It was late on a wintry afternoon, and the skies were turning a steely gray over an eerily lifeless stretch on the East Side of Manhattan. Sir Terence Conran had just poked his head inside the forbidding Gilded Age vault beneath the Queensboro Bridge known as Bridgemarket. A half-century of petrochemical grime was caked over the sinuous white tile columns inside. The dust was so thick it clogged the nostrils. The silence inside was cryptlike. “Just to get inside, we had to scramble through masses of barbed wire and padlocks,” Conran remembers.
Today – some five years later – Conran is wending his way through the same dust-choked corridors. He is remembering the moment his real-estate broker, on a whim, decided to swing him through after a long day of rambling through the city’s most notorious vacant spaces.
“We walked over planks, and these little crawl-bridges,” he says, his eyes growing wide. “Then, suddenly, there were these vague stirrings. We looked around and realized there were all these tramps lying here, asleep. They started getting up. Then their dogs got up, fairly wild dogs. There were even rats.”
And then he looked up, high into the shadows, and caught a glimpse of that mosaic-intricate terra-cotta tile, undulating across a series of grand arches some 40 feet overhead.
“It was like Chartres. Like St. Paul’s,” he says, his eyes aglow.
It was this feeling of messianic rapture that accounts for Conran’s presence here today. Only this time around, Conran’s Oliver Sweeney loafers are leaving their size-9 prints behind in the sawdust-and-drywall grit of new construction. Conran is here taking his final stroll through Bridgemarket before phase one of the project opens on December 8, a vast, subterranean challenge to Pottery Barn called the Terence Conran Shop. Upstairs, where the same nineteenth-century engineer responsible for the soaring ceiling at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine also worked his sorcery, Conran will open his first two restaurants in America. This is no minor event, considering that he is the man who introduced London to flashy, high-style dining-as-theater with such hits as Quaglino’s, Bluebird, and Bibendum.
In England, Conran is less a celebrity than he is a postwar monument, like the West End’s aggressively modern Telecom Tower – glaringly large and futurist for the ancient London skyline. For 40 years, Conran has been a self-appointed Prometheus of contemporary living, delivering the gloomy, class-conflicted isle from centuries of Queen Anne dressers and steak-and-kidney-pie dinners into Scandinavian blond wood and lavender-tinged sumptuosity. It’s as if lifestyle diva Martha Stewart and bistro king Keith McNally had decided to express themselves in one burly Savile Row-suited avatar. And he is no stranger to New York, either: The Conran’s housewares chain was a Yankee extension of Habitat, the hugely influential British chain he founded in 1964; it was a stylish, mid-priced furnishings mecca before it foundered during the Bush years. But just as a skillful craftsman can restore a shabby Aalto chair to its former self, so, too, has Terence Conran, at age 68, plotted his triumphant return – in what may be his last great opportunity to sand and varnish his reputation in the States.
Not since the eighties, with that decade’s Babylonian monuments to megalomania still strewn about midtown, has there been a building project with this same sort of quixotic, grand ambition.
The Bridgemarket bunch points out that the complex is happily situated on the border of the 10021 and 10022 Zip Codes, the best retail quadrants in the world.
“The idea to bring a shop here again came to me five or six years ago,” Conran is saying. “I’d been to Daniel Boulud’s restaurant one evening, and afterwards, I walked all the way down Madison, looking into all these fantastic shops. There was wonderful cutting-edge, modern fashion. Fantastic modern shoes and accessories. But never did I walk past a shop selling modern furnishings.”
Conran Holdings Limited operates four Conran Shops in London, two in Paris, and one each in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Berlin, and Hamburg. In Conran’s mind, this American branch will be a one-stop-shopping alternative to a weekend of trawling SoHo for giant ivory dinner plates and leather club chairs. It will be edgier than Crate & Barrel but cheaper and more mass-market than Moss, Greene Street’s recently expanded museum-quality-furnishings shop.
In a riff on I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, Conran, in league with architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, has erected a steel-and-glass pavilion next to the grit-stained 59th Street bridge. It looks like a spiffy entrance to one of London’s Underground stops, and, indeed, this is the gateway to the Terence Conran Shop, 22,500 square feet of retail space above and below the pavement that will carry everything a bull-market-engorged yuppie would need to furnish his first condo duplex, from the concave $24 “Mimi” plates from Japan, which look a bit like what Mondrian would render if he were obsessed with seashells, to cool designs from Conran’s own lab, like the leather “Cuba” table ($1,490), which wouldn’t have seemed too out of place on the set of A Clockwork Orange.
But the more rhapsodic half of the building has been reserved for a loftier purpose: a New York variation of the “gastrodrome” concept Conran has trademarked in London. On the main floor, in late January, he will open Guastavino, a 26,000-square-foot, 300-seat megabrasserie not entirely unlike the enormous Quaglino’s back home.
