a knighthood. Green was reportedly the BBC’s first-choice candidate to host the British version of The Apprentice, a role that was eventually filled by dour hedgehog-faced electronics magnate Alan Sugar. In 2010, Green was chosen to perform an efficiency review on the entire government as part of David Cameron’s policy of austerity. He joined forces with Simon Cowell to announce Growl, a multi-billion-dollar super-entertainment company—straddling the spheres of television production, talent management, and merchandising, including a permanent X Factor residency in Las Vegas—that was originally envisioned as a serious rival to Disney. Which sounds absolutely horrific, obviously, but at least it does represent a certain boldness of thought.
Even five years ago, when he paraded around with Beyoncé on one arm and Cara Delevingne on the other at the launch of his New York Topshop flagship, Green looked and acted like the untouchable emperor of old. But then he always did like to make a display of his wealth. His 50th-birthday party—the Nero one—included performances by Tom Jones; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Rod Stewart, and video messages from Britney Spears and Sylvester Stallone. His 55th reportedly came with performances by Roberta Flack, Ricky Martin, Gladys Knight, George Michael, and Jennifer Lopez. For his 60th, he had a nightclub specially built in Mexico, invited Leonardo DiCaprio and Gwyneth Paltrow, fed them $65 burgers, and watched Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys play full-length concerts for him.
His 65th birthday, however, was a much more muted affair; a small gathering at the Dorchester hotel, in London, where the biggest name was Vernon Kay, a TV host best known for presenting a naff little celebrity-diving competition entitled Splash! The cause of this uncharacteristic introversion? Green’s complete and total betrayal of the British people.
For his 60th, he had a nightclub specially built in Mexico and invited Leonardo DiCaprio and Gwyneth Paltrow.
BHS was where it all started falling apart. A beloved institution founded in 1928, BHS—short for British Home Stores—was a cheap and homely department store, and a permanent fixture on many British high streets. Never as flash as Debenhams, nor as formal as Fenwick, BHS had genuine multi-generational appeal. Yes, it was old and staid and stale, but it was something you could rely on. If you were a certain type of child from a certain type of family, your mum took you to BHS to buy all your clothes. And she did it because her mum had done exactly the same with her.
Bluster and Bankruptcy
BHS started to run into trouble in the late 1990s, outpaced by buzzy new high-street contenders. As a result, it was sold to Philip Green for $250 million in 2000; his first big retail acquisition. One of his first acts was to take the company private and pay his wife—who lived in the tax haven of Monaco—a $1.6 billion dividend. BHS branches, already dated before Green’s involvement, began to fall into disrepair. Little by little they lost their sense of purpose and identity, and deficits began to increase.
In 2015, Green sold BHS for one dollar to a former bankrupt with no retail experience. When the chain inevitably collapsed a year later, it caused the loss of 11,000 jobs and left a $700 million pension deficit.
One of his first acts was to take the company private and pay his wife—who lived in the tax haven of Monaco—a $1.6 billion dividend.
Green was singled out as the culprit. It was claimed that he had off-loaded a failing business to prevent taking on the pensions liability. He’d extracted huge sums of money from BHS and shipped it to Monaco, leaving the business a shadow of its former self. The man who was once dubbed “the Emperor of Retail” was now a vampire dubbed “Sir Shifty” by the tabloid press. Parliament voted to revoke his knighthood, although this has yet to come to pass. Green would later describe the sale of BHS as the worst mistake of his life, but the admission came too late. Everyone finally knew how greedy and untrustworthy Philip Green was. It was hard to see how things could get any worse for him.
And then came “the Other Stuff.” In October 2018 it was revealed that a mysterious figure had spent an estimated $600,000 to obtain an injunction to prevent the press from reporting on what it described as “The British #MeToo scandal,” promised to be a whirlwind of sexual harassment, intimidation, and racial abuse. Two days later, former leader of the House of Commons Lord Hain used his parliamentary privilege to name Green as the figure, and all hell kicked off.
It was claimed that Green had groped and kissed a senior female executive, calling her a “naughty girl” and then paying her $1.2 million to keep quiet; that he had grappled another female executive into a headlock in front of witnesses; that he had complained that his company was hiring too many black people (one of whom he allegedly told that “everyone else is firing guns and you’re still throwing spears in the jungle”); that he addressed a visiting Chinese businessman as “Mr. Ching Chong Charlie.” A week and a half later, Green was investigated by police in Arizona after a Pilates teacher claimed that he spanked her while making sexual comments. In May he was charged with four counts of assault and hired Kevin Spacey’s lawyer to defend him, while denying the allegations.
He had reportedly grappled another female executive into a headlock in front of witnesses.
And that’s where we are now. Green’s associates have fled, his empire is in ashes, his reputation nonexistent. The rise was sharp, but the fall has been completely spectacular. He has long been able to pride himself on his status as a self-made man, but this is an entirely self-made failure. The retail sector is cratering around the world, and there’s a chance that things might have gone wrong for him anyway, and yet you still won’t be able to find anyone with so much as a shred of sympathy for Green in his predicament.
This is a man who clawed his way to the top, and then groped his way back down to the bottom again. Forget Nero; for his 70th birthday Philip Green should really consider dressing up as Donald Trump.
Stuart Heritage is a Contributing Editor for Air Mail based in Kent