Home Fashion Mohamed Al Fayed, Former owner of Harrods, The Ritz Paris, Dies at 94 – WWD

Mohamed Al Fayed, Former owner of Harrods, The Ritz Paris, Dies at 94 – WWD

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Mohamed Al Fayed, Former owner of Harrods, The Ritz Paris, Dies at 94 – WWD

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LONDON Mohamed Al Fayed, the colorful and controversial former owner of Harrods, the Ritz in Paris, and Fulham Football Club, has died aged 94.

“Everyone at Fulham was incredibly saddened to learn of the death of our former owner and chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed. We owe Mohamed a debt of gratitude for what he did for our club, and our thoughts now are with his family and friends at this somber time,” Fulham FC said in a statement on social media.

The self-made Egyptian tycoon, who grew up in poverty in Alexandria, Egypt and built his fortune on shipping, real estate and construction, began winding down his businesses in 2010 with the sale of Harrods, where he was known as The Chairman.

A divisive figure at the store, and among the British establishment, Al Fayed ended his 25-year reign at Harrods by selling it to Qatar Holding, an investment company linked to the royal family of the Gulf state.

He offloaded it for 1.5 billion pounds, or $2.27 billion at current exchange, including about 600 million pounds, or $906 million, in property-backed debt.

Three years later he sold the Fulham football club, which he’d owned for 16 years, to the U.S. automotive billionaire Shahid Khan, owner of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 17:  Queen Elizabeth II At The Windsor Horse Show With One Of The Show's Sponsors Mohammed Al-fayed Of The Harrods Shop. Mr Al-fayed Is The Father Of  Dodi Al-fayed. The Queen Is Wearing A Pale Grey Suit By Fashion Designer John Anderson.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II with Mohamed Al Fayed.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Get

None of Al Fayed’s four living children — his son Dodi died in the 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana — was involved in the day-to-day operations of the family businesses. Ironically, Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed also died on what is Labor Day Weekend in the U.S.

When Al Fayed bought Harrods in 1985, the Egyptian retailer had spent an estimated 400 million pounds, or $592 million, to transform what was a staid, tired store into an unapologetically opulent retail experience — but not without controversy and missteps.

Al Fayed’s management style could at best be described as mercurial, and he went through a string of managers who lasted as long as his whims. He would walk the store regularly and ask for things to be changed, only to then later ask why something was done.

He brought a showman’s hand touch to Harrods — much to the shock of its more staid clientele — and the store seemed to prosper. 

Jonathan Akeroyd, now CEO of Burberry, joined Harrods in 1988 and said Al Fayed’s presence “was felt on a daily basis. Throughout my time working at Harrods, there was always something going on. It wasn’t until 1999 that I had the opportunity to work closely with him and I got to know him well. 

“He was a man with incredible humor and passion. I learnt a lot from him. He was a true entrepreneur with a vision to take Harrods into a new era and make it a global destination for luxury which he achieved,” said Akeroyd.

Terron Schaefer, who was director of Harrods from 1986 to 1990, said in 2010 that when he first joined the store, “they were still selling Tampax, toilet paper and notions. It had this kind of faded elegance. But Mohamed did an amazing job really adding some luster to what was kind of a tired old department store,”

“Their motto was ‘everything for everybody, everywhere,’” Schaefer added.

“When I was [once] in the store thinking about skiing, I was just overwhelmed by the selection of sporting goods — skis, skiwear, boots, hiking, camping, whatever sport you were remotely interested in. It’s an enormous selection at a wide variety of price points. But the thing I most loved about working there were the windows. There are 72 windows around the perimeter of the store and you can get the handle on anything going on inside,” he added.

Like most London retailers, Harrods has had its ups and downs over the decades, but it has recently been prospering under the current owners. 

In the fiscal year ended January 2023, Harrods bounced back from the pandemic, with turnover rising 42.9 percent to 831.6 million pounds, and profit after tax surging to 433.3 million pounds from 41.7 million pounds.

Al Fayed was born in 1929 in Roshdy, a poor neighborhood in Alexandria in the Kingdom of Egypt as it was called before the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. His father was a primary school teacher, but a life of poverty was not for him, and the ambitious Al Fayed chose a different path.

In Egypt he began as a street seller, hawking carbonated drinks, and later sewing machines, before working for Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian businessman and arms dealer. In the early 1950s, Al Fayed married Khashoggi’s sister Samira, and the couple had one son, Dodi, before separating.

