Dominic Ford, who will be running the restaurant for Mr Poon when it opens on Thursday, is very keen on the shelves. "The great thing about them," he says, in his lime shirt and blue tie, "is that they swivel." He leans into a unit and it swings silently round. "People see the contents on their way in," he continues crisply, as the shelves complete their turn towards the dining area. "And they see them on their way out."
Over the past 15 years, this well-educated hard sell has made Dickson Poon the favourite provider for the wants of the world's comfortable classes. From his cramped headquarters in Hong Kong, he has planted a small forest of boutiques and restaurants, spreading outwards to China and Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan and, more recently, France and Britain. In the process, Poon has helped to catalyse one of the most visible modern cultural trends: the growing domination of middle-class life by labels. Young professionals in Tokyo and Twickenham alike want their Calvin Klein, their Paul Smith, their primary-colour platefuls in a name restaurant; Poon makes this kind of happiness possible.
His handling of one particular department store shows how. Poon bought Harvey Nichols in 1991 when it was small and loss-making, important only to people who spent Saturdays in Knightsbridge. Five years of refitting and repositioning later, its latest profit figures, up 53 per cent on last year, were considered worthy of several paragraphs in the Sun. An acclaimed comedy series called Absolutely Fabulous is filled with delirious charges down the escalators, through the low-ceilinged designer concessions, and up to the Fifth Floor restaurant of - Patsy and Edina shriek - "Harvey Nicks!".
And the store has an even better reason to be in the tabloids. The Princess of Wales has been noticed, with increasing frequency, rattling through the racks of Givenchy and Vivienne Westwood. In January, it was revealed that the store's then head of security had been taking an equal interest in her, via the surveillance cameras, but she came back regardless. Last week, she visited it to buy lipstick. The cash till rejected her store credit card. The Princess asked the assistant to try it again.
Dickson Poon, who is 40 and dresses and drives younger, has acquired status in Britain swiftly. Joseph Ettedgui, a retailer of similar fashions, took two decades gaining acceptance; Mohamed al-Fayed is still waiting. With Harvey Nichols, Poon has revived a department store England that, in others' hands, has shown every sign of closing its doors. In April, Poon sold just under half of Harvey Nichols on the stock market. The shares have since risen by 20 per cent.
Now, in the manner of the nineteenth-century department store pioneers, Poon plans to expand into the provinces. In October Harvey Nichols is coming to Leeds. A certain type of Londoner may mock, but Poon has spotted something about modern Britain that metropolitans often miss. In Leeds, as in most British cities now, people are dressing up. Beneath the finely- wrought arcades of the Victoria Quarter on a Saturday afternoon, young customers sift Ralph Lauren shirts and Armani jeans with a familiar briskness. Afterwards, they want cappuccino and glossy shopping bags to wave, just like the orange-tanned matrons of SW1. Harvey Nichols will give them four floors' worth.
Hong Kong was a good place to learn how to sell in West Yorkshire. Poon opened his first shop in the colony in 1980, selling watches and jewellery to the emerging Asian bourgeoisie. In a port city with social mobility and a substantial counterfeiting industry, aspirations were matched to labels with an intensity Europe would need a decade to match. Within a year Poon's one boutique had become 10.
His immediate success owed much to customer empathy. Poon's grandfather had been a rice farmer in China; his father went to Hong Kong and grew rich selling watches, then shares. Poon's mother established her own stockbrocking firm. As a teenager, Poon was already living the international life which designer labels sell as fantasy: school at Uppingham, university in California, a Swiss apprenticeship in watch-making.
When he returned to Hong Kong at the age of 24, with a trace of a public school drawl and the button-down shirts of a wealthy American, Poon's father lent him pounds 500,000 to get started in business. The money gave him access to the well-located properties a luxury retailer needed. From here, he secured the distribution rights for expensive Western brands. Poon liked the cars and wine and prominent tables all this bought. He invested in the film industry, and married a kung-fu star called Michelle Yeoh. When they divorced Poon turned his attentions to Pearl Yu, a financial analyst of grand Hong Kong origins who travelled to work in a Rolls-Royce. To impress her on her birthday, Poon sent 99 red roses, booked an entire restaurant for the two of them, and there handed over the 100th.
But he wanted to be a taste-maker himself, not just a conduit for the designs of faraway corporations. In 1987 he bought his own brand, S.T. Dupont, a French manufacturer of fat-nibbed gold pens, gold-trimmed lighters and all the other small shiny objects the rich require. Poon made his move a month after the stock market crash.
Britain was an obvious next target. After a decade of tax gifts to the rich, it was no longer so different - in its consumerism if not its economic achievement - from the hothouse markets of Asia. At the same time, the curiously persistent affection of international labels for an imagined England of the Twenties and Thirties, manifest in American cricket jumpers and French versions of the tweed jacket, made the purchase of a British brand good business.
Harvey Nichols had a reputation for smart clothes and never quite making money. Under its Eighties owners, the Burton Group, it had added a designer floor and European menswear but was still overshadowed by nearby Harrods. Yet Poon was drawn, imagining a London bridgehead on the hectic corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street. He paid more than pounds 50m. Hong Kong investors thought it was a huge mistake, and sold their Dickson Poon shares by the thousand. This seemed sensible: by 1992 Poon was accusing the Burton Group of over-valuing the store's assets. The same year he sacked the managing director; in 1993 the fashion director, Amanda Verdan, left too. The recession went on.
The shop, however, was already changing. "Dickson visited a lot," says Verdan. "He could look at a space and see what was wrong with it, the kind of flooring that should be used." Poon took the top floor, usually the deadest, as shoppers tired on their way up through the departments, and made it hum with a restaurant and Harrods-defying food hall. He stretched opening times into evenings and weekends so people who earned their wealth could come. His new managers, came from Hong Kong. "He was very civilized, very sharp, very demanding," says Verdan, who watched as a director.
Poon also knew a marketing opportunity when he saw one. In large part, Absolutely Fabulous was a satire on his kind of customer: two middle-aged women tottering through the store, air-kissing in the restaurant and living for binges of laughably youthful clothes. Yet Harvey Nichols absorbed the mockery and, in the way of modern capitalism, converted it into advertising. During London Fashion Week the shop hired Edina and Patsy to host breakfast on the Fifth Floor.
For a place of such profile, Poon's flagship is surprisingly small, a Tardis in reverse. Behind its elaborately-staged window displays - currently cross-promoting the Oxo Tower restaurant - the store is a densely-stocked warren, an exotic market really. Many customers are plumper and poorer than Patsy, spending unexpectedly middle-range sums of money: pounds 23 for a haircut, pounds 2.75 for chips and aioli.
Poon's success has been to blur the buying habits of the middle class and the rich. This carries a risk, though. Exclusivity is part of a label's appeal; diffuse too far, and the queues disappear. Liberty's London branch, despite that company's troubles elsewhere, is frequently cited by fashion pundits as a better place to buy daringly than Harvey Nichols. And the Oxo restaurant, for all its terrace panorama and wall art and clever chairs, is not that different from the cool, modern eating spaces being built all over urban Britain. Before visiting, you somehow know it will have a combination brasserie and restaurant and serve olive oil mash.
Then again, a lot of people will still be left out when it opens. Finishing his dining area tour, Mr Poon's restaurateur can't resist mentioning his shelves of treats once more. "Food like this looks rather good value when you've just spent pounds 100 on dinner," he says. The council tower blocks of south London stretch away behind him. "The olive oil is twelve quid."Reuse content