He once counted as friends the cream of the beautiful, from Kate Moss to Elizabeth Hurley and Beyonce to Cheryl Cole. But to the underlings of the fashion world, the bombastic billionaire owner of Topshop is known simply by a nickname: Sir Philip Gross.
Feared by his staff and loathed by those who have crossed swords with him, the diminutive, Croydon-born tycoon has built up a reputation for two things — his ruthless approach to business and a lifestyle of a modern-day Roman emperor.
At his 50th birthday party — a typically lavish event in 2002, where 220 guests were flown on a private plane to a luxury hotel in Cyprus — Green chose to dress as Nero for the £5 million (Dh23.5 million) bash, where he was serenaded by Rod Stewart. A decade later, he flew Robbie Williams, Stevie Wonder and The Beach Boys to Mexico to perform for his 60th in front of Kate Moss, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson. Oh, and a nightclub was specially constructed at the no-expense-spared event. As his Monaco-based wife, Tina, reportedly said at the time: “Only the very, very best is good enough for my husband.”
You may think, therefore, that such a fun-loving guy would be the life and soul of any party — charm personified — but with Green, this is not so. I have come across him just once, at a music industry celebration for Simon Cowell — Green has a 5 per cent share in Cowell’s Syco company — where he was deep in conversation with Cheryl Cole.
At first glance, it looked like Cole was a woman desperate to be rescued. When I walked past, she saw me, instantly grabbed my hand, turned away from the table and started chatting after initially introducing me. Green did not return my “hello” — he merely narrowed his eyes with undisguised displeasure and then stared at Cole’s side profile... until his indignant gaze cut short our conversation and she turned back to him.
This is a man who doesn’t just want things his own way. This is a man who demands he has his own way.
One former glossy magazine editor says: “Whenever we wrote anything about a new Topshop collection, it was incredibly difficult. If a fashion writer wrote anything either remotely critical, or if they didn’t effuse enough, the following morning Green himself would call the news desk of the magazine and scream and swear at whoever answered, then ask to speak to whoever else he could so he could [expletive] them some more.”
Green — who commutes to his west London offices from Monaco by private jet (stocked with the most delicious food from Panzer’s deli in St John’s Wood), and who keeps a suite at the Dorchester hotel at his disposal — is not a man with instant appeal or natural charm. At 5ft 5in tall, he makes up for his lack of height by wearing the most expensive, hand-tailored suits and shirts, each one freshly laundered to ensure that there are no stains from the oiled grey curls that hang from the back of his slicked-back hair to damage his perfectly starched collars.
“There is just something incredibly oily and off-putting about him,” says one senior fashion editor. “Everyone in the industry hears tales of him being appalling to his staff, bullying people relentlessly, expecting the impossible. And then you see him turn up at a fashion event like Monaco Rocks, and everything about him is just plain creepy.
“He will arrive like some little emperor surrounded by all these beautiful models and girls of the moment, often with his daughter, Chloe, in tow. He’ll walk around the place like he owns everyone and everything.”
Another extremely well-placed fashion source, however, paints a different picture.
“There is the obviously repellent side of him,” she says. “But if he shines a light on you, he can be quite mesmerising. There’s an aspect of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday to him, a street fighter who has become an absolute emperor and who can’t quite believe his luck. He wants you to see his success, to feel it — the mink throws in his private plane, the huge diamonds in his wife’s jewellery collection, the fact any doorman in any exclusive hotel will tip his hat at him. He revels in it all.
“He can be very flirtatious, but Philip will do his flirting in plain sight, so you can almost not quite believe what you are seeing or hearing. And he’s very upfront: everything is transactional. He can do anyone huge, unbelievable favours, from slipping envelopes of money across the table to business deals or whatever. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but there is something very charismatic about that absolute power.”
That Green once had absolute power, a stranglehold over the fashion and celebrity world, is without question. But since his grubby episode over BHS pensions, many of his glittering, A-list friends appear to have slipped out of his grasp. His 65th birthday celebrations were held at the comparatively low-key Dorchester and while Kate Moss (who made £3 million for her three-year Topshop collaboration) loyally attended, other guests included Tess Daly, Vernon Kaye, Chris Eubank and Jamie Redknapp.
Has Hollywood slammed its doors on Green?
“The last time I saw Philip,” says another fashion insider, “he was with Harvey Weinstein at an awards ceremony. It was about 15 years ago and they were both on the Topshop table acting like and being treated like absolute kings — Harvey and his wife, Georgina, were his guests of honour. They got on like a house on fire. They were both at the top of their game and loving every moment.
“Philip lived like and behaved like an emperor — he would make people cry, he’d shout that he’d have someone thrown out of a window, he would charm someone, he would dismiss another one, he did exactly what he wanted, when he wanted.
“And now, even though it all seems to be tumbling down, he will no doubt keep on screaming and shouting that he is right and everyone else is wrong because that is Philip Green. Everything goes his way or else.”
But for how much longer?