Hands-on boss: A rare picture of Ray Kelvin’s face as he is seen at a store opening in Dublin, Ireland
Samantha was leaving for lunch when she says she saw her boss, Ray Kelvin, at the entrance of the clothes shop where she worked, his arms outstretched as he beckoned her into an embrace.
She had been warned by colleagues that one of Kelvin’s many eccentricities was his insistence on hugging new staff, and that, should it happen to her, the best recourse was to smile and comply. But being prepared didn’t make it any less daunting.
The difference in physical stature between the two — Samantha is a diminutive 5ft 4in, Kelvin around 6ft tall — was matched by the stark contrast in their circumstances.
At 25, Samantha was a lowly sales assistant; Kelvin was 62, worth £500 million and the much-revered chief executive of fashion empire Ted Baker. Little wonder she felt nervous. ‘As I started to pull away, he continued to hug me. I stayed there for five seconds and then thought: “This is too long,” ’ Samantha recalls.
‘As I pulled back, he kissed me on my shoulder. I was wearing a sleeveless dress. We’d only just met. I was shocked and disgusted.’
Samantha is one of around 100 current or former employees who’ve reported receiving unwanted advances from Kelvin while working at the multi-national clothes company he founded 30 years ago.
They accuse him of harassing them with uninvited hugs and crude sexual innuendo.
CEO of Ted Baker, Ray Kelvin (left and right) has worked in the fashion industry for more than 40 years and is now facing a string of bullying and harassment allegations
It has been claimed Kelvin forced workers to sit on his lap and massaged their ears; that he discussed his sex life in their presence, asked employees about their own relationships and took his shirt off in front of staff.
The allegations emerged at the start of this week after staff used employee website Organise to launch a petition for an independent body to investigate their complaints.
As days passed and some 1,000 Ted Baker staff backed the petition, the claims grew more torrid.
It was said Kelvin reportedly pinned a male employee against an office wall when it transpired Kelvin was not invited to his wedding, before the company reportedly paid the man and his fiancee to leave without making a fuss.
Yesterday, a second senior executive was accused of unwelcome hugging and the company — which had defended its hugs as an innocuous ‘part of Ted Baker’s culture’ — announced that Kelvin was to take a voluntary leave of absence while law firm Herbert Smith Freehills carries out an ‘independent external investigation’, with immediate effect.
In a statement Kelvin said ‘the accusations of the past week have raised some very serious and upsetting issues’ and it was ‘only right the board should investigate fully’.
Kelvin (pictured) is to take a voluntary leave of absence while law firm Herbert Smith Freehills carries out an ‘independent external investigation’, with immediate effect
Ted Baker — whose distinctive clothes have been worn by celebrities including the Duchess of Cambridge, Amal Clooney and Holly Willoughby — has seen shares plummet to a five-year low. In a statement yesterday, Kelvin said: ‘Ted Baker has been my life and soul for 30 years. I love this company and care deeply for all my colleagues.’
Ironically, Kelvin, a twice-married and fiercely private father of three, has long claimed to be staunchly protective of his workers’ rights, and a man to whom the bullying renowned among many of his peers in the fashion industry is anathema.
Positing himself as the polar opposite of audacious Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green, himself struggling to recover from allegations of misogyny and abuse, Kelvin shuns the limelight, saying flaunting wealth is ‘vulgar’ and ‘the world has made too much of business people becoming celebrities’.
Indeed, his profile is so low that until this week, few outside the fashion industry would have heard of him.
Instead of advocating a rigid hierarchy, his managerial approach seems to render professional boundaries all but obsolete.
His 80,000 sq ft North London HQ, a former Post Office sorting office known as the ‘Ugly Brown Building’, where Ted Baker has been based since 2000, has hosted stress massages for employees.
A sign next to Kelvin’s desk in his open plan office says ‘Hugs Here’.
‘I make it my business to get to know everyone. I give them all nicknames so I remember people’s names,’ Kelvin told Vogue in 2013. ‘I want to give them a real career — a “teducation” as we call it. It’s all just one big hug.’