Inside Bridgemarket’s aboveground nave, white tile columns stretch taut as bowstrings to the ceiling, where they blossom into the same intricately tiled “Guastavino arches” designed by Spanish-immigrant engineer Rafael Guastavino y Esposito and seen to considerably lesser effect at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. Guastavino will be a New York restaurant with a British accent, but, Conran insists, it will have a French soul deep down.
“I was always enchanted by the big brasseries of Paris like La Coupole – their democracy of old and young, rich and poor, people who dress formally, people who wear jeans and T-shirts,” Conran says. “It’s a place where people are almost insulated by the big buzz around them.”
Along the north wall, Guastavino will feature a 42-foot-long, Spago-style open kitchen, among the biggest in Manhattan. Upstairs, on a mezzanine built along the south wall, platinum-card diners will gaze down on the bustle from the pricier, more exclusive 100-seat Club Guastavino. Commanding both kitchens will be Indiana-born, La Grenouille-trained Daniel Orr.
In England, Conran has done more than anyone else to help bring back pride in long-maligned British cooking, emphasizing veddy British game like woodcock and Scottish lobster. Regardless, Conran and restaurant co-owner Joel Kissin decided against bringing over a British culinary star to do an haute British menu. Kissin wanted someone familiar with the New York palate, and somebody well connected to the city’s best bakers, produce suppliers, and sous-chefs-for-hire. Orr will be doing a few English charmers, like bread-and-butter pudding. But he says he’ll be relying more on flamboyantly contemporary creations, such as a Cuban tripe stew with chorizo, short ribs, and oxtail.
Critics insist that New York’s style crowd is unlikely to frequent Bridgemarket because of its Siberian First Avenue setting (“The location is a disaster,” says the Vinegar Factory’s Eli Zabar). But the Bridgemarket bunch eagerly points out that the complex is happily situated on the border of the 10021 and 10022 Zip Codes, the best retail quadrants in the world. And if you build it, they will surely come. Right?
Conran seems uniquely suited to make good on Bridgemarket’s promise. In the past fifteen years, he’s adopted an interesting subspecialty, buffing chipped architectural jewels – ten restaurants in London, currently – into noisy and grandiose Valhallas for the young and flush.
The first turnaround occurred at the lovely, decrepit Michelin Building on London’s Fulham Road. Once Michelin’s British headquarters, the building had fallen into disrepair before Conran bought it in 1985. Two years later, he started up his first Conran Shop on the ground level. Upstairs, behind the exquisite blue-and-yellow stained-glass windows featuring the puffy-armed Michelin man, Conran opened Bibendum, a rare London restaurant sensation that was quickly celebrated as an end to the twee squiggles and Dickensian portions of the nouvelle cuisine era.
But Conran’s defining London restaurant is probably his enormous, two-story reinvention of Quaglino’s, a red-velvet dowager dating back to Wallis Simpson days. Quaglino’s mated the oddly populist, pitched-volume frenzy of a Carmine’s with the high-design Euro-cool of a “44.” Even after seven years, you can walk straight through the door into a jet-engine blast of energy.
Most of Conran’s spaces are elegantly gallerylike, with ivory walls, curvaceous blond furniture, and bold, monochromatic banquettes. Still, the restaurants seem to share a reputation for catering to the “naff” set: “He’s packaged glamorous, metropolitan restaurants for the London analogue of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd,” says Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic for the Times of London. “But it’s true that he has also brought a lot of attention to the business because he covers all sorts of things, from the smart end of retail through design through restaurants. He’s kind of a sensitive Donald Trump.”
For years, it was possible to walk past one of Manhattan’s most arresting architectural spaces and not even know it existed.
“You maybe knew about it only if you did drugs,” says Barry Schneider, chairman of Community Board 8, whose district abuts Bridgemarket to the north. “Some people used to walk all the way over to Second Avenue to avoid the scary tunnel under the bridge there on First.”
Bridgemarket opened as New York’s own open-air Les Halles in 1916. The market, however, couldn’t survive the Depression; sealed off with windows, it spent the next 40 years as a Department of Transportation sign-painting workshop and storage facility. Finally, in 1973, the city’s Board of Estimate approved a plan to turn Bridgemarket into an I. M. Pei-designed movie megaplex – 50,000 square feet containing three movie theaters, a film museum, and a film archive. But the plan was scrapped after the developer, American Cinemathèque, couldn’t raise enough money.
