I’ve recently re-read my autobiography and feel much of it is still relevant, deserving of a wider readership than it first achieved. As a teaser, I thought I’d reproduce in this blog some of my recollections. Perhaps they might arouse the interest of my readers enough to purchase copies of the book, still in print.
A vital part of my working life involved my relationship with the Asprey family and the iconic Bond Street store that bore the legendary name and reputation for luxury. Indeed, large sections of my autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995, covered my triumphs, failures and the lessons I learned during those dynamic twenty years. This extract refers to events that began in the late 1990s.
‘At Asprey worrying events were taking place. I was particularly concerned about a deteriorating relationship between John Asprey and Ronald Lee, of R. A. Lee (Fine Arts) Ltd, which had been precarious at the best of times. John, who was a marvellous salesman, with a charm to match, could nevertheless show a regrettable lack of deference when aroused. He also displayed an impatience with people whose methods of working differed from his own. As a result, he tended to leave behind him a trail of disaffected individuals. Impulsiveness can have its merits, but a pause for reflection may sometimes make a better alternative. Ronald Lee, who was eighty-one, found John very difficult to deal with and there were many occasions when I had to intervene to lower the temperature. They were like chalk and cheese and a parting of the ways seemed likely to occur sooner rather than later. The Antiques Trade Gazette reported the incident that broke the camel’s back on 16 April. It concerned a failed attempt to purchase two historic panel paintings from the thirteenth century for the British Museum. They had come up for sale at the Bristol Auction Rooms, and Ronald was acting as underbidder on the museum’s behalf. To his astonishment, he saw them being ‘knocked down to Asprey (bidding on behalf of an anonymous British-based collector) for £120,000’.
‘The long-established Lee family business was taken over last summer by Naim Attallah’s Asprey Group. Son Charles continued as a director and Ronald was retained on a consultancy basis. Asprey maintain that, so far as they were concerned, Mr Lee was bidding in a private capacity and managing director Timothy Cooper described the incident as ‘an unfortunate misunderstanding’. However, Ronald Lee described his position as ‘untenable’, and the eighty-one-year-old dealer added: ‘I call it “quietly retiring”, but it is a resignation.’
‘The old boy retired amid some bitterness. I tried to defuse the atmosphere as best I could, but John was beginning to show signs of petulance, another development that caused me unease. Our relationship was the key to the success of the Asprey group. We were different but complementary. Lord Rothermere (Vere), who was my friend, and even a member of the Academy Club, set an example as a very astute operator. A true press baron, well aware of his own limitations, he appointed David English to run his empire. It was a wise move that paid dividends. The secret of their success was that each adhered to his own area of responsibility without encroaching on the territory of the other. The fruits of this cooperation came with the emergence of the Daily Mail and General Trust as one of the most profitable press conglomerates in the United Kingdom. The same principle had so far applied to the Asprey group, John being chairman and the salesman par excellence while I was group chief executive.
‘This pairing worked extremely well until the group grew in size and stature; then cracks began to appear in the fabric of our relationship. At the instigation of his friends, and a number of members of his family, he began to interfere in areas where his competence was perhaps not up to the mark. He started issuing instructions to other sectors of the group, and while these were seldom fully implemented, they set off ripples of discord. None of this went down well with the senior management in the group, who invariably reported John’s aberrations to me with a degree of apprehension. John would then in most cases deny the incidents concerned and matters would stabilize for a while. But these were danger signs portending a more serious situation ahead.
‘To move the focus from Asprey’s internal problems to fashion, Tomasz Starzewski had been actively preparing for British Fashion Week, under the auspices of the Asprey group, as reported in OK magazine, with Baroness Izzy van Ranwyck as one of his patrons. His creations were displayed at the Natural History Museum in the British Fashion Council Tent. ‘Tomasz’s brand-new collection is fashionable, stylish and fun and his show was appreciated by a discerning audience.’ My relationship with Tomasz was also great fun. Within the Asprey group he was directly responsible to me, and we had a close working partnership as a result of this proximity. It was certainly not bereft of its lighter moments. We both, as bon viveurs, liked to escape on occasion from the pressures placed upon us by our different roles. Our sexual orientation might not have been exactly the same, but we both loved women for a variety of reasons. In that domain the disparity worked in ways that were quite complementary and consolidated the relationship further. We undertook a few promotional trips abroad, accompanied by a small entourage of exquisite young ladies, who not only carried out their assignments with immaculate precision, but also brought colour and glamour to the proceedings. Life at the top end was undoubtedly good and we were determined to savour the delights while they lasted.
The Asprey Era
by Tomasz Starzewski
‘I had reached a point in my career when I needed to be part of a large parent company. A friend of mine mentioned Naim. I remember saying to him, ‘I think I’m the wrong sex,’ because Naim had always been known for supporting and encouraging quite a lot of my women friends over the years. But my friend said, ‘He could still be the one, you ought to meet him.’ I can’t remember exactly how the interview was instigated, and unbeknown to me Naim was married to a Polish woman. I think that was a lucky connection and a good omen at that. From Naim’s point of view, another advantage was the innocence of my ways, my unbounded enthusiasm plus an extraordinary clientele, which he reckoned would be a great asset to Asprey.