This is the bizarre moment Ray Kelvin, 63, embroiled in ‘forced hugging’ staff harassment scandal kisses a footballer
But in the post #MeToo era, with corporate culture under ever more piercing a spotlight, this quirky approach suddenly seems rife for abuse. His attempts to appear a friendly hero are now viewed by many as a cynical ploy to exploit employees’ vulnerability.
Speaking to both his allies and critics this week, the Mail discovered a complex character, whose actions appear driven as much by insecurity as arrogance and desire.
The son of a factory worker, Kelvin, who has two adult sons from his first marriage and a five-year-old daughter with current wife Clare, 46, was brought up in North London, where his parents taught him ‘you had to work hard for anything you wanted’.
From the day he opened his first Ted Baker store in Glasgow in 1988, selling fashionably garish men’s shirts, the moniker Ted Baker provided a fictional frontman for Kelvin to hide behind. ‘I didn’t want to use my real name,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d be a failure. I could have gone bankrupt, then my name would have always been associated with a failed company.’
Ted was the suave alter ego the self-effacing Kelvin wished he could be. In contrast, Kelvin was ‘camera-shy’ and described himself as ‘ugly’ — a reason given for his bizarre habit of partially obscuring his face behind inanimate objects such as sofas, towels and books on the rare occasions he agreed to be photographed.
Despite — or, indeed, because of — his unconventional approach to business, his company grew, expanding into womenswear, shoes and accessories. And when, in 1997 Ted Baker — by then worth £56 million — went public, Kelvin’s demeanour dramatically changed.
Having described himself as an aggressive ‘monster’ in the early years, success brought a management style as irreverent as his £279 sparkly jumpsuits.
Mr Kelvin (pictured above) has been accused of making sexual innuendos. In photographs he is known for covering his face
A keen angler, Kelvin was apparently once intent on incorporating a fishing shop selling tackle in the reception of his HQ, until a senior partner talked him out of it. Instead, a giant board outside the entrance with a picture of a lobster on it is accompanied by the words ‘join the fold.’
Kelvin employed his mother, Trudie, who died in 2010, to sell clothes while wearing a badge saying ‘Ted’s Mum; I taught him how to tie his shoelaces’.
Staff lateness was penalised with press-ups and line-dancing took place in the canteen. ‘It was like working for a cult,’ says Lucy, a former employee based in the London HQ for three years, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He was particularly proud of his ‘hug culture’. ‘I hug my colleagues every day,’ he told Vogue in 2013. ‘I hug the store staff, everyone.’
Kelvin has claimed he embraces people both because chronic psoriatic arthritis makes shaking hands ‘painful’ and because hugging ‘breaks barriers’.
Others believe the decision is more contrived; a conscious way of merging his mannerisms to suit the unorthodox nature of his clothing brand. ‘
‘He works a bit too hard trying to be different,’ a close and long-standing acquaintance of Kelvin’s told me. ‘Despite his wealth and success, I think he’s insecure.’
Stocky and grey-haired, Kelvin reportedly believed himself lucky to have attracted the attention of his beautiful second wife Clare, a blonde more than 15 years his junior, and admits having lost weight on her instruction before their 2012 wedding.
Clare — who lives with Kelvin and their five-year-old daughter in a three-storey home in Hampstead, North London, with a removable roof and views over St Paul’s Cathedral, works in the London HQ with Kelvin, a fact another source close to him insists points to his innocence.
‘She’s not going to stand by and watch him hug people inappropriately,’ the source said. ‘It doesn’t happen. He doesn’t hug in a sexual way.
‘It’s rubbish to say he massages people’s ears. He mentors staff. He wants to know about the people he works with so he can help them reach their potential. They’re like a family to him.
‘Ray has been coming into work every day distraught. Everyone is very upset. People have been crying.
‘We don’t know who has [started the petition]. They have been able to stay completely anonymous. I believe most of the people behind this don’t even work for Ted Baker any more.’
More than 100 staff have submitted anonymous stories of harassment on Organise, the campaign website where the petition began
Tearfully, one employee stressed Kelvin’s loyalty to his workers: ‘One woman has worked here since she was 16 and is now a director. The cleaner has been here for 30 years. Every year, without fail, she wins Employee of the Year.
