People of the decade: Sir Philip Green

Today, fashion flies off the catwalk and on to the high street in record time, and it's all thanks to one man, Sir Philip Green, the king of fast fashion, and his Topshop stores.

Illustration Beto Alvarez
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Today, fashion flies off the catwalk and on to the high street in record time, and it's all thanks to one man, Sir Philip Green, the king of fast fashion, and his Topshop stores. Mimi Spencer charts the rise of the man who put Kate Moss in every teenager's closet. If you want a shorthand description of the past decade's fashion, the word would have to be fast. Like fast food before it, fashion worked up a head of steam in the Noughties. Thanks to web 2.0, we started to shop voraciously online, with new clothes delivered to our doors in a couple of clicks. Designers introduced quick-turnaround mid-season ranges - cruise and pre-collections - and we dressed in blink-and-it's-gone micro trends. Harem pants. Biker boots. Jumpsuits. Leopard print. It all came and went in the time it took us to say "Philip Green".

Over the decade, Green - the Croydon-born rag-trade merchant, rough diamond and the British high street's answer to Ray Winstone - established himself, through a series of buccaneering raids, as the alpha-male in fashion retail. As the owner of the privately held Arcadia Group (which counts Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, BHS, Wallis and Evans among its brands), Green commands 12 per cent of the UK's clothing retail market; he boasts 2,300 shops, controls more of London's prime real estate than the Duke of Westminster and is currently worth about £4.43 billion, (Dh26.5 billion) having reached billionaire status faster than anyone else in British history. Not bad for a bloke who started out with a loan and a lorry-load of liquidated stock from a defunct denim chain in Slough (he sold the company a few years later to Lee Cooper for £7 million (Dh42 million).

The story of Sir Philip - he was knighted in 2006 - is a potted history of millennial fashion. For him, it's all about the speed of the deal, the pace of delivery, of turnaround and take-up and trend. At Arcadia, new merchandise is whisked in every four weeks. Middlemen are knocked out. Nothing hangs around for long. "It's a marketplace," says Sir Philip, "and I'm concerned to buy the best products I can in the marketplace we're in. We're not looking to exploit, but we are looking to be quick on our feet. If someone offered me 50,000 bottles of this [water] at the right price, I'd buy them. I'd buy anything. Old stocks, discontinued lines, cancelled orders. At the right price." And his bête noirs? Bad buying, old stock, indecision, time-wasting, corporate thinking. As he puts it: "I could spend my life having meetings, a meeting to have another meeting, a hundred meetings to have another thousand meetings. It's not what I'm about."

So, what is he about? For a 50-something multi-billionaire who jets between a Monte Carlo penthouse and a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel in his Gulfstream G550, he's surprisingly attuned to what the girls want. In a post-Primark world, fast fashion is only partly about price. It's also about nous: spot the niche, get the right product, sell quick, move on. Sir Philip uses two Nokia phones, one exclusively for incoming calls, the other for phoning out. According to industry anecdote, he regularly advances down Oxford Street to rifle through the rails of his many stores, eyeing the bottom line, looking for the angle. He'll know if there's a run on sequins and whether the rain has hurt bikini sales. He adjusts window displays and puts fallen garments back on hangers.

Sir Philip is also, in large part, responsible for the decade's wild-fire democratisation of fashion. Through his lead brand Topshop, high-end design suddenly became available to girls who still funded their fashion with pocket money or Saturday jobs. They got Zandra Rhodes, Celia Birtwell, Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab, among countless others, funded by his behemoth Arcadia, backed by his mammoth economies of scale. In 2007, they got Kate Moss, right there, in their wardrobes. Without Green, you might argue, there'd be no Comme des Garçons at H&M, no Jil Sander at Uniqlo, no Pierre Hardy at Gap. There's more, though. Think for a moment about what Topshop has achieved with its own-label Unique collection, which arrived in 2005 and has since become a feted fixture on the London Fashion Week calendar. Imagine: a high-street brand on the same platform as all those sacred cows, the front-row elite taking it seriously, seeking it out, lavishing it with credibility and attention - and wearing it. That's some feat, proving how very youth-driven modern fashion has become, steered now by 14-year-olds in hot-pants, not mid-lifers in cashmere and pearls.

Naturally enough, New York now has its very own Topshop - all 2,300 square metres of it, opened in 2008, in the desperate doldrums of recession and in a market that has long been considered a graveyard for British retailers (including Sir Philip's old antagonist M&S). Sir Philip, typically, seems unruffled. As he once put it, "It's about vision, isn't it? You can't get from here to there without taking risks. As you go on, you get this sixth sense. I am a positive thinker."

And Sir Philip has surely got somewhere. As joint owners of 92 per cent of the group, he and his wife Tina awarded themselves a dividend of £1.17 billion (Dh7 billion) in 2005 - the largest payout in British corporate history - allowing him to purchase Lionheart, a £32 million (Dh190 million) Benetti yacht, together with that £20 million (Dh120 million) private jet. Another £4 million (Dh24 million) went on his son's bar mitzvah, complete with Destiny's Child on the bill; yes, it's flash and brash, but more than £6 million (Dh 36 million) was also pumped into educational philanthropy, predominantly his Fashion Retail Academy.

Needless to say, Sir Philip's future is full-speed ahead. His collaboration with music mogul Simon Cowell - Greenwell Entertainment - has already been dubbed "Britain's answer to Disney". You can bet that that Sir Philip will be right in the thick of it, moving ever on to the Next Big Thing. It's his way. And increasingly over the past 10 years, it has become our way too. Today's fashion: it's all about tomorrow.