PRET A PORTAS: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARY PORTAS FOR THE OPENING OF HER SHOP AT HOUSE OF FRASER. BY TAMARA CINCIK.
Mary Portas is a brilliantly British phenomenon. She transformed Harvey Nichols into the shop we all wanted to spend in; then she marched onto our TV sets, teaching her retail mantras to failing businesses, the charity market. From OAPs working in charity shops, to overly hair-gelled estate agents, her refreshingly real retail prowess made for gripping viewing, as we saw her map out how they could improve their businesses, we all felt her verve, her potent power at seeing where things could improve and wanted so much for them to listen.
Now with her store-within-a-store at House of Fraser on Oxford Street, Mary has identified a gap in the mid-market high street here in the UK, the over 40s stylish woman. Cecilia Chancellor is the model: a face at once familiar to anyone who remembers ‘The Face’ or my old boss the talented stylist Anna Cockburn’s 90’s fashion shoots and I think the perfect fit for Mary’s store and its image. En route to a Cornish weekend away she kindly answered a few questions about the store and why someone like me (a new mother with so little time to shop, that service now more important than ever) might like to go there.
1) Mary Portas at House of Fraser is a new collaboration for Mary, in that it brings her manifesto – her Maryness to Oxford Street, to a department store and therefore to a mass market who know and love her from her TV shows. How different do you think this is from what is on offer currently on Oxford’s Street, or indeed ‘the’ high street?
Mary: Because I’ve created a curated space; everything in it has been edited down for grown up women in mind. Where there’s just too much stuff in the shops my space cuts through all of that to exactly what women need and want. Then the design of the shop is hugely important; the space and the staff is all geared towards a great experience. You’ve got to see it and feel it to totally get it. Bring your baby in, the staff will take care of you and him and give you coffee….
2) What I love about Mary is her direct no-nonsense charm: she gets straight to the point and we admire her all the more for it. It became a saying in our house: ‘what would Mary say?’ when we experienced bad service in a shop or restaurant. With online shopping so prevalent now, is service even more important for retail’s survival? Will we pay a little more for a little more?..
Mary: Service is a no brainer. Customers want service that includes knowledge. The staff in the Mary shop had an exam before they were allowed near the shop floor. When they serve you, they will be able to tell you everything about everything in the shop; right down to how the shoes were made, and the essential oil in my candles and the story behind each one.
3) The over 40’s woman Mary has identified is a largely untapped resource in fashion, which I agree is more fool the industry, as these are the women whose kids have grown up, who have worked hard and
have more money available to shop. What do you feel are the differences in their needs and wants from a shopping experience and how are you satisfy this?
Mary: This is the no bullshit audience. They want quality at a
reasonable prince, they want sexy shoes that won’t kill their feet,
they want modernity and style that reflects where they’ve got to in
their life and their achievements. Its not twee. Its slick and cool.
No-one on the high street is doing this.
4) My mother is an extremely glamorous 60 year old: ex rocker, child of the 60’s; well-versed in the ways of boutique shopping, as she started with Biba and Bus Stop. These babyboomers are the ones with
the cash, more than my generation are in lots of cases AND they are eternally youthful, way more than their war bride parents were. However they don’t like showing their knees and i saw alot of above
the knees looks on your website. Is this something, along with the arm coverage Mary has identified, which you are intending to add into the collections?
Mary: You can’t lump 40 year olds next to sixty year olds. Melanie is 40 next year! I’m sure you are in your mid thirties, you would not want the same things as someone twenty years older than you, it’s about a spectrum. There are a few above the knee dresses because the audience is grown up women; and not everyone wants to cover their knees! There are also below knee dresses; structured high-waisted leggings that are like spanx for your lower half, and pencil skirts that hit below the knee, as well as wide leg trousers. Later in the season, I’m proposing chic tunics to wear with those structured leggings and it is such a good look on a grown up woman. So many people are asking about this; I’m not dressing geriatrics. I want modern women through the door; if you don’t like your knees, that where the super high denier tights I’ve come in. My hosiery collection is designed to go with the dresses; the colours are great.
5) I love the collaborations with British brands, such as Clarks and Biba. What more are in the pipeline?
Terry de Havilland perhaps, Eley Kishimoto? For those of us who like our fashion more edgy than Clarks can offer, but still want it age appropriate and fabulous?
Mary: I haven’t collaborated with Biba; Biba is a sub-brand of House of Fraser’s and nothing to do with me! Working with Clarks has been a phenomenal experience for all of uson both sides, and the whole point is that my shoes look nothing whatsoever like trad Clarks. The Clarks elements incorporated into myshoes is the high quality production values, old-school workmanship,and best of all the inbuilt comfort technology. We’ve developed our own colours, leathers, and lasts. This is Clarks, but not as you know it.
6) Christian Lacroix once told me that women over 60 tend to stop buying fashion. What can you do to entice them back into your shop?
Mary: Nothing, I’m not trying to entice anybody over 60. I’m trying to entice women with modern minds who don’t go around with a number attached to their sense of who they are.
7) What trends can you see translating from the catwalk into your store, ie appropriate for the market you have identified, in the next season?
Mary: I don’t see this market as a sub-group who are inspired by different trends than the rest of the market. This market is living in the same cultural landscape as everyone else; their needs are just slightly different, their desires are more sophisticated, and they put up with less crap because they can spot it a mile off. These are women, who if they had the budget would be shopping at Prada, Marni, Jil Sander, Donna Karan and DvF. There is nothing out there for them at a mid-to-premium high street level. My sister is at the top of her profession in the NHS; but she could never stretch her salary to Prada, only on big birthdays. When she came to my shop she was like a kid in a candy store. We’ve already set down some of our Spring 2012 trends. We’re feeling for sleek 1990’s inspired modern sporty silhouettes; we’ve got some spectacular prints in development with a contemporary artist, and there is a definite 1930s feel of opulence and elegance in the air inspired by the chic of Nancy Cunard and Diana Vreeland.
8) Do you intend to take this to other stores after London?
Mary: Yes. Manchester is next.
9) How hard is service with a smile?
Mary: I only employ happy people, service with a smile comes
naturally to them.