‘One man had cancer and Ray helped with his treatment and held him in his hospital bed. Ray is the most honourable man.’
These sentiments were echoed by Kelvin’s first wife, Georgia Slowe, 53, who lives five minutes away from him. A former actress in Emmerdale, she married Kelvin in 1993 and remained friends after divorcing him in 2000.
‘I think what’s happening is ridiculous,’ she says. Describing Kelvin as the ‘loveliest man’ she adds: ‘I think it’s wonderful to have a family-like atmosphere at work. He’s a brilliant businessman.’
Perhaps so, but Kelvin — awarded a CBE for his work in fashion in 2011 — is inappropriately puerile and his humour peppered with sexual overtones. For example, he insists that even those employees in a relationship when they joined Ted Baker must have an ‘office boyfriend’ or ‘office girlfriend’.
While he clearly enjoys flirting, he doesn’t limit his attention to one woman — or man. ‘He is effectively having an affair with everybody, every day,’ says one acquaintance. ‘He’s just as touchy-feely with men. He is childlike and craves attention and approval.
‘I think he’s charmingly weird rather than sinister and creepy. But as Ray has got older, he has become slightly more eccentric and lost sight of the effect his actions have on others. He forgets he is old enough to be his employees’ father.’
Both Samantha and Lucy tell me the senior cohort of employees surrounding Kelvin seemed happy enough hugging their boss.
‘It was well known that those in the higher levels were totally fine with it,’ says Lucy, adding: ‘I don’t know if they went along with it because they were being paid a lot of money and hugging was a part and parcel of being there.’
It seems to have been primarily Kelvin’s younger employees, better versed in political correctness and workplace rights than older generations, who objected enough to instigate the recent petition. ‘I can’t recall any sales associates — who were aged between 19 and 27 — who wanted to hug him,’ says Samantha. She was warned by colleagues when she started as a sales assistant this year that, should she meet Kelvin, he would hug her for ‘way too long’.
She adds: ‘I was nervous, but the managers made it seem there was no choice; that it was a big deal to meet the CEO of your company. I didn’t want to get into trouble.’
Before her own encounter, she had already seen Kelvin kiss a male colleague on the forehead. ‘He told me afterwards he’d never felt so violated. I told him to go to human resources, but he said nothing would be done — that’s just Kelvin’s way of saying hello.’
Staff at the high street giants also accused Kelvin of making them sit on his knee and taking his shirt off
When it happened to Samantha weeks later (with a kiss on the shoulder) she, too, kept quiet. ‘I didn’t think HR would listen,’ she says. ‘I felt disappointed and embarrassed and didn’t tell anyone.’ Instead, she made sure she was out of Kelvin’s vicinity next time he visited the store, and left his company shortly afterwards.
Rumours of unhappiness have swirled around for some time, but have, until now, been contained.
When Rebecca Waller-Davies, a journalist from trade publication Retail Week, suggested to Kelvin that women had been coerced into sitting on his knee this summer, he told her she was on ‘very dangerous ground’ before pulling her to a hug, kissing her cheek and claiming, ‘I am not apologising for this’ — words that, tellingly, remained unpublished until this week.
As even a close acquaintance concedes: ‘I can imagine him saying that. He’s very sensitive to criticism and I know this episode will have hurt him.’
Whether through loyalty or fear, no staff at any of the three Ted Baker stores the Mail visited this week would comment on their boss’s situation. When the Mail visited the London HQ to ask to speak to Kelvin, three members of staff emerged to tell our reporter he was not available.
After repeated attempts to contact Kelvin for comment, a statement from Ted Baker said the company would ‘carefully consider the content and recommendations’ of the independent report.
‘We have always placed great importance on our culture. It is critically important to us that every member of our staff feels valued and respected at work. We do not believe these reports are reflective of the organisation we have all worked hard to develop over the last 30 years.’
Kelvin, for his part, said in a statement yesterday: ‘Ted Baker means everything to me and I can’t bear to see it harmed in any way.’
Whether he can weather this storm — and whether he deserves to — is a matter of opinion.
Additional reporting: STEPHANIE CONDRON