Where these days you would see a monitor, you’d see an ashtray; where you would see a recycling bin, you’d see a stack of computer printouts; and where you would see a water fountain, you’d see some sample garments and hope no exotic spiders were lurking in the pockets.
It wasn’t quite Life on Mars nor Mad Men, but the Dorothy Perkins Buying Office of 1986 would look just as much like a museum installation to a millennial today. As the name – an anachronism even then – looks set to leave the high street to the tender embrace of charity shops and bookies, the time is right to reflect on my four and a bit years basking in the Lawson Boom that put money in pockets and had retailers living high on the hog, secretly dreading what we knew was lurking around the corner come the 90s.
I nearly didn’t make it. At a time when new technologies and changes in industrial relations saw new newspapers and magazines launched almost every week (The Sunday Correspondent anyone?), Robert Maxwell was planning a British version of Sports International to be called Sportsweek and I was set for a final selection for the post of trainee sports journalist (like Maxwell, Sportsweek didn’t last long). But a Friday morning phone call from my old student digs, interviews at 12.00pm, 1.00pm and 3pm, a handshake at 4pm and Monday morning saw me emerging from Oxford Circus tube station no longer a student, but an employee again. The Burton Group hired plenty of us bright young things then – some swam and some sank, but nobody had much student debt and there was always another job round the corner (in London anyway).
The heart of the West End was the greatest place to work in the world back then. If the sheer weight of shoppers meant that the doors of 214 Oxford Street couldn’t be prised open some days, all that energy zapped its way into your very soul.
Lunchtimes meant trips to Soho’s Berwick Street Market for fruit and sandwiches, coffee bought at Angelluci’s, pasta at Lina’s; evenings were for restaurants with their burgeoning range of vegetarian options or, if not that, a quick cannelloni at Pollo’s in Old Compton Street before cinema or theatre or stand-up or jazz or just jawing the night away in the pub. And every pub was a world of its own.
Christmas brought some very long lunches (courtesy of suppliers) in one of the West End’s more upscale establishments. The whole department team would decamp for the afternoon to a private room in Frith Street or St Christopher’s Place and we’d eat a little too much and drink a lot too much before floating back at 5pm or so. I quickly discovered that a free bar and I were the very best of friends – until we suddenly weren’t. It was a lesson I learned more times than I ought to have.
Twice a year, a large ballroom of an old school hotel would be hired and we (the buying departments) would show off our new season ranges to the branch manageresses, hundreds of whom would descend on the metropolis for a critical booze up, preview of the fashions to come. If they were all perfectly professional over the three days or so, it would be remiss not to point out that some faces were rather wan beneath the make-up by the third morning. I would don my best Commes des Garçons and Workers for Freedom tailoring and show off and flirt unashamedly while giving the 30 minutes or so presentation – but it proved that I could hold an audience, something that was invaluable when I started teaching in a university.
Office politics were very different not only because sexual politics were different (one can only imagine the fallout these days from tabloid revelations that our Chief Executive, Sir Ralph “Five Times A Night” Halpern was cavorting with a young model, Fiona Wright) but because the office was overwhelmingly female. Conversations were not as they would be in the newly deregulated City a couple of miles East, there was less ego on show (though definitely not “no ego”) and we were more polite to each other, the nascent boorish bantery barrow boy culture absent. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though – there’s another word that begins with “b” that was never far from the surface in an office like that.
Things were relaxed – never mind suits, long trousers were optional in the summer and Birkenstocks almost de rigeur for us few blokes. With staff discount at Harvey Nichols, designer clothes were affordable and, since we were all, by definition, interested in fashion, looks, whether Sex in the City metropolitan or Camden Market urban, were cultivated, noticed and discussed. When visited by friends whose office environments were more traditional in dress codes and male to female ratios, they would ask me how I could work in such an environment – I blushed a little and said that you didn’t notice after a while. Not true of course.