‘He made it very clear from the outset that we were not going to get oldfashioned management. It became as though we lived in a crazy, spontaneous though not reckless arena of activity; but each of us in the team knew that as far as the group was concerned the question was how Naim had managed to do something so impossible as set us up in this unique situation. We also knew that the way to get to him was through his PA, whoever the PA happened to be at the time. It was important for us to find out his mood and his thoughts, or whether we needed to orchestrate a campaign to win him round. I also knew he had fundamentally banned men from his floor. However, I was quick to work out that my worth would be greatly enhanced by tantalizing him with the latest acquisition of tender young staff with good credentials. Dealing with Naim was an education in itself.
‘Early in our association I told Naim I needed a managing director to look after the commercial aspects of the business and to keep a tight purse. One day I asked him if he remembered a pop/folk duo called Nina & Frederik. ‘Well, their daughter is coming to see me,’ I said. She had been working in Rome for Valentino and had moved to England because she wanted to be near her current beau, the ex-husband of a great friend of Naim’s. I then met this incredibly beautiful, chic girl, Anna Maria van Pallandt, who looked just like her mother, Nina, used to look, but who was also relatively icy and distant. Naim interviewed her as well to see if she’d make part of the team, though it never occurred to me she might be material for a managing director. I may therefore have said something out of order when Naim announced, ‘This is your new managing director.’ Against all expectations, she turned out to be highly efficient and sensible. She took in her stride the responsibility of seeing that money kept coming in. My main concern at that point was to design clothes to sell and not to bother myself with accounts.
‘Eventually my team was headed by this beautiful Dutch girl, Anna Maria. My press attaché was Sophie Hedley and Fiona Sleeman looked after the customers admirably. They were all great girls. With Anna Maria it took time to earn her friendship as she was very reserved. She came from a colourful upbringing, her parents having been very much part of that swinging seventies mad calypso crowd, gravitating between Lisbon and Ibiza on their yacht, the Sir Leonard Lord. Yet their offspring was a very focused and serious young woman, protective and sensible. Soon after the wonderful Sophie Hedley was promoted by Naim to be the new PR of the company, I found a crazy French assistant designer who produced incredibly spectacular illustrations and had learnt English through watching television. It was a time of constant laughter. We were always in fits as we tried to work out how to sneak into Naim’s office to get what we deserved – or thought we deserved. The process would be me saying, ‘I do need a new watch,’ or Sophie saying, ‘I quite like that ring,’ knowing full well Naim’s unbelievable generosity. This always provoked the complete annoyance of the rest of the group, bar Tania Foster-Brown, who was then Naim’s head of marketing and had that same wicked sense of humour. She was the one who taught me the works, because the other young woman belonging to Naim’s inner sanctum at the time was Julia Ogilvy, whom I found completely terrifying.
‘It was a heady period. When I look back at it, I appreciate Naim’s acquisition of Tomasz Starzewski even more than I did at the time. It was quite a controversial decision for Asprey. I remember sitting at a dinner party with some great friends of mine, and my hostess taking me aside and saying, ‘I’ve placed you next to this person, because I think you ought to know there are some members of the Asprey family who deeply disapprove of you being part of the group.’ And I remember being sat next to this unbelievably frosty Frenchwoman, who stuck her nose up at me and just said, ‘Who are you?’ then ignored me.
‘Naim showed great courage in bringing me into the fold, which at that point was really about jewellery and applied art, whether watches or pictures. It may be thought that fashion can be a logical extension of all that, but in fact it is quite a distinct sort of proposition. I don’t think we ever realized how protected we were from Bond Street by Naim in Regent Street, who ensured the non-interference of the hierarchy. In the end it seemed the little group of us all working together somehow managed to charm its way through. Ultimately we were able to pacify the parent company, though of course we continued to shock. There was a very concentrated, sexy period when everything seemed to get bigger and greater than it probably was, but it was also a period of immense calm – though that, of course, was only a transient moment in one’s life to be appreciated much later. Then Asprey was sold and the magical group of people who had all been working together disappeared and went elsewhere – but it had been an exhilarating experience.
‘I know there’s a preconceived idea about fashion designers not needing to work hard, but that was never the case with me. I think I gave even slightly more than expected, though my curiosity was not just about what was happening with us in our sector, but what Naim was up to in publishing. Some of it consisted of the most exciting books of the day. I was fortunate to be able to lay my hands very quickly on a copy of anything that took my interest. Naim would send one round straight away. Another thing that made it a very exciting period was flying to New York to do a recce with a view to consolidating and enhancing our international reputation; or, on two or three occasions, travelling with Naim to Milan and to Paris, along with Anna Maria and Sophie, when a great time was had by all.
‘The best way for me to summarize that part of my life is to say it was an indelible era of spontaneity and mischief, though also very naïve and innocent. I’m not sure it could exist in today’s context, because we probably thought we were being naughty and wicked when in fact it was underpinned by good intention and had a rather beautiful quality about it. I consider that says a lot about the people involved. And in a way we were never shaken up or brought to heel. I can recall Naim losing his temper only once, and it wasn’t anything to do with work. We hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the office – it may have been something we never told him. We were given unbelievable trust and that was truly magical. That’s really it.’
Fulfilment & Betrayal
Quartet Books ISBN 978 0 70437 121 7