Mary Portas is “ready to be judged”. Brave words, and her own.
Her latest venture is a fashion collection that works for women over 40. Perilous terrain for the most seasoned retailer, I’d say, let alone someone who has spent much of her career dishing out advice to other shopkeepers.
“I’m 51 on Wednesday. I don’t want to look like a whore or a granny,” quotes Mary from one of the many letters she receives on the topic of sartorial disappointment.
Portas, also 51, says she feels the same and she appears to mean it. Here she is, brimming with gung-ho self-confidence and shaking things up on the high street.
It’s a perfectly targeted show with only one off-key moment, so I’ll just get it out of the way before I sing Mary’s praises.
Mary wants to create a collection where “you” (that’s us) “can go and feel confident that every piece I have chosen has been edited with you in mind. Not some teenager. With you (us again) in mind”.
But I had my head in my hands when she revealed her first designs to the mild-mannered team at House of Fraser.
Stylish, on-trend and based around a leggy, pin-thin, flat-chested amazon. Who does that remind you of? Next time you’re in your local supermarket, Mary, ask yourself how many women over 40 look like “you”.
Luckily, Portas has the brains and the humility to run her ideas by the toughest of critics – in this case a group of middle-aged “ladies” from different regions who represent her target demographic.
They were great. I hope we see lots more of Jane (54), Genevieve (42), Jane (50) and Pen (50) with their witty asides. Their job is to keep Mary grounded, so they created two moulds of their own bodies out of gaffer tape and paper to remind her of what sort of figure she is supposed to be dressing.
The stunt worked. Admitting that she didn’t have the expertise to devise the cuts that would flatter her curvaceous customers, Mary called in the experts, namely top-notch designer Antonio Berardi.
Mary’s unique selling point is her common sense. She has lots of exciting ideas but she regularly touches base with her customers, and she listens to them.
She also likes her staff to be happy. I’d love to hear what her inscrutable business partner Peter Cross has to say on the importance of universal joy at Portas Inc., but it’s a good principle and one she wants to carry over to the shopping aisles.
No more stuck up fashionistas who think they’re above being polite to anyone over 30. Mary aims to make her shoppers feel relaxed and affirmed. I’m all for that.
Can Mary really achieve her goal? I hope so. The first show filled me with optimism.
It’s just strange that so simple an objective as designing fashionable, affordable clothes for women over 40 has eluded most other retailers so far.