The Danish connection

people in fashion; Peder Bertelsen isn't a household name. Yet, without him, a host of designers - Valentino, Ferretti, Armani - might be unknown in Britain. James Sherwood meets fashion's business grandmaster
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Peder ertelsen puts the fashion industry into perspective. I meet him in Alberta's, the restaurant above the Alberta Ferretti boutique on Sloane Street. No fanfares. No ceremony. I am lighting another cigarette when the septuagenarian elder statesman pads over to the table, pats me on the shoulder and says, "Don't get up." The air of hail-fellow-well- met is instantly disarming. It took all of a minute to lose any sense of objectivity. Bertelsen will tell you: "Fashion is only for fun" and he is merely, "the money man". He only "dabbles" these days - launching Alberta Ferretti and Strenesse on one of London's most expensive slices of real estate: Sloane Street. Bertelsen exudes the understated calm of a chess grandmaster.

For 20 years, Peder Bertelsen has carefully positioned flagship stores for Ralph Lauren, Dolce e Gabbana, Valentino, Nina Ricci, Katharine Hamnett, Giorgio Armani, Tiffany and Emanuel Ungaro in London. His is the business brain behind the launch of this impressive designer roll call. They were pawns in the hands of a grandmaster who now only plays exhibition matches.

"I made all my money in oil 20 years ago," says Bertelsen in a matter- of-fact tone. "In the early Eighties, my neighbour in Colorado asked me if he could graze his cows on my land. I told him to f--- off. Then he asked me again, and said if I agreed he would give me his business interests in Europe. I asked what his business was and he said, `Women's dresses'. I was more interested in undressing women than dressing them so I told him to f--- off again. I was so green where fashion was concerned and my lawyer had to talk me into the deal. My neighbour was Ralph Lauren."

Bertelsen took over Lauren's wholesale operation in Europe and his Bond Street flagship. "You know how lawyers talk. It was through the lawyers that Valentino and Armani heard about this crazy Dane who was handling Ralph's interests in Europe. They thought there must be something in it and so they approached me to open flagships for them in London."

Bertelsen insists he was "green, stupid and naive" in his early dealings with fashion. "I thought if you could sell oil you could sell women's dresses. It was my idea to buy a London street outright, like Brook Street or Bruton Street, and put them all in it. I didn't realise at the time that designers didn't want to be next door to each other. Not at that time, anyway. But I did open and I opened with the best. I took half of Mrs Burstein's staff from Browns by offering them double their pay." Bertelsen is well aware that his instincts were quite correct.

Bertelsen ends the interview and invites me to continue in, "A place where you can taste the best wines in London." Cut to a cellar below a vintner in Davies Street. We are joined by a London gallerist. Bertelsen slips in casually, "I owned a gallery once on the Fulham Road selling Danish Golden Period". When the gallerist looked dismayed not to know it, Bertelsen added jovially, "See, you are a more important man than me." Glancing into his Danish blue eyes, you can see Bertelsen is playing. Discussing his new projects, Ferretti and Strenesse, he says, "At my age you do anything for sex... I've said that so many times. I'm not a fashion person."

The gentleman does not protest too much. He is in no way disingenuous about his position as a fashion magnate who now, "gets my kicks" from international real-estate deals. When he says, "During the recession I sold the lot. Most of them went to Mrs Ong, who is doing very well by them now", you know Bertelsen lost neither sleep nor money in his dealings with the rag trade. He launched Katharine Hamnett in London with five outlets and briefly supported John Galliano. If his name is ever printed outside the financial pages it is usually as one of the grey suits who dropped the struggling Galliano during his early years. "I have never really dealt with British designers. Then my advisors said I should support British talent. I didn't know how to handle a talent like Galliano's. He needed support, but it was the wrong time in his career for me to be involved." It was a rare case of bad timing on Bertelsen's part. "I am fortunate, shall we say, with timing."

Bertelsen continuously drops quiet bombshells which display his financial genius. He identifies Vietnam as a lucrative area to develop real estate, then casually slips in, "I was there during the war when I worked for Shell Oil." Compared with Bertelsen, Karl Lagerfeld's life story sounds pedestrian. He breaks down the money-making process on his present "pet" projects Ferretti and Strenesse. With the patience of a kindly school master, he explains his business strategy in basic terms. "Now I just check the balance sheet," he says of his present fashion interests. "I used to tell the designers, `Always bottom line. Always balance sheets.' I used to lecture to students for the British Fashion Council and I'd say, `Balances, balances, balances.' They never learn. They get carried away with the hype of the circus."

As we walk back to Bertelsen's office, he gives me a dig in the ribs, winks and says, "Now I'm going to show you how to make friends and influence people." He passes a Knightsbridge street sweeper and they give each other the high five - much to the bemusement of the Davies Street matrons who are passing by. I have been in the presence of the most charming - and I'm sure the sharpest - business brain ever to "dabble" in women's dresses.

The fashion industry has Ralph Lauren's cows to thank for Bertelsen's money and his precious time.

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