A Brief History of Wallis

Wallis, Oxford Street (1999)

The Wallis chain of women’s fashion shops was a familiar presence on British high streets for 97 years. It started out as a standard ‘costumier’, selling dresses and coats – called ‘mantles’ in the trade – including furs.

The first shop opened at 54 Chapel Street (now Chapel Market), Islington, in 1923. The founder, Raphael Nathaniel Wallis (1890-1948), was born in Russia as Nathan Raphael Tatarsky. From the start, he manufactured most of the merchandise in his own workshops. Wallis subsequently accumulated several subsidiary manufacturing companies, including a factory dedicated to making fur garments and, during the Second World War, a company that manufactured military clothing for the Ministry of Supply.

Wallis had at least four London branches by 1930 and 15 by 1935, when the business floated as N. W. (Costumiers) Ltd. A year later it changed its name to Wallis & Co. (Costumiers) Ltd. By 1939 there were 25 shops, occupying prime shopping positions in large towns and cities throughout the country.

Some premises were purpose-built for Wallis, including a branch in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester, designed by the architect J. L. Cohen c.1935. This seems to have been later acquired and rebuilt as the end bay of Marks & Spencer’s store.

By the end of the 1930s every branch of Wallis had departments for millinery and furs, and in 1939 a subsidiary company called John Keene Ltd. was formed with two retail outlets (in London and Manchester) specialising in furs. One was damaged by enemy action a year later. Despite the impact of the War and, in its aftermath, the Luxury Tax, this experiment lased for a decade, if not longer.

Jeffery J. Wallis, the founder’s son, took responsibility for a scheme to enlarge and modernise the largest branches in 1946. Until the mid-1950s managers had to be male and had to ‘possess specialised Mantle Display experience to enable them to dress a good selling Mantle Window’.

Under Jeffery J. Wallis, the company became known for its affordable reproductions of Parisian designs. Notoriously, Christine Keeler is said to have worn a different suit supplied by Wallis each day throughout the Profumo trial of 1963.

Wallis, Oxford Street (1999)

Burton acquired a substantial stake in Wallis in the early 1960s but disposed of its holding following an unsuccessful takeover bid in 1971. At that time, the Wallis family retained a majority stake in the company. The Wallis Fashion Group – as the company was now called – expanded in the mid-1970s, with a new Oxford Street store and outlets in Europe.

In 1980 Wallis became part of Sears Holdings, which also owned Richards, Warehouse and Miss Selfridge. Philip Green took over ailing Sears – dragged down by the British Shoe Corporation – in 1999, and within months he had sold its high street fashion multiples, including Wallis, to Arcadia for £151 million. This was the former Burton Group, which already owned Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Principles and Top Shop, and which had recently demerged from Debenhams.

Wallis still had around 219 outlets at the turn of the Millennium. In 2002 Philip Green, who by then owned BHS, made a successful bid for Arcadia. On 30 November 2020 Arcadia entered administration. The Wallis brand, but not the shops, was bought by the online retailer Boohoo.com – together with Burton and Dorothy Perkins – in February 2021.

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12 Responses to A Brief History of Wallis

  1. robert wallis says:

    I’m not sure who published this , just to let you all know that Jeffrey and Harold wallis were the joint managing directors .
    They were brothers and very much a team .
    Jeffrey as he got older unfortunately forgot about his baby brothers contribution after he died which was rearly sad .robert wallis
    The success was due to them both bringing different qualities to the table .
    I worked with Harold for many years in retail after he sold wallis and he was a tremendous highly skilled ,principled retailer who never was interested in the limelight unlike his brother .


  2. Alicia Chouffot says:

    I worked for Wallis from 1940 – 1950, I was. 14 yrs off age when I first joined them. I worked with Mr. Miller, a director. I think John Keen manufactured the fur garments. Those years were happy years for me. My younger sister, Betty, joined me there when she was. 14 yrs. I did all the
    clerical work for the fur department. Mr Miller used to travel from Hove (Brighton) every day.
    He was a very good boss with whom to work. I have had a few jobs since then, but those 10yrs were my happiest. The fur workshop was in Chapel Market. It was Mr. Harold who employed me in 1940.

