It was the retailer who brought haute couture to the UK – but will it survive until Christmas?
Wallis – the fashion brand founded in 1923 by Raphael Nat Wallis at Chapel Market in Islington – sold coats for 19 shillings and dresses for six shillings and continued the rest of the century with the catchy slogan: « Comparison invited. Competition defies « .
Two decades into a new millennium, however, the competition has not only risen to the challenge, it has beaten a brand once loved by London society and working women for selling Parisian couture cheaply.
Arcadia by Sir Philip Green, who owns Wallis alongside other brands such as Topshop and Burton, is preparing to enter administration, putting hundreds of stores and more than 13 at risk. 000 jobs in the largest retail collapse to date in the pandemic.
Coverage so far has focused on the Topshop case – understandable given that it owns many properties in central London and is Arcadia’s main brand by 2020 standards. But Wallis has a long history in this country and it is poignant to watch the demise of a brand that was a staple of British 20th century fashion. Century.
To understand Wallis’ DNA and what it once represented to British women, we need to go back to the 1950s, when the label essentially stood for the opposite of what it does today: internationalism, glamor and high-end design. In a business that sounds way too good to be true to be true by modern standards, but which was perfectly legal when it graduated in 1952, the brand became – under the direction of Jeffrey Wallis, son of Raphael – known for selling haute couture clothing at standard prices.
Four times a year, Valais designers traveled by train and boat to Paris to attend shows by designers such as André Courrèges, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. By paying a fee to attend these shows, buyers and designers have been able to reproduce a small number of samples from each collection – in practice, of course, many more have been recreated from memory in a far less regulated reflection of what we see in the catwalk-to-high street collections today.
The fitted tweed suits, the new look dresses that defined the decade, the cropped Audrey Hepburn trousers and the full Sophia Loren skirts of the Parisian fashion industry were now also available for women in London, Edinburgh and Dublin as Manchester, Newcastle and Briston, who soon gathered to buy Wallis pieces steeped in European glamor.
Initially they were known as the « Choice of Paris », but in the 1960s they were called « Paris Originals ». . Back then, Wallis designers claimed that it was impossible to tell the difference between a real Chanel skirt and a Wallis reproduction. If this is really the case, I will have to spend more time in vintage stores asking for reverse collections from the British brand.
Soon the collection of the Parisian Originals each season became an occasion – articles were published in the national press about what to expect and the store’s mannequins wore canvas covers in advance of the big reveal. London celebrities demanded exclusive copies of Chanel suits, even though they rarely got them – and they soon became an example of the sudden democratization we saw in fashion when the city’s thousands of working women wore the same clothes as the women rich politician.
Or her lover. Christine Keeler wore a different Wallis suit each day of the trial in 1963, later known as the Profumo Affair. This beautiful young woman’s adherence to the brand caused a slew of items across the collections and resulted in many of her suits selling out within hours – an early example of the power of good working relationships with celebrities. It later emerged that the code name for Keeler in the corridors of power was Ms. Wallis.
At the time, the brand had hundreds of stores across the country and an impressively diverse customer base that included fashion-conscious young women in big cities and their suburban mothers. In the late sixties, the brand partnered with Yves Saint Laurent and released a beautifully tailored collection of safari suits and military coats.
This reputation allowed the brand to thrive for decades, even as their partnerships with the French brands collapsed. Wallis lost much of its appeal in the second half of the century but still remained a rival to M&S and a staple on the main drag.
In 1997, when the Burton Group broke up and became Arcadia, it acquired three more fashion brands: Wallis, Miss Selfridge and Outfit. At the time, Green was talking about making Wallis a business for women of all ages, as it had been in the 1960s, but under his leadership it did not grow – and, in particular, did not fail bleakly. Last year, only some of the 400 Valais branches were slated to close as part of Arcadia’s restructuring plans.
With its focus on Topshop (and temporarily Miss Selfridge), it’s clear that Green Wallis never gave the attention or cash flow it needed to reinvent itself. Yes, Arcadia invested in celebrity collaboration between Wallis and models like Linda Evangelista and Helena Christensen in the Noughties – and launched a website before many other comparable brands – but I can see why it never got as popular as that past.
Topshop and Miss Selfridge have lost their cool factor – but unlike brands that appeal to very young women, something like this isn’t that important for a store like Wallis. It must be known, however, that it sells flattering, well-designed clothing that makes you feel good, and I’m not sure it ever had that reputation among Green.
One problem I think is that the retailer has long referred to itself as a brand for older women. But what does that even mean? In an interview with the Telegraph years ago, then Wallis General Manager Anne Secunda said that her clothes were mostly bought by women in their thirties and forties. She added, “It’s more about attitude than age. Women who shop here may be older, but they are also bolder and more confident. «
Maybe I deny it, but I’m in my mid-thirties and I still consider myself reasonably young. I don’t think women these days like to know that they are « older », as if the date on your passport should be the biggest factor in your purchase. Brands like Zara and Whistles and even M&S make clothing that flatters women of different ages, but they don’t even refer to it, let alone define the brand.
Nonetheless, I hope that the next few weeks will not be too unfriendly for Wallis and that a buyer who is ready to recognize his potential will emerge from the chaos. Until then, I’ll spend some time finding a piece from one of Yves Saint Laurent’s collections for Wallis that Britain fell in love with over 50 years ago.
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Topshop, Arcadia Group, Philip Green
EbeneMagazine – GB – Wallis was once the most fashionable brand in Great Britain – now it’s a shadow of its former self