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Welcome Back, Conran

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Instead of art, Conran collects furniture by his heroes. Across from him sits a cushiony Breuer chaise. "And that stool over there is by Charles Eames," Conran says. "If I ever achieve a quarter of what Charles Eames achieved in his life, I'll die a happy man."

Conran and Davis, a divorced interior designer, met in the South of France six years ago on a blind date. By that time, Conran had been through more than a few pitched battles with the women in his life, who themselves were public figures in the Conran style dynasty. Conran split with his second wife, writer-artist Shirley Conran, in 1962. Shirley went on to become a popular novelist in the seventies, with her housewife-liberation manifesto Superwoman, and to decry her ex-husband's skirt chasing. She is the mother of Jasper Conran, a well-known fashion designer, and Sebastian, who is now a design director at Conran & Partners. Conran married Caroline, a food writer later credited with popularizing nouvelle cuisine in England, in 1963. The couple had three children -- Ned, an artist; Tom, owner of a chic London deli and pub in Notting Hill; and Sophie, an occasional buyer for the Conran Shop. The two were married for 34 years, but when they finally divorced in 1997, they were, for a time, London's answer to Donald and Ivana. Caroline ended up with a near-record $17 million settlement.

"That was actually brought about by an extremely ambitious solicitor and an extremely ambitious judge who saw this as a great opportunity to make the front pages of the London newspapers," Conran says wearily. When they were married, Conran had given Caroline 26 percent of his business as a wedding present. During the divorce, Caroline -- who alleged that Conran had been a dictatorial workaholic -- argued that she deserved more. The judge agreed, adding that Conran had been "too dismissive" of Caroline's role in the Conran empire. Conran noted that Caroline had left him twice during their marriage for other men.

That rainy, chilly first night, a travel-weary Conran appeared to Davis "the most melancholy fellow I'd ever met," she recalls. "But deeply attractive."

"We had a rather good dinner at an Italian restaurant," Conran adds. "Terribly good osso buco." Conran prefers the details to the sweeping, dramatic narratives. He never frames his life story in terms of "comebacks" or "triumphs." And there have been so many.

Conran spent the Thatcher years as the perfect Tory image of the model British entrepreneur -- even if to this day he is a staunch Labourite who says he considers Thatcher "one of the most odious people who's ever walked the face of the earth."

Conran took Habitat public in 1981 and steadily merged with a number of British clothing and housewares retailers, the largest of which was the giant mid-level fashion chain British Home Stores. The behemoth was called Storehouse, and Conran was, for a time, its chief executive officer. At its mid-eighties peak, Storehouse was posting $2.25 billion in revenues and employing more than 33,000. But Conran, the fussy perfectionist, began to chafe when he thought his board was slow to act on strategies like turning BHS into a Gap for Europe.

Before long, Conran's in America began to suffer -- a victim, Conran admits, of his own zealous expansion to the less-clued-in suburbs. By now, there were sixteen stores beyond its original flagship in the Citicorp Center, including outposts in New Rochelle and Short Hills. Conran argued that the American chain needed increased financial life support before it could establish its urbane yuppie sensibility with America's ranch-house set.

Increasingly marginalized, Conran finally left Storehouse in 1990, ceding his first child, the Habitat chain. Ironically, Storehouse ran into a pinch during the early-nineties recession and ended up selling off Habitat to the company that owns Ikea.

After he left Storehouse, the Stateside Conran's chain ended up in a succession of American hands, including those of Marvin Traub, formerly of Bloomingdale's.

"After I left, some really daft things started to happen at Conran's in America," Conran says. "At one moment, they were filling it with masses of Third World countries' cheap furniture like you'd find in Pier 1, and then in the next, they were putting Ralph Lauren boutiques into the shops. It became an absolute parody." (Traub, for his part, has always maintained he was merely trying anything that might work to save a ship that was already mostly sunk.)

By 1990, Conran was considered finished as a preeminent force in British commerce. His personal fortune was estimated to have plummeted from its mid-eighties peak of some $300 million to perhaps $50 million. But despite what the financial-page obituaries were saying, Conran was not ready to retire. In fact, he'd intelligently bought back the Conran Shop name (the higher-end version of Habitat, with just one shop on Fulham Road) from Storehouse for about $5 million when he left the company. Furthermore, Bibendum had proved a stunning success, one that inspired him to channel his energies into more restaurants. Some of those profits were then directed into growing the Conran Shop -- and this time, there would be no boardroom types around to interfere.

As for the knighthood, it came before the troubles, a 1983-vintage legacy of mogulhood. "I never conceived of myself as a 'sir,' he shrugs. "It's only good if you've got to complain to somebody. After the terrible rail disaster in London last month, I thought of a simple thing: If the red lights that drivers endlessly drive through were to flash, they'd be far more likely to be noticed than a simple glowing light. I wrote to British Rail with this idea, and signed it just 'Terence Conran.' I didn't get a reply. I sent a letter again as 'Sir Terence Conran' and got an immediate reply."

How enthusiastically america will embrace the British sexagenarian is open to question. Will the ghosts of Bridgemarket finally rest in peace? Even here, today, Conran seems vulnerable to the bad karma.

"I have the most extreme cold and haven't had a decent night's sleep in three days," he says, pulling his black wool overcoat tight against an icy wind blowing in off the East River. "And then, this morning, as I was coming in on the Concorde, the plane touched down its landing gear and then all of a sudden, for some unknown reason, we couldn't land. So whoosh, we took right off again. It was quite alarming." He smiles.

"I almost didn't make it here."


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