Not long afterward, a dashing 33-year-old Colorado developer named Harley Baldwin – who got his start selling crêpes out of an old circus cart in Aspen – rolled into the picture. At the time, Baldwin said he was willing to devote his life to rescuing the space. He quickly sewed up political connections and secured rights to build what would have been, essentially, a midtown Chelsea Market: a multilevel mall featuring butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and six ethnic-food restaurants. In 1981, Baldwin partnered with deep-pocketed Los Angeles developer Sheldon Gordon to form Bridgemarket Associates. Pushing the project through the thicket of those swank, throng-wary Sutton Place residents who would be its neighbors took years. Finally, in 1987, Bridgemarket Associates broke ground on what had now ballooned into a $42 million project containing some 50 mom-and-pop food vendors and restaurants. “Basically, it was going to be a giant farmer’s market,” Gordon says now. The Sutton Area Community, a private civic group, filed suit, charging that Bridgemarket Associates had started to build a project much larger than the one agreed upon. The lawsuit and its two arduous appeals dragged on for years. Finally, the city came in as a co-defendant, and after losing the first two rounds, Gordon won his lease back on appeal in 1994.
“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.
Terence was a skilled cricketer, but he says he felt far more alive when he was arranging flowers, painting, or collecting brilliantly patterned hawk moths and butterflies. Conran has the peculiar ability to make such pursuits seem eminently male; he will rhapsodize about the Dior A-line dress his teenage girlfriend wore but still manage to imply that the real joy was in slipping it off.
He attended Bryanston, an artsier cousin to Eton and Harrow, and in 1948, he landed a place at the respected Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.
“London was exceedingly austere. Grimly austere,” says Conran, whose lippy blond prettiness helped lure the girls in those days. “Social life then was practically nonexistent. There were no restaurants or cafés. Food was rationed. There was no garlic – no olive oil. Pubs were about the only place you could go.”
Like many other art students of the day, Conran was intrigued by the socialist aesthetics of Germany’s Bauhaus movement.
“We were very left-wing,” he recalls. “I wanted to see if I could prove the theories of the Bauhaus – that things that are intelligently designed shouldn’t be more expensive. If anything, they should be less expensive. And they should be available to everybody.”
Conran worked as a textile designer upon graduation, but soon set up a small workshop in a derelict East End garage, where he fashioned lightweight chairs from low-cost materials like iron and wicker. By 1952, his work started appearing in such department stores as Simpson’s. But some highbrows were starting to take notice: Pablo Picasso owned three of his chairs, which had a minimalist iron frame with white rope webbing. “He even paid for two of them,” Conran says aridly.
In 1953, Conran opened a quasi-Continental, streamlined lunch nook near Charing Cross called the Soup Kitchen, which featured “the second espresso-coffee machine in London,” Conran says proudly.
At the War Museum, Conran, wearing a generously cut, conservative gray suit and a cobalt-blue Turnbull & Asser shirt, shuffles past an installation re-creating a Soup Kitchen-like coffee bar from late-fifties London into the “Mod Sixties” section. Conran has a rapid, heavy, slightly pigeon-toed gait; it’s as if his shoulders are perpetually tilted forward and the rest of his body needs to hustle to keep up.
An original Habitat catalogue has been casually tossed across the front seat of a glassed-in Austin Mini. Habitat was as fab as Brian Jones’s teardrop Vox guitar back in the early sixties. The British public had already been turned on to the Mediterranean lifestyle by food writer Elizabeth David’s lyrical prose. But nobody was yet equipped to cook the things she was writing about. Habitat was the first to import Sabatier knives and sturdy cast-iron cookware, which would come to replace pitted British aluminum pans. Then came the wonderful, simple earthenware, the terra-cotta jugs, the garlic presses, the butcher-block tables. It was all utterly new to England.
Overnight, Conran’s down-filled comforters became staples of English life. “I think the sex life of the English was enormously affected by my introducing the duvet,” Conran says, smiling. “They made it so easy and quick to make the bed, and they had a sort of sexy, Swedish overtone to them.” Conran was also the first to display his wares in theaterlike “sets” that sold a lifestyle, not just individual items. “He was the first retailer to understand the genius of the total environment,” says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, “the first to use furniture to help sell something else. You see the Habitat influence today in stores like ABC Carpet & Home, where everything is for sale down to the floorboards.”
And it was cheap – perfect for the iconoclastic sixties generation, who affectionately called it “Shabitat.” You knew the stuff wasn’t going to last forever, but it was fun, and it had a certain look.
Almost unimaginably, the quiet, fastidious shopkeeper became known as one of the great pop impresarios of Swinging London. “Conran was part of that second generation after the war. The first generation had been the Elvis, Teddy Boy, fifties thing. The second generation was the Beatles and the Stones and Mary Quant,” says one Conran friend, fashion designer Paul Smith. “And Terence was right in there.”
