George Berman could frequently be found expounding on this fact, usually whilst holding court at one of his infamous soirees, equally high on his adoring yet obviously bored audience and Johnnie Walker Odyssey. Not that his guests got to enjoy the rare 40% whiskey, no at over £800 a bottle it was reserved just for him. His guests got to imbibe the generic brands he ordered his staff to decant into higher end bottles, creating the illusion that they too, got to share in the finest things in life. His staff found this a hilarious and eccentric task, made even more ridiculous considering that as one of the richest men in the world, George Berman could have filled each of the seven swimming pools, five infinity pools and countless bathtubs in each of his seven homes across the globe with it. But just because he could, George watched his guests and hangers on sip the supermarket own brands and trill effusively about how it really did pay to buy the best, all the while feeling an illicit joy that they were dining on the same quality produce as their staff.
Let’s be straight, George Berman was a very strange fish. Born to working class parents in the East End of London, he and his seven older siblings had a meagre upbringing, and that’s putting it politely. They all slept on the floor in one dank room, the smell of mildew so strong on the air that it pervaded everything they possessed which gratefully wasn’t much. His father eked out something of a living on a fruit and vegetable stall whilst his mother, bless her heart, tried to make life at home as comfortable as she could. Meals were infrequent and mostly made up of the scraps his father could not sell that day. Even now, George Berman resolutely will not eat vegetables. Over half a dozen three star Michelin chefs have turned the air various shades of blue when George’s plates are returned to the kitchen, cleaned of meat and fish and still piled with the exquisitely crafted vegetables their commis chefs have spent hours preparing. Untouched by knife nor fork. In most cases, said Chef would storm the table and demand an explanation or apology for such a blatant disregard of their culinary expertise but George Berman is not a man you wish to upset.
Growing up poor was not an experience young George enjoyed. He liked to regale people with the bleak truth of his upbringing and enjoyed their responses to his tales, each of them unsure of the correct social response. George Berman believed that growing up in the dregs of society was the sole reason he was the man he had become, borne into nothing his ascent to the top was akin to the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Nobody ever disagreed with him or dared to say that his tale of rags to riches was not as uncommon as he thought. If George said the sky was green and the grass was blue, his minions and guests would nod effusively, clapping their agreement until their palms bled. Being a multi billionaire had perks beyond cronyism however. I’m sure you already know the story of how the youngest son of a barrow man became the wealthiest retailer in the world, but just in case, let’s briefly recap.
Born in the slums of 1950’s London, George was the youngest in a family of nine. Which meant he was practically an afterthought. He ate last, scrounging whatever meagre scraps he could from his siblings already sparse plates. On the frequent occasions he was sent out to work alongside his father on the stall, he could be found wearing a mismatch of his sibling’s clothing and that included his older sister’s dresses. Which as you can imagine, made young George appear to be more than a little odd. After the decimation of the Blitz, the East End was beginning to show a rejuvenation with tower blocks starting to climb up into the skyline and housing an influx of migrants, none of whom had any money. It was a burgeoning multicultural society, and everyone was equal because everyone was poor. But crime was low, mostly due to the Kray twins influence and people mostly just kept to themselves. Life there was a daily challenge and George was just one of many who realised that life on the poverty line was very bleak indeed.
It was at just 12 that George realised just how bleak. His mother snuck him and one of his sisters into Wilton’s Music Hall in Grace’s Alley in Tower Hamlets and young George was transported to another world. Awed by the splendour and glamour of the environment, he sat open mouthed as the most beautiful women he had ever seen danced in a sheen of feathers, sequins and silks whilst handsome young men joked and sang. George saw a world so far removed from his own that his young head swam. At just 12, he realised that he would do just about anything to get out, he now had proof that there was more to see and enjoy and be part of and that not everyone suffered the same depressing cabbage laden life he did. The colours of that show stayed with him, the beauty, the envisaged wealth. He feel in love each time a dancer took to the stage and promised himself that night that if he ever took a wife, she must be just as beautiful as the women he saw that night.
In truth, Wilton’s was just not very glamorous at all, cramped and dusty and smelling strongly of ale and sweat. The ladies may have been gorgeous but the costumes were worn and outdated. It simply didn’t matter. It was the start of the phenomenon that is Berman’s. Form the barrow to the boardroom, George Berman’s ascent up the ranks remains one of the more incredible feats of industry the world has ever seen. At 12 he was a barrow man’s assistant, filling bags with almost rotten fruit; by 22 he had opened his first store on Mile End Road in the husk of the former Wickham’s building. A small store, George ensured it was filled with a cornucopia of the finest products he could source, focusing of gorgeous dresses and fripperies that reminded him of the dancing girls at Wilton’s and Berman’s was soon a Mecca for those with cash to spend.
To this day no-one knows how or where George got the funds or the connections but no-one yet has dared to ask him. Two years after Mile End Road, the second Berman’s opened on Junction Road in Archway, the third a year later in South End Road in Hampstead. At the age of 30, George cut the ribbon on Berman’s on Kensington High Street and just two years later, Berman’s New York opened. A cavernous seven story building that sold anything and everything to the wealthy masses. The 1970s were the decade of decadence and between New York and London, George Berman capitalised with aplomb.
The windows of Berman’s New York were frequently arranged by Andy Warhol, the most famous featuring a live performance art piece by Nico. In London, George somehow reunited the Beatles for a one-off performance on the roof of the Kensington store, playing their stunning back catalogue to an awed crowd of thousands. The Metropolitan Police cited George for creating mayhem and attempted to take him to court for causing a near riot but he merely waved them off and continued counting his till receipts. There was no come back, by then George was too powerful for even the High Court. No-one could reign him in and nobody wanted to upset him as the fear of repercussions ran too deep.
As I said before, the source of George Berman’s success was a mystery to all and naturally the rumour mill ran wild. The assumption was that his business was born from the profits of criminal activities and if that was the case he was obviously very well connected. The criminal underbelly didn’t go around giving money away for no reason. So whilst he was gossiped about frequently, it was all done in whispers as nobody wanted to find out first hand if the speculations were true. Not that George cared one iota. He was too busy building his empire and amassing an obscene amount of money. London, New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, Monaco ; wherever the millionaires lived and played, there was a Berman’s.