In the ensuing years, as Al Fayed built his empire, he was often economical with the truth. His website used to claim he was born in 1933, but Britain’s Department of Trade found the year to be 1922. 

In the 1970s, they tycoon added the fancy prefix “Al” to his surname. He also fudged details about the source of his family’s wealth before buying Harrods and its then-parent House of Fraser.

A government report into the Harrods 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 a string of far-from-savory characters.

Private Eye, the satirical British news magazine nicknamed him the “Phoney Pharaoh.”

Before venturing into the world of retail, he had a shipping company with his brothers that was based in Egypt before moving it to Genoa, Italy with offices in London.

In the mid-1960s, he cosied up to Haitian leader François Duvalier, otherwise known as Papa Doc, to form an oil refinery called Fayed-Duvalier. Al Fayed left Haiti for London – after just six months – when he was presented with oil that was disguised as molasses.

In London, he started a relationship with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, an Emirati royal and a founder of the United Arab Emirates, helping him to transform Dubai by introducing him to construction companies such as Bernard Sunley & Sons, Taylor Woodrow and the Costain Group, where he became a director and 30 percent shareholder.

Al Fayed’s big step came into luxury in 1979, when he bought the near-bankrupt The Ritz hotel in Paris for $30 million.

He spent approximately $250 million on a ten-year renovation without ever closing the hotel’s doors. He enlisted the help of a French architect from 1980 to 1987 to spruce up the establishment, from top to bottom, including the famous Ritz Bar, where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald famously drank in the Twenties. The bar was added in the Cambon wing, across the street from Chanel.

Heini Al-Fayed, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Bernadette Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld.

Heini Al Fayed, Mohamed Al Fayed, Bernadette Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld.

Dominique Maître

In 1984, after snapping up The Ritz, Al Fayed along with his brothers, purchased a 30 percent stake in the House of Fraser group, which included Harrods, from Roland Walter “Tiny” Rowland. The following year, they bought the remaining 70 percent.

Al Fayed and Rowland had a tumultuous relationship, throwing daggers at each other in the press at any time possible.

In the Eighties, Al Fayed accused Rowland of campaigning against him in the Observer newspaper, which Rowland then owned, and Rowland had the British government’s Department of Trade and Industry launch an investigation into Al Fayed and his activities. 

No action was taken as part of the investigation — though it did find Al Fayed and his brother Ali misrepresented the extent of their wealth when they bid for House of Fraser. It was never determined where the Al Fayeds actually got the funds to buy the company. 

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. 

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 non-shoppers 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.

Harrods was Al Fayed’s most prized possession, and he often compared it to pyramids in Egypt.

In 2010 – before selling the store – he told The Sunday Times of London that he planned to own the business for the rest of his life, and when he died he hoped to be entombed in a mausoleum on the roof of the store — a wish he’s expressed repeatedly. 

“It’s a pyramid for me, a monument,” he told the British paper. “It is the best department store in the world.”

Al Fayed’s autocratic style and delusions of grandeur meant that Harrods had a revolving door of managers for years.

A Harrod's security guard keeps a vigil on floral tributes at Harrod's store in Knightsbrige, London 31 August as a mark of respect after the son of Harrod's owner Muhamed Al-Fayed, Dodi Al-Fayed, died with Diana the Princess of Wales in a Paris traffic accident earlier today. (Photo by PAUL VICENTE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL VICENTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Floral tributes at Harrods as a mark of respect after Dodi Al Fayed died with Diana, Princess of Wales in a Paris traffic accident.

AFP via Getty Images

Former Gucci Group executive James McArthur left his post as chief executive officer of Harrods less than a year after starting his role. Martha Wikstrom was also managing director of the store for a period, staying there for less than two years. 

Al Fayed could also let the top brass shine, and it paid off. Marigay McKee, the store’s fashion and beauty director, transformed both of those divisions.

“Fayed realized how much value she’s adding to the store, so she’s allowed to have a profile,” a former employee told WWD in 2010. “And the sadness in the past was that a lot of good people went for the wrong reasons.”

Empowered by Al Fayed, McKee had spearheaded a string of fashion initiatives including the creation of the International Designer Room on the store’s first floor, which launched in September 2009, showcasing 40 labels including RM by Roland Mouret, Prada, Balmain, Lanvin, Balenciaga and Chloé.

His management style was certainly unique.

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. Then, a few weeks later, after they’d made the change, he’d ask them to change it back again.

On his watch, female staff members had to dress in black and wear a full face of makeup. The employee entrance to the store had a vast room filled with illuminated mirrors so that women staffers could apply and refresh their makeup throughout the day.