    Mrs. Alicia Chouffot (formerly Miss Alicia Fagioli)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pauline Beckett says:

    I worked as a Manager of a fashion store in Leicester, UK in 1978 called ‘Knockout’ it was a sub store of WALLIS fashions where end of line items were sold. I was on a European holiday working in the UK from Australia.😎


  4. Bernadette Carroll says:

    I worked in Wallis Fashions Head Office in North London from June 1978 for about a year or two I would love to know the address of those offices I’d anyone knows


  5. Gary Martin says:

    My mother, Brenda Coleman, worked as a model for Wallis in the early to mid 60s. She recalls withg uch fondness how she would show the new clothiong range to high profile clients like the then Duchess of Bedford in Woburn. She is 80 nexct month and I’m trawling the internet for any photos from a Wallis archive. Please let me know if such an archive exists. Many thanks. Gary.


  6. Claire Jones says:

    Hi there, my mother, Vera Jones (maiden name Collier) worked as the in-house sample maker for the Wallis brothers, in the 1950s. She worked alongside the young designer, Shirley Russell (at that time married to Ken Russell) My mum had to leave when my father won an architectural scholarship to Penn State University, but on their return a few years later, one of the designers spotted my mum on a bus in Tottenham Court Road and chased it down the road begging her to come back and work them.

    My mother is 90 years old and always speaks of her extremely happy time working for the company, she’s still a beautiful dressmaker and I think always regrets not returning to work there.

    Kind regards

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Estelle Burton says:

    Hi. I worked for Wallis from 1979 to 1982 in the London area including Marble arch, Oxford Street, South Molton street, Kings Road, Croydon, Guildford & Kingston. It was an interesting time as they still sold their beautiful copies of Channel suits etc South Molton Street sold designer clothing the likes of Bruce Oldfield whilst Marble Arch catered for the huge influx of Saudi’s – it was nothing to sell a dozen dresses to one person – Frank Usher dresses being a big favourite. It was however a difficult time in terms competition & also when Sears took over. It is I think true to say they lost their way in the 80s. They tried various things to attract buyers eg selling shoes (Midas) & accessories (Porter) but the writing was on the wall. I moved on but remember the staff with affection & learnt a great deal – I didn’t miss the long hours & sore feet 🙂


  8. John Cope says:

    I joined Wallis in 1977 straight from university and worked in the store deign department under David Wales. I was recruited by David Cohen, who I think was the property director at Wallis – his secretary was Anita. John Whittlesea joined the property department and possible replaced David. Derek Da Costa was a director of ??? (cannot remember). Joan Peters ( I think she may have been South African) worked in the display department under Rod Stacey, display manager. Rod had an edge to him, but his assistant, Ian Campbell was a real gent. There were also 2 Sue’s in the display dept – Sue Milner and Sue…? – they were great fun. There was a lovely lady called Liz…? who was so vivacious – cannot remember what she did either but was quite high up in the group….business development possibly? Jeffrey and Harold Wallis were always around and very approachable – I remember Harold being the most humble of the 2 brothers. Jeffrey’s son Nicky Wallis was also part of the company, although nobody seemed to know what he actually did. He drove an E-type Jaguar and seemed a bit spoilt – we used to play cards in the deisgn studio at lunchtime and Nicky would often join us. We enjoyed taking his money, as he was not a good card player. Chris Waines and Eduardo Ceppi di Lecco joined us in the design studio and we all got on very well. I used to get out and survey stores and help with the openings etc, which allowed me to travel extensively around the UK and Germany.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Estelle Burton says:

      Hi David. The names are all very familiar (I can still see faces but names has faded overtime) – I remember the display guys (David with flowing locks?). There seemed to be a lot of mgrs but hierarchical firms were more the norm in those days. I had previously worked for British Aerospace & The Littlewoods Org as a trainee straight out of Poly. There was a wonderful lady called Liz who was extremely vivacious & very attractive (ex model) who worked in the Oxford Street branch. Mrs Millar was the branch manager. I particularly enjoyed working in the Marble Arch branch with the east end ladies. Their husbands had market stalls selling household linens. There was always food up for grabs including apple strudel:) & a big rush to get over to Selfridge’s food dept if there was ox tongues on sale – they would stroke the tongue in the bag like it was a pet looking forward to cooking it for the family – such lovely ladies.
      I seem to remember their offices were in cricklewood I could be mistaken. I left to work for RBK&C but did get a job with Jigsaw as branch manager in Putney as we were relocating to live in Kingston. I remember quite clearly being told there was no future at Jigsaw & it wouldn’t last – not sure they got that right though. Learnt a lot in those days & it certainly did me no harm. All the best. E


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