'Grande dame' of fashion leaves West End kingdom: Restructuring at London's 'in' store sees departure of influential buyer. Kate Constable reports

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The Independent Online
THE WHISPERS started on Wednesday. By yesterday morning it was official. Amanda Verdan was no longer fashion director of the glossy Knightsbridge fashion store, Harvey Nichols.

'It's a great personal sadness to me,' Jasper Conran, one of the designers stocked by Harvey Nichols, remarked. 'When it comes to buyers, she has to come in my top three.'

Ms Verdan, 39, was responsible for a multi-million pound budget and had, until this week, one of the most influential and sought-after jobs in British fashion. Designers might dictate the looks and fashion editors highlight the trends, but Ms Verdan, as one of the powerful clique of London's buyers, actually decided what the rich, stylish woman could buy.

She reigned over a glamorous kingdom which included all the fashion greats: Rifat Ozbek, Dolce e Gabbana, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan were just a few of the designers that Ms Verdan championed in her nine years as fashion director.

Mary Portas, marketing director of Harvey Nichols, said: 'We are restructuring and Amanda has left the business. She will continue to work for us on a consultancy basis.' There are no plans to replace her: buyers will now report directly to the managing director.

Such was Ms Verdan's influence that London's fashion aficionados found the news a shock. Annette Worsley-Taylor, director of the London Designer Collections (the body which organises London Fashion Week), admitted to being puzzled. 'I think for a store that wants to be number one in London not to have a fashion director is a little odd,' she said. 'I can only think that they must be rethinking the fashion direction of the store - no one could do what she has done any better.'

But these have been tricky times for Harvey Nichols - its reputation as London's 'in' store has never quite managed to deliver equally impressive profits. Bought for pounds 53.7m from the Burton Group in 1991 by the young Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, Dickson Poon, there were soon signs that all was not well.

In August 1992, Poon asked for a refund in a controversy over the valuation of Harvey Nichols's assets. Then Richard Maney, the popular American managing director was replaced by Joseph Wan, the group finance director of the Hong Kong parent company, Dickson Concepts. It seemed clear that Poon was not going to be patient in getting returns for his investment.

There is some speculation as to whether Ms Verdan's departure was due to a clash of personalities. 'She's very much the grande dame,' said a former colleague, who preferred not to be named.

Poon has made no secret that he wants the store to remain upmarket. There are also rumours about a move into Europe. But without a fashion director to co-ordinate the direction and buying of the store, the only way this seems viable is to turn it into a version of Bergdorf Goodman in New York. 'It will just be all designer concessions,' one observer remarked.

Ms Verdan was not taking calls yesterday. But her friends said her future was assured: 'Hey, she ain't dead,' Jasper Conran quipped. 'For that woman, the world is her oyster.'

(Photographs omitted)