Mary Portas: There’s something about Mary

Mary Portas knows rather a lot about shops: after all, she’s turned around the fortunes of many of the best-known brands in fashion. Now the retail guru’s no-nonsense approach has made her the nation’s latest reality TV star. Esther Walker met her
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These are lean times for retailers. The modern consumer rarely needs to go shopping – rather, he or she wants to go shopping; and once recession bites, "retail therapy" can look about as desirable as that never-used gym membership.

Never before has the high street needed someone like Mary Portas.

Portas, most familiar now from her BBC2 show Mary, Queen of Shops, made her name (as revered in retailing as Louis Vuitton or John Lewis) when she turned around the fortunes of a fusty little department store in Knightsbridge called Harvey Nichols in the early Nineties. In her TV series – one of the summer's sleeper hits – she performs the same magic trick on shoddy shops up and down the country.

Portas's transformation of Harvey Nichols was no mean feat. Back then, the UK was in the grip of a recession – and she got people in to the store and spending just by using nothing more complicated than the shop's window displays.

"I used to put absolutely crazy things in the window," she says. "It wasn't about selling a frock. It was about getting people through our door." One of her most famous window displays used mannequins to re-create famous pop bands. "One woman said to me: 'I've got no idea what those windows are supposed to mean, but I feel fantastic going in the shop.' And that's all I wanted."

Portas lounges at a conference table at the Goodge Street HQ of her retail consultancy, Yellow Door. Her lean, rock-chick figure is dressed in skinny jeans, a white shirt, a long, multi-stranded necklace and a ring the size of a chicken's egg on her right hand. She talks very fast and is at least six feet tall in her high-heeled boots. Her trademark sleek auburn bob, cut at John Frieda, gleams in the sunlight. She stalks and slinks through the room graceful as a greyhound, beady as a magpie.

"At times like this, most retailers panic and get pulled down into this black hole of fear and can't see a way out. I think that during the last recession people loved the fact that there was this bonkers shop on a corner of Knightsbridge that was all joy. Retailers just need to keep upbeat." The stores that will survive a recession, she says, are those which are either bargain-basement or selling top-end luxury: to the cash-strapped consumer, anything in between just isn't value for money.

Portas is a natural on television; it makes sense that once upon a time she wanted to be an actress. She is tough on the hopeless shopkeepers ("You don't do any particular thing well here"), throws out suitably catty asides to camera (holding a hideous lace dress: "God almighty. Imagine the wind up your parts wearing this round Cardiff") and looks a million dollars at all times. She styles herself, of course. This is a woman who never, ever wakes up and thinks, "I've got nothing to wear".

It makes marvellous TV. Although it is (as she says grimly) "genre" television, it appeals to the British viewing public's penchant for schadenfreude and fondness for colourful characters who've got answers. One recent episode was set in the Ascot boutique Blinkz, run by Amanda (a size 10 fitness instructor), which caters for ladies of a fuller figure. The only problem is that Amanda doesn't like fat people, ie her customers. "They don't like clothes made out of a thicker fabric because they sweat more," Amanda says blithely to camera. Portas's eyes saucer and her face falls as if she's been shot. "Oh my god, she's sizeist," she whispers urgently to the camera.

And now it seems that the public have taken to Portas's tough-love as much as they have to Super Nanny or Gordon Ramsay (in fact, Optomen, the producers of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, also make Mary, Queen of Shops). "I think I'm perceived as a confident woman, possibly tough, although actually I'm quite emotional," she says. "I'm strong and no-nonsense, but I'm also a super-sensitive family person. I've never wanted to be that sort of ball-breaking woman who sacrifices family or family happiness for her career. No way!"

*****

It emerged after her television debut that Portas, who was married for 13 years and has two children, Verity, 12, and Mylo, 14, now lives with a woman: Grazia's fashion features editor Melanie Rickey. One of her greatest achievements, Portas has said, was to negotiate an amicable divorce from her husband, Graham, a chemical engineer. Indeed, with her career and her cosy domestic situation, she does seem to have managed to have cracked the modern female dilemma of how to Have It All.

"There have been times when I've thought, 'God almighty, lie me down for a week and no one talk to me.' Or I've looked in my diary and thought, 'How am I going to clear all that?' But I genuinely think I've been able to both run my family and a successful business. I am so proud of my children. They're brilliant and we have a fantastic relationship. I know they get the most of me and the best of me and I get the best of them."

Meeting Portas, she clearly has no time for ego-maniacs or chauvinists. She is full of sympathy about my story of a run-in with Arcadia's billionaire boss, Sir Philip Green. I wrote a small diary item about him four years ago and he rang me up and gave me memorable hell about it.

"Oh yeah," she says, smiling kindly and rolling her eyes. "I wrote something a bit mean about BHS in a newspaper column and he was on the phone like that," she snaps the fingers of one hand and mimes holding a phone to her ear with the other.

But, she continues, whatever you think of Sir Philip, he and M&S's boss Stuart Rose exemplify how retail has become a modern and desirable creative industry for graduates. "There's a bit of money to be made and although, yes, it's about fashion, it's also about business. For people like Philip Green it's all about making a deal. Stuart [Rose] is slightly different, he's a bit more educated – I don't mean that in a patronising way – but they're both all about making a deal."

She thinks that some of the shopkeepers in her series would do well to grasp that. "They don't know they're going into a business. They think, 'Ooh, I Iike fashion, I'll open a boutique. And you think: 'Oh God! No, no, no.'"

One of five children, Mary was born in 1962 in Rickmansworth; her mother died when she was 16 and her father two years later. Her elder siblings were at university or working abroad and she was left on her own with her then 14-year-old brother Laurence.

