Founder of the Polly Peck fashion business who pioneered the concept of the shop within a shop
Raymond Zelker and his wife Sybil were the founders of the Polly Peck women’s fashion brand and, along with the success of their Central London store, pioneered the concept of the “shop within a shop” where they would establish branches of Polly Peck in large department stores.
Raymond Zelker was born in 1915 in the East End of London, the sixth and youngest child of Polish immigrant parents, who were market traders.
Zelker began his business in cramped first-floor premises above a bank, on the corner of Commercial Street and Spitalfields Market in the East End, in the mid-1930s. During the Second World War the company changed from ladies fashions to making canvas gas mask cases, but as the war came to a close, it reverted to fashion and needed larger premises and a base in the West End.
The story behind how his business got its distinctive name was explained in Zelker’s autobiography The Polly Peck Story. A lease was acquired on a shop in Regent Street. “Polly” was chosen because of the building’s proximity to a polytechnic and the “Peck” because it rhymed with tech. As it happened, the lease on the Regent Street premises, acquired during the war, was surrendered in 1946, the headquarters of Polly Peck then moving to larger showroom premises in nearby Conduit Street, from where it continued to trade for the next 30 years.
In the 1950s the business grew, together with the Zelkers’ concept of “the shop within a shop”, the first being in Harrods. As many as 120 such outlets followed throughout Britain with their management supervised by their daughter Elizabeth.
While always accepting that his wife’s design flair was the creative strength in their partnership, Zelker made the commercial decisions and in the late 1950s, the business was booming. There were 250 employees at its factory premises in Tottenham, North London, and 20 staff at the showroom in Conduit Street until, in 1957, another shop was added in Bond Street.
At that point it made sense to float the company and in 1959 it became one of the first fashion houses to be offered for flotation on the London Stock Exchange, with Susan Small and Alexon following swiftly.
With others in the fashion trade, Zelker was a founder member, and sometime chairman, of the Fashion House Group of London, its purpose being to promote British fashion. The group lasted for ten years and one of its promotions in Paris was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
But from the mid-1960s onwards, after almost three decades of growth, business began to slow down. Asil Nadir acquired a controlling interest in Polly Peck in 1979 and Zelker eventually resigned in 1982, although he and his wife continued to trade in the fashion business until the following year. He had various property interests and owned several horses, his interest in racing continuing until his death.
After the collapse of Nadir’s business empire and his much publicised flight from Britain in 1993, Polly Peck was frequently in the news, which rather obscured the many years of hard work by Raymond and Sybil Zelker in establishing the name.
Zelker’s wife predeceased him and he is survived by his two daughters.