Even to the American eye, Habitat was impressively ahead of its time. You look at a picture taken inside Habitat from 1965 and it looks like Pottery Barn circa 1995. A quintessentially Manhattan space like Dean & DeLuca, with its sanitary white interior and stainless-wire shelving, owes an obvious debt to Conran, says the chic hotelier Ian Schrager, who admits that Conran was an early influence. “Terence popularized those stylish plastic stacking chairs. Before that, there were just these horrible steel folding chairs,” Schrager remembers. “He also popularized nonflowery canvas on couches and paper lamps like Noguchi’s. It’s not unlike what Andy Warhol did in the art world: He took the pretension out of art and made it for everybody. But for some reason, Terence just never got the credit.”
It’s a shadowy basement beneath a walk-up tenement on East 59th Street that for years served as the Ford modeling agency’s headquarters. The coffee is a bit sharp, and several pairs of eyes are jet-lagged. But they’ll have to stay focused during today’s meeting, one of many where it will be decided what lands on the shelves in the Terence Conran Shop.
Conran is gathered here with his top American lieutenants, under the basement’s sickly fluorescent halo-shaped bulbs. The American store will feature more products designed and manufactured on these shores, but Conran insists the stock will be, if anything, even more avant than it is in Britain’s Conran Shops. The item currently under discussion is a sleek navy-blue plastic case shaped like a bulbous kidney.
“It’s a travel-pillow clutch,” explains Kim Cohen, an assistant buyer for the New York shop. Snap open the kidney, and inside – presto – there’s a travel pillow.
Conran rolls his eyes.
“I can’t see this selling, can you?” he snorts. “Are you really going to carry a plastic container with a pillow inside it onto an airplane? I mean, I think it’s very beautiful as an object. It’s a shame, really. Somehow, the fact that it’s a pillow … If you had just said it’s just a bag …”
A heavy silence fills the room.
“Pass,” Conran says with an air of boredom, his cheek resting on his hand.
Cohen then pulls out a bundle of dried, decorative artichoke stalks.
“I think we want to be very careful in this area,” Conran says. “Because before you know it, it’s going to look like Pottery Barn.”
Next on the agenda, a large pine doghouse.
“Shit,” says a wide-eyed Conran, alarmed by its size. “What a terrible business, having dogs in Manhattan. Giuliani should ban it,” he says. Then he shrugs.
“Well, they’re nice and simply made. But as you can tell, I’m not a petophile.” He smiles impishly.
Most items today earn a languid “pass” from Conran, but he does green-light a simple rattan cushion from Vietnam and some oversize aluminum cookware from Brazil.
Finally, out comes a sleek leather pouch with a long, narrow shoulder strap. “It’s a cell-phone case. You put your phone in here,” Cohen explains pertly.
“Why would you want to put your phone in something?” Conran says petulantly. “Life is complicated enough.”
“After I left, some really daft things started to happen at Conran’s in America,” says Conran, “masses of cheap furniture at one moment and Ralph Lauren boutiques in the next.”
“It’s bad enough even having a cell phone …”
Most who know Conran agree that his life has an almost Calvinist bent; there is a Depression child’s guilt over excess, opulence, and torpor. In London, no Rolls idles out on the curb for him: Instead, he prefers to tool around in the backseat of a slightly cramped silver Audi.
“Sir Terence doesn’t approve of excess of any kind,” says Kissin. “One time, one of his employees asked him, ‘Would you like me to get you a car to take you to the airport?’ And with his famous, finger-wagging gesture, he said, ‘I’m the only one here trying to save money. I’ll take a taxi.’ “
Occasionally, the calvinist loses out to the sensualist. The thrice-married Conran’s appetites, famously, do not end at the dessert course. Even in business, Conran has been accused of getting too far ahead of himself.
“Oh, risk is terribly sexy, isn’t it?” purrs Vicki Davis, Conran’s attractive, strong-jawed lady friend of six years. I have asked her why Conran would gamble so much to return to New York.
“Oh, terribly,” Conran adds skeptically.
Conran and Davis are due at the home of the architect Sir Norman Foster, his close friend, for dinner, but the seemingly ageless Conran has sunk deep in a hemispherical black leather chair by Finnish designer Kukkapuro, pausing after a ludicrously hectic day to drink a Rolling Rock poured into a tall glass. He and Davis share a bright glassed-in aerie atop a converted warehouse in Butlers Wharf, on the humble south bank of the Thames. For Conran, it’s a shopkeeper’s commute to work: Two stories below his flat sits the headquarters of Conran Holdings Limited. Butlers Wharf was an eleven-acre, rat-infested expanse of vacant Victorian brick warehouses before Conran bought it up in 1983 (he lost control of much of the complex, however, during the early-nineties recession).
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.”