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Welcome Back, Conran

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"But after years of litigation, we couldn't finance the old project," says Gordon, who successfully developed the Beverly Center and the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the meantime. "We had a bunch of mom-and-pop tenants that had no financial strength, and the world had changed. So we had to go with a more major tenant."

"Harley was totally devastated," says a friend; Baldwin retreated to Aspen and became an art dealer. But he still owns a quarter of the project, and Gordon owns most of the rest. The pair was still looking for a return on their snowballing investment. And so, Bridgemarket Associates began to actively scout someone who could build a project the community could live with. Most restaurateur-titans in the city, from Joe Baum to Warner LeRoy, had a look. "But this is just a big, complicated, horrible space to deal with, and then to top it off, you've got an active bridge overhead," adds Kissin. Few thought they could fill 61,000 square feet.

That's when ESG Retail Group broker Richard Seligman brought Conran by Bridgemarket. "At that point, Sheldon Gordon had been through fifteen years of hell," Conran recalls. But the deal Conran has struck couldn't have been more attractive: The rehabilitation, which is costing $40 million to $50 million, has been split among the city, Bridgemarket Associates, and Conran.

Conran -- who admits he's solely financing the store -- won't say how much he's shelled out already. He is haunted by the fact that British retailers, like the Sock Shop and Marks & Spencer, which is still struggling to revitalize Brooks Brothers, haven't been particularly lucky on foreign soil. "So many English or European retailers take spaces they simply can't afford," Conran says. "David Tang is a prime example." Tang's Madison Avenue folly, Shanghai Tang, folded in the summer. "If you're on Madison Avenue, you have to be trading in a frenzy from day one. We'd rather take an off-pitch site and let it build slowly."

Not that he hasn't already run into delay -- and even a lawsuit. After the Oyster Bar suffered a fire in the summer of 1997, Bridgemarket's new tiles were diverted to Grand Central. "That was another six months," Conran groans. When he initially signed on, Conran believed the supermarket contracted for the western end of the atrium was going to be the Texas-based high-end health-food retailer Whole Foods Market. After Whole Foods pulled out, Gordon slipped in a Food Emporium, and Conran decided to sue. But eventually, the parties cut a deal: Food Emporium has said it will build its most Balducci-esque supermarket yet and that it will heed Conran's very particular design stipulations; Conran got it to promise that there won't be any signs in the windows. "You know, like steaks, $6.99 a pound," Kissin says with a sigh.

Long before there was the chunnel, there was Terence Conran, positioning himself as postwar Britain's great link to Europe. "When I was 21, I went abroad for the first time, to southern France and northern Italy," Conran says. "I couldn't believe what I saw. Keep in mind, this is postwar France we're talking about. It was the little things -- the markets piled high with fresh vegetables, the bottle of wine delivered to your table without your asking for it. I just wondered why we shouldn't have a life that's more like that. It was just" -- he searches for the word -- "generous."

"What Conran did is not unlike what Andy Warhol did: He took the pretension out of art and made it for everybody. Only he never got the credit," says Ian Schrager.

Conran is standing inside London's Imperial War Museum, which is currently hosting a high-profile exhibition tracing Britain's postwar consumer revolution called "From the Bomb to the Beatles." But the show might as well be called "From the Bomb to the Beatles, via Conran's Habitat." Conran designed it, and Conran curios, from plates to textiles to old Habitat catalogues, are littered throughout.

Habitat had a cultural impact on England that is all but unimaginable to a retailer today. "London just after the war was a place where people needed things," Conran recollects. "It really wasn't until the end of the fifties that people started wanting things. Back then, it was just a matter of getting through life."

In the twenties, Conran's father, Rupert Conran, a charming, gregarious man, founded a company called Conran & Co., which imported gum copal -- a key ingredient in varnish -- from the Congo. But the family lost nearly everything in the crash of 1929. "My parents had just enough money to send my sister and me away to school," says Conran.

Young Terence grew up in what he has described as "genteel semi-poverty." When the war broke out, Conran's family fled London and his father's Blitz-battered warehouses and moved to rural Hampshire. "We were always hungry. Always. Particularly at school," he says. "That's what people find difficult to believe now: middle-class children without enough food."

As as a child, Terence was closer to his mother than to his father, who had taken the collapse of his fortunes hard. His mother, Christina, always had a taste for contemporary furniture and a disdain for the swags and chintz of English country-house life. Terence and his younger sister, Priscilla, inherited similar tastes.


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