Ray Kelvin is not what you’d ever call a backwards-in-coming-forwards fellow. Within half an hour or so of our meeting he’s hoisted up his pink shirt and hitched down the waistband of his trousers in order to give me a guided tour of the impressive scar leftover from a major stomach operation last year (more of which later). And this in a crowded (and smartly fashionable) New York restaurant. Generous to a fault? Yes. Funny? Most definitely. A man devoted to his pretty second wife, Clare, and his two teenage sons, Ben and Josh? Oh, unquestionably. But shy …? Come off it.
And yet Kelvin’s spent the best part of 25 years eschewing personal publicity, to the point that he has always studiously avoided being photographed in full profile (the face half-hidden or back to the camera are now something of a quirky Kelvin motif in all Ted Baker pictures: see left). He even baulked at lending his own name to the company when he started it, in true rag-trade fashion, at his kitchen table in 1988. Why so bashful? “I didn’t want to be known as Ray the Bankrupt.”
As it happens, he needn’t have had any worries on that count. Far from failing ignominiously, as he had feared, the fledgling Ted Baker has gone on to become a FTSE 250 listed company with stores spread across the world, including the Britomart here in Auckland, and 8000 employees, 400 of them based at Ted Baker HQ near Camden Town.
“Now, I never thought for one minute that it would end up being a FTSE 250 company,” he says. “I am not a shy person by nature but when people come to me and say how clever I have been I just don’t feel comfortable. There is no way you could plan all this.”
Latest in the rash of worldwide stores is a new art deco-themed flagship in Fifth Avenue, New York, at the recent launch of which 56-year-old Kelvin greeted guests – including the footballers Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill – like one very proud paterfamilias, an arm casually draped around their shoulders. Like the company, Kelvin himself isn’t doing too badly either, what with the home next to Thierry’s in Hampstead, north London, two in Salisbury (one chocolate-box pretty, the other ultra-modern to satisfy his wildly Catholic tastes in architecture and interiors), and another right on the beach in Malibu. He also drives an Aston Martin DB7 and has a private jet. Not that I am supposed to mention that last bit. “Don’t put that in, it seems flashy,” he says with a dismissive wave of one hand.
And endearingly, Ray Kelvin appears to dread the very thought of being deemed flashy. He insists he’s not rich but “blessed”, a distinction that he’s drilled into his sons from when they were very young. Over supper, he tells a charming story of how years ago one of them came home from playing with the son of Sting, a neighbour of theirs in Wiltshire, and said, “Daddy, I think Sting is much more blessed than us”.
Kelvin’s own north London beginnings are far more humble, though not exactly impoverished. His father had a blouse factory in Edmonton, while his beloved mother, Trudy, “played the Jewish piano”. I look puzzled. “You know, a cash till! The Jewish piano! Music to her ears …” He gestures her pressing the keys on her shop’s till. (A good Jewish boy, he’s allowed to say all this.) Trudy died last year, a glamorous and youthful-looking woman to the end, as photographs on her son’s mobile phone prove. “She called me her diamond,” he says. “My parents taught me that you had to work hard for anything you wanted.”
Kelvin himself had a skirmish with serious illness last year when he contracted a severe stomach infection and C difficile and ended up in intensive care for five nights. There followed major surgery (with more pencilled in for next year). “I was pretty sick but I wasn’t going to die,” he says. I’m still not sure whether this is a statement of intent or medical fact, but now knowing a bit of Ray Kelvin, I’d hazard the former.
It was, he adds, a “short, sharp, shock”, and though he says he’s long been a generous and benevolent boss, these days, acutely aware of the preciousness of life, he’s even more so. This much is pretty evident when I catch up with him weeks after the New York launch at Ted Baker HQ, a Willy Wonka-ish affair where a life-sized model of a nodding dog greets you in the fun palace of a foyer and where Kelvin floats around geeing up staff and giving the occasional visiting stockist from the North an impromptu neck massage, complete with matey banter.
He is wearing tan suede shoes, stripy socks, fashionably cut buff chinos and a green and white striped shirt – all Ted Baker, of course, or, as they like to say round these parts, he’s dressed “Ted-to-toe”.
We sit in the staff restaurant and he takes me through some pretty accomplished photos taken on his Leica camera and stored on his laptop. They’re mainly of his annual fly-fishing excursions with his gang of close male friends, nicknamed the Stunnards, to Slovenia, with the odd beautiful still-life-like photo of his catches thrown in.
“I’ve been fly-fishing since I was 20. There’s nothing like it. There’s the technical thing of matching the hatch and tricking the fish into taking a fly. I can fish all day long. I’ll get there at seven in the morning and the next thing I know it’s four in the afternoon and I’m thinking,’Where has the day gone?”‘
Taken in by the sudden reverie, and picturing a future for Kelvin and Clare away from work and the company, I gingerly ask if he’ll ever retire.
And quick as a flash, snapping shut the lid of his laptop, he says, “Never!”
By Gareth Wyn Davies
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