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.
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.