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Timeline: A complete history of Debenhams from 1778-2019

Lauretta Roberts
12 April 2019

This week one of Britain's oldest retailers entered another chapter in its fascinating history that began in 1778, when William Clark began trading his drapers store at 44 Wigmore Street in London.

At its height Debenhams was the largest department store chain in the UK and even, for a large part of the 20th Century, owned Harvey Nichols of Knightsbridge. We've captured its full history in this exclusive Timeline created for TheIndustry.fashion.

The business has been floated on the London Stock Exchange three times during its 241-year history and was delisted this week when it was confirmed that it had been placed into the hands of its lenders.

The company was saddled with debt dating back to its period under private equity ownership during the early 2000s, which had severely hampered its ability to react quickly and decisively enough to the rapid rise in online retail. On top of which its fashion offer, which was once the envy of the high street with its trailblazing Designers at Debenhams, launched in 1993, had been left to go stale.

The cracks started to appear in 2011 when shares slumped and Ashley began building his stake. Over the ensuing years his stake was built to a near 30%. Following months of tussling with Ashley who was desperate to take control, Debenhams was sold to an entity established by its lenders in a pre-pack administration deal that wiped out all of its shareholders, including the Sports Direct chief.

As part of the administration deal the company agreed a £200m refinancing package with its lenders and is embarking on a restructuring that could lead to 50 of its 165 stores being closed in the next three to five years. While it's not clear which of those stores will go, it is likely to include some of the most historic names in British retail history.

DebenhamsDebenhams was built via the acquisition of independent department stores up and down the land, many of which came via the 1928 purchase of The Drapery Trust which included the Bobby & Co, Bon Marché, Drages, Kennards, Marshalls and Swan & Edgar branded stores. All stores, with the exception of Browns of Chester were rebranded as Debenhams in 1977.

House of Fraser, which Mike Ashley has owned since last summer, did the same; acquiring stores (from Barkers to Dingles) which were eventually all brought under the House of Fraser brand. Ashley had hoped to unite them all as part of his retail empire.

For now, it looks like his plan has failed. Despite escalating his rescue bids in value, eventually getting to £200m on the proviso he was made CEO, he was turned down. He's not going quietly of course. He has since threatened legal action and is calling for the administration to be reversed.

Whatever the outcome another interesting turn is yet to come in this retailer's colourful story. Debenhams is already being marketed for sale again. Its lenders have appointed Lazard to find its next owner. One way or another, it may yet be Ashley.

Read more about Debenhams and its history in our profile in The Intelligence and view the exclusive Timeline created by TheIndustry.fashion in full here A complete history of Debenhams


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