Al Fayed was known to call on a whim at all hours of the day or night, and loved off-color jokes. After one dinner with press and members of Harrods management, Al Fayed walked around the table handing out mints to all of the men. He insisted, with his Cheshire Cat smile, that they were Viagra pills.

His taste was also questionable.

In 1988 Al Fayed installed the glittering, cartoonish Egyptian hall and escalator at a cost of 20 million pounds, or $29.6 million. The hall is decorated with busts of Tutankhamun-like figures at each floor and Al Fayed marked the opening by donning an Egyptian headdress and robes.

Famously, the store had also acted as a shrine to Al Fayed’s late son Dodi and Princess Diana. Two memorials to the late couple used to be on show at the store — a bronze statue of the couple dancing, which stood near to one of the store’s entrances, and a shrine on the lower ground floor made up of photos of the couple and some of their possessions surrounded by candles.

The statue was returned to Al Fayed in 2018 and the shrine has been dismantled.

“We are very proud to have played our role in celebrating the lives of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed at Harrods and to have welcomed people from around the world to visit the memorial for the past 20 years,” said Michael Ward, Harrods managing director at the time.

“With the announcement of the new official memorial statue to Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace, we feel that the time is right to return this memorial to Mr. Al Fayed and for the public to be invited to pay their respects at the palace,” Ward added.

On Al Fayed’s watch the store had a PA system, similar to that of a supermarket, blasting out news of promotions and events.

In 2003, he offered Krispy Kreme a large space in the food hall, much to the horror of Knightsbridge residents who would watch as crowds of tourists chomped their doughnuts on the pavement outside the luxury store.

Al Fayed could also 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.

He made big donations via the family’s charitable foundation. The money went to Great Ormond Street and Royal Marsden hospitals, and he also made quiet payments for private medical care for certain employees who were ill.

Mohamed Al Fayed Unveils A Statue Of Diana, Princess Of Wales & Dodi Al Fayed At The Harrods Store In London. The 10Ft Bronze Memorial Is Entitled Innocent Victims. . (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)

Mohamed Al Fayed unveils a statue of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed at the Harrods store in London. The bronze memorial is entitled Innocent Victims.

UK Press via Getty Images

He was stubborn, opinionated and had a difficult time letting go of his grievances.

Many upper-crust Brits refused to enter its doors after Al Fayed bought the store. Those negative feelings toward him only grew with his outspoken campaign to prove the deaths of his son Dodi and Princess Diana were ordered by the British royal family because the couple was about to be married.

For years Al Fayed had forged a close relationship with the late Princess of Wales. They were involved with the same charities, attended similar events, and their relationship was depicted in dramatic detail during several episodes of “The Crown.”

Al Fayed’s ambitions of proving a royal conspiracy was shattered in 2008, when the jury at the official inquest into the deaths of Dodi and Diana decided that they had been unlawfully killed.

The jury pinned the blame on the couple’s chauffeur, Henri Paul, who was driving under the influence of alcohol, and on the group of paparazzi that pursued the couple on motorbikes from The Ritz hotel in Paris into the tunnel where their car crashed.

Princess Diana with Mohammed Al Fayed attending a charity dinner for the Harefield Heart Unit held at Harrods, London, February 1996. Diana wears a pale blue Catherine Walker dress. (Photo by Jayne Fincher/Getty Images)

Princess Diana with Mohammed Al Fayed attending a charity dinner for the Harefield Heart Unit held at Harrods in 1996.

Getty Images

A starring role in a few episodes of “The Crown” wasn’t Al Fayed’s only brush with the film industry.

In 1979, he set up film production company Allied Stars Ltd, appointing his son Dodi as the chief executive. The company backed the film “Chariots of Fire,” and it earned them four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Score.

Al Fayed also funded Keith Allen’s 2011 documentary “Unlawful Killing,” based on the death of Princess Diana, which Allied Stars produced. The production company is now defunct.

Due to his prickly relationship with the British establishment and the royal family, Harrods lost its long-held royal warrants that had been displayed on the store’s facade. When Al Fayed was forced to remove them, he replaced them with the Arab crest.

During King Charles III’s coronation earlier this year, Harrods did not do anything special beyond issuing a special blend of English breakfast tea and Scottish shortbread fingers, both in decorative tins.

Al Fayed is survived by his Finnish wife Heini Wathén, their four children Jasmine, Karim, Camilla, and Omar, and numerous grandchildren.

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