LONDON — Life at Harrods under Mohamed Al Fayed may not always have been rosy — but it was never dull.
This story first appeared in the May 10, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
On the one hand, he was renowned for being bullying, an egomaniac, capricious, vulgar and downright nasty. Yet within the blink of an eye he could become thoughtful, kind and exceptionally generous.
The Egyptian-born retail tycoon was often economical with the truth, adding the fancy prefix “Al” to his surname in the Seventies, and fudging details about the source of his family’s wealth before he bought Harrods and its then-parent House of Fraser. A government report into the deal fell just short of calling Al Fayed and his brothers liars about the size of their fortune, although the government took no legal action and could never find out where exactly the Al Fayeds got the funds to buy the store — rumors ranged from the Sultan of Brunei to far-from-savory characters.
Harrods itself is a temple to Al Fayed’s ego: There’s the eerily lifelike wax sculpture of the man in his signature double-breasted suit on the men’s wear floor; the glitzy Egyptian Hall and escalator more suited to Disney World than Knightsbridge, and the multiple in-house monuments to the death of his son Dodi and Princess Diana in 1997. Last month, he told The Sunday Times of London that he wanted to be entombed in a mausoleum on the roof of the store — a dream he expressed almost from the moment he bought it.
The store was also a repository for his fears and neuroses: “He’s paranoid about security, but no one really understood why,” recalled a former employee. The store has a state-of-the-art security system, with a reported 500 CCTV cameras throughout — and bugged telephones. He was worried about mobile phone waves, and supposedly had a mesh barrier installed in his offices to absorb them. For a while, he went through a phase of slapping copper bracelets on the wrists of friends and acquaintances to promote good health. And on a more colorful note a few years ago, the store installed a live Egyptian cobra to protect a pair of ruby, sapphire, and diamond sandals by René Caovilla in the shoe department.
Paranoia was often the order of the day. “There was always a kind of atmosphere of fear,” said another former employee. “The Chairman is quite an impatient man, and lots of people would fall in and out of favor. Also, he was the sort of person who always believed the last person he spoke to, which is why so many people would end up leaving for the wrong reasons.”
A current employee said the best way to survive at the store is to “work hard, keep your head down, don’t presume anything or get involved with the family.”
And try to stay out of his way. On his regular tours of the store, employees would literally run for cover when they saw him coming for fear he’d notice them and fire them on the spot for some imagined infraction or berate them at the top of his voice for something he didn’t like — and then a few weeks later, after they’d changed it, ask them to change it back again.
He obsessed over every detail at the massive site, and over the 25 years he owned Harrods, there was a revolving door of managing directors and other senior executives — some of whom lasted mere weeks while others made it through several years before either quitting or being fired. He was known to call with a whim at all hours of the day or night. In return, he could be extraordinarily generous, showering executives with cars, apartments on Park Lane and all-expenses-paid trips. But as quickly as they won his favor, they just as rapidly — and inexplicably — lost it; one senior executive was once dismissed because of the brand of suits he bought.
Those who worked closest with him knew Al Fayed, who moved to England in the mid-Fifties to run a shipping company he and his brothers had founded and who later served as an adviser to Dubai’s ruling family, had an extremely dark side. Vulgarity-filled tirades against British high society, the Royal Family, competitors and others were norms, while allegations of sexual harassment against female employees continually dogged him, although were never proven. In 2008 there were accusations that he sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl at the store. But the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges early last year, saying there was “No realistic prospect of conviction.” Al Fayed had denied the charges.
There was a long history of such scandals: In 1994, Al Fayed was involved in what came to be known as the cash-for-questions scandal, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of two British MPs. In the late Eighties, Al Fayed believed his business rival, Roland “Tiny” Rowland, had paid British MPs to call his business practices into question. So Al Fayed then paid MPs to question Rowland’s activities in parliament. After being refused a British passport, Al Fayed then went to London’s Guardian newspaper with the news that he paid the MPs to ask the questions for him in parliament.
Other controversies weren’t as weighty. In the mid-Nineties, Harrods began charging people 1 pound (about $1.50) to use the bathrooms in a bid to deter nonshoppers from availing themselves of the facilities. Today, customers no longer have to pay. Then there was the uproar that accompanied his decision to ban backpacks and large handbags from the store, resulting in many tourists being turned away by security — although this practice was more understandable in the Nineties given Harrods was a regular target of bombs by the Irish Republican Army.
The chairman, a father of five whose second wife is a former Finnish model called Heini Wathen, isn’t all sinister, though. He is also know as generous with big donations, via the family’s charitable foundation, going to Great Ormond Street and Royal Marsden hospitals, and quiet payments for private medical care for certain employees who are ill.
“None of it was ever done for show,” said one former employee. And his sense of humor, while never the most sophisticated, could be entirely harmless. At a recent dinner at the store with top figures from the British fashion industry, Al Fayed started dispensing mints to the men, telling them — with a wink and a nod — it was Viagra.