Selling coats for 19 shillings and dresses for six, Wallis – the fashion brand founded by Raphael Nat Wallis in 1923 in Chapel Market, Islington – powered through the rest of the century with the catchy slogan: "Comparison invited. Competition defied".
Two decades into a new millennium, however, and the competition has not only risen to the challenge, but well and truly vanquished a brand once beloved by London’s society set and working women alike for selling Parisian couture on the cheap.
Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia – which owns Wallis alongside other brands like Topshop and Burton – has entered administration, putting hundreds of shops and more than 13,000 jobs at risk in what would be the biggest retail collapse of the pandemic so far.
Coverage has so far focused on the fall of Topshop – understandable given it owns swathes of central London real estate and is Arcadia’s most important brand by any 2020 standard. But Wallis has a longstanding history in this country and there is something poignant about watching the demise of a brand that was a staple of 20th century British fashion.
To understand the DNA of Wallis and what it once represented for British women, we need to go back to the Fifties when the label stood for essentially the opposite of what it does today: internationalism, glamour and high-end design. In a deal that sounds far too good to be true to be true by modern standards but which was perfectly legal when it was struck in 1952, the brand – under the leadership of Jeffrey Wallis, the son of Raphael – became known for selling haute couture clothes at off-the-rack prices.
Four times a year, Wallis designers would travel to Paris by train and boat to attend shows by designers such as André Courrèges, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. By paying a fee to go to these shows, the buyers and designers were then allowed to reproduce a small number of patterns from each collection – in practice, of course, many more were recreated from memory in a far less regulated mirroring of what we see today in the catwalk-to-high street collections.
The fitted tweed suits, the ‘new look’ dresses that defined the decade, the cropped Audrey Hepburn trousers and full Sophia Loren skirts being made by the Parisian fashion industry were now available for women in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, as well as Manchester, Newcastle and Briston, who soon flocked to buy Wallis pieces infused with European glamour.
At first they were known as the 'pick of Paris', but by the Sixties they were called 'Paris Originals'. Wallis designers at the time would claim it was impossible to tell the difference between a real Chanel skirt and a Wallis reproduction – if that really is the case then I need to spend more time in vintage stores demanding back collections from the British brand.
Soon, each season’s collection of Paris Originals became an occasion – articles would run in national press about what to expect and the store's mannequins would wear canvas covers in the run up to the grand unveiling. London socialites would demand exclusive copies of Chanel suits although they rarely got them – and soon they became an example of the sudden democratisation we were seeing in fashion, with the city’s thousands of working women wearing the same clothes as rich politician's wives.
Or their mistresses. Christine Keeler famously wore a different Wallis suit on every day of the trial in 1963 that later became known as the Profumo Affair. This beautiful young woman’s adherence to the brand caused a slew of articles about the collections and led to many of her suits selling out in hours – an early example, perhaps, of the power of a well-times celebrity collaboration. It later came out that the code name for Keeler in the corridors of power was Mrs Wallis.
By this point, the brand had hundreds stores around the country and an impressively diverse customer base incorporating fashion-forward young women in big cities, and their suburban mothers. In the late Sixties, the brand collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent, releasing a beautifully cut collection of safari suits and military coats.
This reputation allowed the brand to thrive for decades to come, even as their partnerships with the French brands broke down. In the latter part of the century, Wallis lost a lot of its allure, but still remained a rival to M&S and a staple on the high street.
In 1997, when the Burton Group had demerged and became Arcadia, it took on three more fashion brands: Wallis, Miss Selfridge and Outfit. At the time, Green spoke of turning Wallis into a store for women of all ages like it had been in the Sixties, but under his stewardship it didn’t grow – nor, notably, did it fail dismally. Last year, only a couple of the 400 Wallis stores were earmarked for closure under Arcadia's restructuring plans.
With his focus on Topshop (and temporarily Miss Selfridge), it is clear Green never gave Wallis the attention or cash flow it needed to reinvent itself. Yes, Arcadia invested in celebrity collaborations 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 recaptured the popularity it had in the past.
Topshop and Miss Selfridge lost their cool factor – but unlike brands that appeal to very young women, something like that doesn't matter so much for a shop like Wallis. However, it does need to be known for selling flattering, well-designed clothes that make you feel good, and I'm not sure it ever had that reputation under Green.
One problem, I think, is that retailer has long described itself as a brand aimed at older women. But what does that even mean? In an interview with the Telegraph years ago Wallis' then-managing director, Anne Secunda, said that their clothes were mostly bought by women in their thirties and forties. She added that, “it's more about attitude than age. Women who shop here may be older, but they are also bolder and more confident."
Maybe I’m in denial, but I’m in my mid-thirties and I still think of myself as reasonably young. I don’t think women these days like being told they're "older", as if the date on your passport should be the biggest factor in where you shop. Brands like Zara and Whistles and even M&S make clothes that flatter women of many different ages but they don’t even refer to it, let alone ensure it defines the brand.
Still, I hope that the next few weeks aren't too unkind to Wallis and that a buyer willing to see its potential emerges from the chaos. Until then, I will devote some time to trying to find a piece from one of the Yves Saint Laurent for Wallis collections that Britain fell in love with over 50 years ago.