When the late Pope Paul VI decided to "degrade" some saints and make a few, including Saint Christopher, "second-class saints," Cardinal Bea, the pope's foreign secretary, called Lord Sieff, chairman of the board of Marks & Spencer.
"Don't worry about a thing," teased Cardinal Bea. "we wouldn't dare touch St. Michael."
Good thing. St. Michael is the "patron saint" of basic, quality clothing and food for the British, the house brand (and only brand) sold in the $3.5 billion volume London-based department store chain, Marks & Spencer. The firm is a purveyor of high quality items in a dime-store setting. No dressing rooms, an easy return policy, and an employment policy with lots of perks that makes the jobs among the most coveted in town.
The royal family shops at Marks & Spencer (known affectionately as Marks and Sparks), so do the Arabs, and obviously lots of more common customers who have made it the major supplier of shirts, underwear, sweaters, fish and poultry to the British. On an average day, the Oxford Street store alone sells 2,000 to 3,000 dresses. The chain sells 35 percent of all the bras sold in Britain. "we are the great uplifters of the British people," laughs the Right Honorable Lord Sieff of Brimpton, O.B.E.
Sieff, a third-generation shopkeeper -- is grandfather, Michael Marks, who founded the store and has been "canonized" as St. Michael by the family -- was in Washington this weekend for the three-day scientific conference of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, of which he is board chairman.
The connection to the Institute is a long standing one. The Institute developed out of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Israel, honoring Lord Sieff's younger brother, a promising scientist killed in an accident in 1932.
Sieff puffs on his imported cigar as he speaks, looking very much the retailer, committed to his work, and, in the family tradition, also in Israel. r(it was his father, also Lord Sieff, who got the phone call from Cardinal Bea. His father had worked with the Vatican to remove anti-Semitism from Catholic liturgy.)
He likes to joke about his first 10 days of work, unpaid during his Christmas vacation, in the basement of his Soho branch. ("the company owes me a lot of money for that, with compound interest," he says laughing.)
He officially joined the company in 1935 at age 22 as a warehouseman and speaks just as easily about his recent elevation to a life peerage, the first time in British history, he says, that father and son have both been made life peers. ("i was a first, for once," he says.)
First, there was the confidential letter from the prime minister . . . "i am considering suggesting to the Queen that she confer barony (life peerage) on you," he recalls the letter saying He thought about it a long time, and finally wrote back that he would accept.
He rehearsed 20 minutes for the ceremony. He likes to tell that Lord Olivier rehearsed for days and was supposed to be the most nervous of all. Sieff says he wasn't nervous about his introduction, which took place the same time as that of former archbiship of Canterbury.
He makes the whole affair sound pretty breezy. "you come in, bow nine times, kneel before the lord chancellor, give him your writ of patent and then take your oath of allegiance. You back up to the steps and rise three times. With your two sponsors (existing peers) standing with you, you all take off your hats. The lord chancellor takes off his hat in response. He rises, takes you by the hand and says 'Welcome.'
"and you say to yourself, 'Thank God it's over.'"
For the ceremony, Sieff wore the traditional ermine and scarlet robe and hat. He thought it too expensive to buy a new one, couldn't find his father's and so borrowed that of a great friend, Lord Rothschild.
His position gives him the opportunity to address the House of Lords. ("the quality of debate is higher than in Comons because it is less paritsan," he says.) But otherwise he doesn't feel any different being a lord. Certainly he wears the same clothes -- St. Michael's brand suits or occasionally those made for him in Rome by Angelo, design consultant to the company.
Everything is made to the store's specifications and 92 percent of it is made in Britain. Sieff figures the 200,000 people involved in making things for Mark & Spencer are his responsibility -- and also his customers.
"we have to keep the dynamic and vital textile and clothing industry going. It's one of the biggest employers of labor in the United Kingdom," Sieff says.
If Sieff has continued to build the store as a popular place to shop, he has also made it a desirable place to work because of its liberal employment policy and generous perks.
In fact, 900 of its 40,000 employes work in the personnel department. He calls them "staff management" with the responsibility for the "well-being, progress, encouragement and instructive criticism. The result is a very dedicated staff."
Sieff will preach what he practices when he makes his maiden speech (in a St. Michael's suit, of course) later in the present session of the House of Lords.
"there is no future for democracy, as the United States and Britain understand it, unless you can have good human relations in industry," says Sieff firmly.
All the same, his stores have not been immune to the downward business trend in the current British economy. "the problem today is the shortage of money. With the payments you have to make on taxes, rates (local taxes), mortgages, travel, which people have not given up, and food, there is not much left for clothing," he says. And while he says his stores have recently brought prices down, he still expects increases of 7 percent on clothing this fall compared with 12 or 13 percent a year back.
"we are becoming a high-cost country," says Sieff, adding that this is one reason even the Arabs are beginning to cut back.
Just the same, Sieff says, he was on the main floor of his Marble Arch store recently when an Arab was making some purchases. "and I'll take this entire rack," the Arab said to the sales person, pointing to a rack of nightdresses. Then he pointed out three additional racks that he would purchase as well, totaling, by Sieff's estimate about $10,000.
"but you know, sir," said the sales person, "these are all different sizes."
"so are my women," the customer answered nonchalantly.