Can Mary Portas revive Britain’s lingerie industry?

The retail guru embarks on her latest challenge: to make our briefs hip again

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At her London HQ, Mary Portas is fizzing like a newly opened bottle of something carbonated – though, with the trademark hair, she’s more Lucozade than champagne.

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While she may look a bit scary-Mary-quite-contrary on the telly, she’s actually a bit of a kitten (OK, maybe a tiger cub) in the flesh. And here I’ll ’fess up: I’m not exactly a stranger to Mary, having giggled around her dinner table at the west London home she shares with her partner, fashion journalist Melanie Rickey, and Mary’s son and daughter from her first marriage.

However, this is the first time I’ve been in the office. The energy and warmth are infectious; a lot of stuff is getting done briskly, efficiently and (as Mary’s dog, Walter, weaves his way between the desks, tail wagging) with a sense of fun.

Success stories

With Mary Portas ubiquitous on our screens, it’s easy to forget she has a day job running the fashion and retail branding company Yellowdoor with her business partner; a demanding role she’s recently juggled with becoming David Cameron’s so-called “High Street Tsar”, advising the Government on retail regeneration via last year’s “Portas Review”.

Yet while there’s nothing Mary, 51, doesn’t know about shops and shopping (in the early 1990s she helped turn the hitherto off-the-fashion-radar department store Harvey Nichols into a properly Ab Fab destination – and Eddy and Patsy’s store of choice), the one-time wannabe actress has channelled these skills, and her defiantly no-nonsense attitude, into BBC2’s hit series Mary Queen of Shops, C4’s Mary Queen of Frocks and, now, the equally memorably titled three-parter Mary’s Bottom Line.

New challenge

So we’re here to talk about Mary’s pants. Or, more accurately, her efforts to create a hip British knickers brand by reopening a shuttered factory in Middleton, a rundown suburb of Manchester where 1,900 of its 2,710 population are out of work, making it statistically one of the worst-hit areas in the country for unemployment.

As Mary sets about creating eight full-time jobs, the first episode of the TV “journey” is compelling, entertaining and indeed the proverbial emotional roller coaster – not least for Mary.

Had the idea come about as a result of trying to get her own House of Fraser fashion line ‘Made in Britain’, as seen in last year’s Mary Queen of Frocks? “There was an element of that to begin with because we really tried for House of Fraser, but I couldn’t get it made in Britain to the level that I wanted, for the right price, so we went to Turkey. And though all my ‘home’ stuff and my young designers have been made in the UK, it’s been tough – especially on price.

“Then Channel 4 said, ‘We want to do this programme looking at bringing back British manufacturing. Do you think you can make a pair of jeans for the same price as Primark?’ And I just thought, ‘I don’t want to make a pair of jeans for the same price as Primark!’ so we left it for a while. Then I thought about it a bit more – and saw a gap: why don’t we have a famous knickers brand in this country? Australia has Bonds and aussieBum, America has Calvin Klein…”

Costs

For such a tiny sliver of fabric, it seems knickers are far more complex to create than we’d imagine – and pricey, too. “A designer-label knicker costs about £26, which is ridiculous – though that’s all about the brand. Then you’ve got high-street three-packs for £6, so there’s a big polarisation.

“What interested me was that there was nothing in the middle. I wanted a premium brand for a tenner. The costs come as a result of the number of pieces, the sewing, interlocking, the gusset, getting the right stretch.”

Roughly, the fabric accounts for 38% of the costs, 4% goes on packaging, 1% on transport, 17% on factory overheads, and a mighty 40% on labour. “It’s really quite complicated.”

I have to butt in (forgive me): “I wonder where the Great, British, global sporting/style ambassador David Beckham gets his highly publicised, newly launched pants line manufactured?”

Mary grins. “I’ll tell you: China – and for the same price as mine. Look, I won’t pretend I started off completely obsessed with knickers, but when I got into them [it’s impossible to keep the conversation double-entendre-free] I became obsessed.”

She pauses. “And I also cry every time I talk about this because the biggest thing about it has been the ability to manifest change, and the knock-on effects of that are great. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Integrity

That may be so, but I’m keen to know how she managed to maintain the integrity of something as worthwhile as setting up a factory and creating jobs for unemployed young people when the whole project came about as an idea for a television programme?

We see Mary in tears a couple of times during the first episode, so I figure this is something she will have thought about a lot. She nods so fervently her bob quivers.

“There’s nothing, not one thing, set up. I didn’t want the cameras following me when I was crying but they came after me – so yes, you’re feeling that yin-yang thing all the time. However, because of my acting background, I’m also absolutely obsessed by what makes people tick and so I do find that I manage to get the real ‘them’.

Lynn the factory manager

“With Lynn, the factory manager, I suppose part of me wanted her to be a Mr Fenner type [the old-school guvnor played by Peter Jones in 1960s sitcom, The Rag Trade], but she isn’t – and of course Lynn has worked brilliantly. She’s fantastic. You’ve got to believe in getting the best out of people and then that makes the show.”

In “real life” – ie without cameras around – Mary would presumably just employ the best people for the job yet, increasingly, documentary series demand we meet “characters” with a back story.

The danger is that real-life job interviews become cut-price X Factor auditions for youngsters whose desire for the proverbial 15 minutes of fame far outstrips their need for a pay packet.

Andrew and Lauren

Yet, in the event, Mary delivers us a “cast” who make great telly and great knickers. Keep an eye out for Andrew and Lauren – they may make you laugh and cry but (far more importantly) they’ll also have you rooting for them.

“Yes, Lauren came in like a Vicky Pollard from the North and you couldn’t help but think, ‘This is TV gold.’ But I also remember being that stroppy kid myself. In the end you have to go for a really truthful response rather than just working around the ‘characters’.

“With Andrew [an unemployed young father] he was a dream for TV, but then it turned out he also had an exquisite talent. I genuinely believe that if you’re very clear about your goals then the viewer ends up seeing something really natural.”

British pants

No doubt, she’s a great motivator. However, one of the surprising aspects of the show is just how difficult it is to make her knickers 100 per cent British. In fact, the threads aren’t and nor is the fabric the labels are printed on (though the printing is). The cardboard packaging is sourced in Europe.

But this is to split hairs; they’re mostly British pants, and that’s a start. And maybe even the start of something bigger than just smalls, for it turns out that Mary’s true passion is to use her (mostly) British pants to help “give back Britain a sense of its place, its heart and soul.

“Honestly, if somebody said to you, you can go and get those made in a sweatshop in China and you’ll pay five quid, or you can pay ten quid for better quality – and it is – while also keeping people in a job, if you can afford it, who wouldn’t want to do that? To actually regenerate something we’ve lost in this country?”

These are rhetorical questions because the facts speak for themselves. As recently as 20 years ago, 95 per cent of the UK textile industry was based in the north-west. But in the past ten years, more than half of all full-time jobs in the UK fashion and textiles industry have been lost, while employment in the industry continues to decline.

“Come and look at this! Isn’t it great?!” Mary says, beckoning me round to her side of the desk, where her computer displays a publicity picture of Mary striding forth, bearing a giant Union-Flagged pair of pants. It is indeed both Great and – given that she looks exactly like a super-stylish, über-cool Britannia – gloriously British.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 6 March 2012.

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Mary’s Bottom Line begins tonight at 9pm on Channel 4/C4HD