"It was pretty hideous," she says. "I just somehow had to manage it all and not crumble. I look at my son Mylo and I think, 'Oh my god, that's how old Laurence was.' It makes me very upset. And at the time, I just didn't know how young we were! Why didn't anyone say: 'This is ridiculous!'? But we got on with it – and I believe it was the making of me.

"I've always been lively. But, being in that situation and having to cope with it all made me think: right, this is your world now, Mary."

So she might seem to come down hard on the hopeless shopkeepers in her programme, but it's only because she knows what it's like to stare penury in the face.

"Emotionally, making the programme is tough," she admits. "I am the last resort. I don't know of anyone who really wants to go on prime-time TV and air their dirty washing and be told that they're getting it all wrong."

****

The Portas family ploughed on through their hardship. After a few false career starts (neither acting nor art school agreed with her) Portas got a part-time job at Harrods, after stints at John Lewis and Topshop, working on the window displays. The part-time job turned into a full-time job and three years later she joined Harvey Nichols. As well as realising the new Harvey Nichols owner Dickson Poon's vision for a modern, upmarket department store with her far-out window displays, Portas pulled off a stunning public relations coup: the store featured prominently in Jennifer Saunders' new comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. As a result, Harvey "Nicks" became synonymous with over-the-top glamour, not to mention a hit comedy show. Everyone wanted a piece.

Portas's real success stems from her partnership with the international marketing genius Peter Cross, with whom she runs Yellow Door. Louis Vuitton, Miss Selfridge, Oasis and French Connection have all beaten a path to their door, wanting a touch of what Portas calls "pixie dust" – the magic combination of elements that turn a shop from dump into destination.

The problems presented by the shops in her series are drastic but pretty basic: dingy interior, drab window, unfashionable stock. What kind of problems does an established brand such as Oasis have?

"Most brands have a kind of emotional empathy and all I try to do is to connect that to the consumer. You've got all these brands on the high street jockeying for position and all trying to be different from each other and so much is about nuances. If you really look at all these fashion brands you end up thinking to yourself: well, what is the difference?

"I talked to Oasis mostly about focusing on the fact that they are only for women and they're a feminine brand and that they should develop that and separate themselves from something a bit more urban, like Topshop. I don't look at the product. I look at what the brand means to the consumer."

It's been a tough 10 years for brands like Oasis. It was, along with Kookai, Next and French Connection once the go-to shop for an 18-year-old with her allowance burning a hole in her pocket. Then came the triptych of Topshop, Hennes and Primark. Suddenly not just the 18-year-olds, but the 25-year-olds and the 40-year-olds, started abandoning the big hitters of the high street for these shops that sold clothes, of variable quality, at knock-down prices.

"Hennes I don't mind," says Portas. "There's a very sophisticated design team there and there always has been. You look at some of their stuff and you think: that's clever. It's when a shop is just turning the stuff over without a care for design, the environment or about selling. It just gets to me and it knackers the retail trade. I don't like it."

By this she means Primark, which in the week that we meet was the subject of the Panorama programme Primark: on the Rack, which exposed the shop as selling clothes produced by child labour.

"I don't know what's going to happen to Primark," she says. "I don't think even the consumers know. They're a funny bunch – if you ask them what they want, they invariably don't have a clue. I do point my finger at the fashion press for helping Primark become as big as it is. All that [puts on a snivelling voice] 'Primark is the new Prada' and 'Primarni' stuff is not funny.

"What's interesting about Primark is how many middle-class people are in there, buying for their kids. I've walked through Selfridges on a busy Saturday and all you see is those brown Primark bags going up and down the escalators. So all that stuff about Primark being democratic fashion for people who can't afford anything else is bollocks," she jabs a finger into the air in front of her and narrows her eyes. "It's. Just. Absolute. Bollocks."

"We've become so fast in the fashion industry that we've lost what fashion is all about. There is no anticipation of the season – there isn't really a season anymore. It's just Big Mac fashion. There's too much product out there, too much choice – and it's exhausting. I believe that there will start to be more specialist shops emerging; it's already happened to coffee! If someone once told you that in the future you'd spend £6 a day on coffee you'd have said, 'Don't be ridiculous!'" She pauses. "This is all just my feeling, though. None of it's proven." She starts laughing. "Ten years down the line someone's going to pull this piece out and say, 'Well she got that bloody wrong, didn't she?'"

Somehow, I doubt it. They wouldn't dare.

'Mary, Queen of Shops' continues on Monday, 9pm, BBC2

Crunch time

Mary Portas's tips on how to shop wisely this summer

* Sign up to your favourite stores' online newsletters: that way you'll be the first to know about their sales, new collections and special offers

* Spend less time with the sweaty crowds and do your research online before you leave the house. Don't be afraid to call ahead and have things put aside

* It's very easy to be seduced by all the lovely summer-wear, but keep an eye on the sale rails, which might just have that gem to complete your look come winter

* It's not a bargain if you wouldn't have wanted it at its original price. Don't buy things just because they're on sale

* Keep hydrated. Shopping in summer is an endurance test.

* Be careful about shopping on holiday. The floral poncho that looks so great on all the locals might not translate back on the cold streets of Britain

* Summer essentials like elegant, yet comfortable shoes and swimwear can be a nightmare to find. Enlist the help of an honest sales person who'll make sure you get the perfect fit

* The coolest time to shop is first thing in the morning, when both you and the staff are at their best

* Wear shoes and clothes that are easy to slip off, giving you less time in a hot changing room

* If you're shopping for a special event, take anything you want to co-ordinate with you to the store

* Don't stand for bad service. If they're rude, lazy, ignorant or all three, they don't deserve your custom

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