It wasn’t just gender, it was sexuality too. At a time when the AIDS pandemic (yes, that’s what it was) had exacted and was still exacting an appalling toll on gay men living with a ferociously hostile media, many felt safer inside the closet than out, with the appalling mental stress that caused. In a fashion buying office, I doubt anybody cared about anyone’s sexuality because all colours of the LGBT+ rainbow walked through the doors every day. I don’t doubt that bad things happened, but I expect worse things happened more frequently elsewhere.
I recall a conversation I had at an office party with a bisexual colleague and I asked him about the differences between his relationships with men and women. “Well, you wake up one morning with a hairy leg across you and another with a smooth leg.” In the late 80s, wisdom like that inoculated this straight man from much of the brutal prejudice that passed for acceptable conversation in the public domain.
We were young (fashion retailing was – and is – a young person’s game) and talent was often spotted early, partly because the steady stream of suppliers who would come in to punt their ranges might snap up those with the most potential for their own business. The Burton Group grapevine was always in play too – get a reputation at Dorothy Perkins as an up-and-coming player and you might find yourself at lunch with a Top Shop director making you an offer from another of the Group’s brands that you couldn’t refuse.
After less than three years as allocator, merchandising and distribution assistant and assistant merchandiser, I was appointed merchandiser of Trousers, Shorts and Jeans, with a team of eight or so, planning (in conjunction with a very wise buyer) almost £40m of garments that were a bit older than Miss Selfridge, a bit younger than M&S and (to our eternal chagrin) a bit more expensive than C&A. I learned that picking up the phone and saying “Hello, Trousers” – the standard greeting in a buying office – was transformed by my still strong and somewhat camp Liverpool accent into a joke that never got old. At 25, I had that mix of 75% bravura (verging on foolish) confidence and 25% street smarts experience that perfectly suited 1989. I was a lucky boy who was just bright enough to realise it – which made me even luckier.
For all the money that rolled into the company and Halpern’s scandalous £1M per year salary (it really was seen as scandalous!) our working environment was pretty poor. An open plan office (Top Shop were a floor below, Principles and Evans a floor above), it still bore the stamp of the Peter Robinson department store it once was. Lifts were inadequate, an icy blast roared in from the staircases at the back of the building (I wasn’t alone in often working in fingerless gloves) and the ceiling once collapsed above me. I took to wearing my cycling helmet (a gigantic 80s affair) for that morning, half in protest and half in jest. Hell, we all thought ourselves immortal in our 20s!
Air Studios occupied the top floor and sometimes teenyboppers would congregate outside on the rumour that Bros were warbling into microphones up there. One heard whispers that George Michael (known and liked by all the North London Greek dress suppliers) was in the house or maybe Eric Clapton, but the most famous singer I saw was Leo Sayer – at least I think so, but those long lunches addled the memory.
Such is the arrogance of youth that, by mid-1990, I was left cold by the tyranny of the weekly sales figures, finding it hard to get as excited with a win over Top Shop as once I did. I knew that I was good at interviewing applicants and at instilling the belief that was often the only thing between talented and hard-working young women and the step up into management. And I knew that the 90s would be a much tougher decade for retail than the 80s. I jumped ship and went off to teach what I had learned.
Thirty-odd years on, that decision looks hasty, but it wasn’t really. I never got bored with the work, never bitter about my lack of promotion, never complacent about fashion nor retail. Teaching merchandising through the 90s, I was always able to communicate that delight without ever having to mask the cynicism that young people are almost programmed to sense. The cavalcade of interesting people at Dorothy Perkins made me a good teacher and a better person in so many ways – and I’m grateful.
So, while the name will soon fade into a footnote in the long tale of the British High Street’s strangulation at the hands of avaricious landlords, uninterested governments and tax regimes that favour robots over humans, dear old Dottie P’s stays within me, shaping more of my life than ever I would have guessed that sunny Friday afternoon in July 1986. Lucky boy indeed.