Debenhams traces its history back to 1778 when William Clark established a drapers store at 44 Wigmore Street in London's West End selling expensive fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols. In 1813 William Debenham invested in the firm which then became Clark & Debenham. The first store outside London was opened in Cheltenham in 1818, an exact replica of the Wigmore Street store. In the ensuing years the firm prospered from the Victorian fashion for family mourning by which widows and other female relatives adhered to a strict code of clothing and etiquette.

When Clement Freebody invested in the firm in 1851 it was renamed Debenham & Freebody. As well as its retail stores, a wholesale business was established selling cloth and other items to dressmakers and other large retailers. Many acquisitions of retail, wholesale and manufacturing businesses were undertaken in the remainder of the nineteenth century and offices opened in South Africa, Australia, Canada and China.

Acquisitions continued into the next century and in 1905 Debenhams Ltd. was incorporated. In 1919, the business merged with Marshall & Snellgrove and in 1920 purchased Knightsbridge retailer Harvey Nichols. Seven years later the involvement of the Debenham family finally ended and the business became a public company for the first time in 1928.

By 1950, Debenhams was the largest department store group in the UK, owning 84 companies and 110 stores. It continued to grow and in 1966 central buying was introduced for the first time.

1976 saw the acquisition of Brown's of Chester, the only store which retained its original name when all others were rebranded Debenhams in 1977 (this continues to be the case even today).

From 1985 to 1998, Debenhams was part of the Burton Group. During that time the business was repositioned with the introduction of exclusive merchandise – most notably Designers at Debenhams which was launched in 1993 – and a significant increase in the number of stores. In 1997 the first international franchise store opened in Bahrain.

Following demerger from the Burton Group, Debenhams was listed on the London Stock Exchange until 2003 when it was acquired by Baroness Retail Ltd. Debenhams returned to the London Stock Exchange in May 2006.

In September 2007, the Company acquired nine stores from Roches in the Republic of Ireland. In November 2009, Debenhams acquired Magasin du Nord, the leading department store chain in Denmark.

In February 2019, Debenhams announced a strategic sourcing partnership with global supply chain solutions provider Li & Fung. In April 2019, Debenhams plc entered administration and delisted. The operating businesses, under Debenhams Group Holdings Ltd, were acquired by a consortium of lenders, Celine UK NewCo 1 Ltd. Debenhams gained access to £200m of new funding and has embarked on a restructuring plan.

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