Mary Portas, Queen of Shops, dresses the Surrey woman
- Credit: Archant
Mary Portas took the make-over to a whole new level with her dual attack on the nation’s frumpy forty-somethings and its ailing high streets. Now, the government’s shopping tsar is back in Surrey celebrating her clothing label’s first birthday, reviewing the regeneration plans and – in typically feisty form – confronting her critics head on
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2013
The auspices were not good. As Mary Portas disembarked from the Guildford train, camera crew in tow, to check out the town's House of Fraser store with a view to showcasing her new clothing label there, she raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I suppose I had this vision in my head – London, New York, Paris, Milan. Guildford doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?” she said archly. Her clothing label, Mary, designed to meet the needs of ‘sexy, fabulous, innovative women’ in their late 30s and 40s, had been launched amid a blaze of flashbulbs at the chain’s flagship Oxford Street store in the autumn of 2011. Now, after rosy sales figures, her House of Fraser bosses were keen to push it out to the provinces – and it was decided that Guildford should be her first port of call.
Mary, 52, wasn’t so sure, but agreed to do a recce and was pleasantly surprised. Then she bumped into a woman in her 50s trailing disconsolately around ladies’ fashions, who confirmed her view that Guildford was, indeed, the way to go.
“She’d completely lost her way and had no idea what look to get,” says Mary, who is firmly of the view that women of a certain age are being ignored by the youth-focused high street. “So I dressed her in my new range. She couldn’t believe that she’d look great in the dress length I showed her, but it was really transformative. And I left with a really warm feeling about Guildford.”
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The return to Guildford
This month, to mark the Guildford boutique’s first anniversary, Mary will be back at the store to host a lunch and to talk through her vision. Her three-step formula – one part simple chic, one part edge, then decorate – is fool proof, she insists.
“It’s like creating a beautiful home. It’s about bringing classics and the most beautiful basics, then adding a little edge – which might be through the shoes, the colour or cut of the dress – and decorating with a great piece of jewellery. On top of that, I believe in fabulous haircuts. A lot of women seem to think that if they just keep their hair long it will keep them looking youthful, but I don’t believe that.”
She’s also a staunch advocate of the three-quarter length sleeve (for covering up those bingo wings) and has even introduced a range called The Armery – basically, sleeves you can buy separately to wear under short-sleeved tops if you don’t want to show off your arms at all. Scoop necklines are another no-brainer, she adds, drawing the eye away from problem areas.
Mind you, she has her detractors. Some argue that Debenhams, Whistles, Zara, Banana Republic, Jaeger, Reiss and Cos were already doing a pretty good job, but Mary is unfazed. “There were places that did clothes, but nobody was actually pulling it all together, so you had to go to six different shops. My boutique is a one-stop shop and everything under this roof is for you – with service to match. You walk into Whistles and there’s a 19-year-old girl in the publicity photo.”
Oh, and then there’s her bête noir – Liz Jones of the Daily Mail. Casting her eye over Mary’s debut collection, Jones declared there were too many skinny trousers and sharp jackets for her liking – a difficult look to pull off if you’re a wee bit on the large side. As for the cuts, well, Jones argued that they were over-embellished, with too many twiddly bits. Mary snorts: “I’m not going to get into this because I’ll end up in a home. But even she gave me nine out of ten – and they don’t come more difficult than her!”
Besides, she believes customer feedback speaks for itself and keeps a close eye on Twitter, where customers are quick to tell her if something is wrong. And, of course, the cash till never lies. “We’re constantly in the top three products sold in House of Fraser which, in a year, ain’t bad,” she says, adding that ten more regional boutiques are being rolled out soon.
Hitting the high street
So having revamped the older woman, Mary – appointed shopping tsar by the Government in May 2011 – has now turned her attention to the ailing high street, though surely this is a makeover too far. With the growing popularity of e-commerce showing no sign of abating, many pundits anticipate the eventual disappearance of the local high street. But Mary prepared to do battle with her legendary Boadicean zeal. Her recommendations, dubbed the ‘Portas Plus’ plan, included a £10m High Street Innovation Fund to return empty shops to use, cash rewards for locations delivering the most creative and effective revitalisation projects and a National Markets Day to encourage entrepreneurs.
Croydon Old Town, badly affected by the London riots of 2011, was one of 12 town centres initially chosen to become a Portas Town, and awarded £100,000 to fund improvements. A core town centre team was created to oversee spending, and measures included the appointment of a manager to boost Surrey Street market, the creation of a community kitchen area near the market where workers and residents could relax, and initiatives to encourage landlords and property management organisations to fill empty retail units.
But though Mary toured Croydon with Prince Charles in September last year to see how the initiatives were being implemented, she is reluctant to discuss the Croydon scheme, arguing that every town faces different issues and it would be wrong to “shoot from the hip”. Eventually, however, she agrees to talk in general terms.
Much of the problem, she feels, is that people have lost a sense of belonging. “What happened in Croydon was that we had a disenfranchised people who just didn’t think this town was for them,” she says of the riots. “At the heart of the high street’s problem is how we bring back a sense of people wishing to work together to rebuild their towns.
“If a retail property is empty, then let’s encourage landlords to take a risk and let it out, rent-free for the first six months. Then get the people of the town, who would normally never have an opportunity to sell or create something, to do it up – because the minute you start putting life into somewhere, you create a footfall and a business model can thrive on the back of it.”
Back to the future
Some remain cynical. Peter Box of the Local Government Association claims the pilot simply tinkers around the edges and points out that similar initiatives have failed. While veteran retailer Bill Grimsey, former chief executive at DIY chains Wickes and Focus, argues that trying to recreate high streets of old is a waste of time because consumers don’t want them. “We have to stop harking back to the past and get on with working out what we need in the town centres of the future,” he says.
Mary is unimpressed. “I’d love to know who he thinks is harking back to the past. We know the traditional high street has gone. We know it’s not about nostalgia. It just bores me when I hear these quotes. But if the high street is dead, tell me why Apple – one of the world’s most successful businesses – is investing in stores. It’s because they understand that the future of retail is about experience, interaction, specialism and great service.
“We’re human; we like to get out. And once someone starts offering something new on the high street, people will come flooding back. If someone had predicted 15 years ago that we’d be inundated with coffee shops, we wouldn’t have believed them. But somebody created a new way of that happening. Now it’s up to government, both nationally and locally, to think creatively to allow the new to come on. I look to the future. I’m bored with cynicism.”
Suddenly, with great urgency, Mary calls time on the interview. “I have to go my darling...” she says, with characteristic firmness. And with a flick of her trademark red bob, she heads back to her office to fight another battle.
Word on the streets
While Mary Portas may have her hands full with her Portas Pilots, here we speak to five people with their fingers on the pulse of their Surrey towns and villages to find out how they are coping in the current economic climate and what the future holds for their high streets
“The last 10 years have seen many changes on the high street, with the most dramatic and noticeable in the last five years since the financial crisis began,” says @BansteadHighSt, the currently anonymous twitter campaigner promoting the village’s new buy local campaign. “Rather than the demise of the independent retailer, it has been the chains that have suffered here. By offering boutique services, the local independents are making the most of their most valuable commodity, personal touch. We have also been trying to drive the Buy it in Banstead campaign through social media to reach the masses.
“The prognosis is good and, in our opinion, the boutique will thrive as big brands struggle to differentiate – with more of their business going on-line. Essentially it will become samey across brands as major retailers fight to provide a ‘single customer experience’. The boutique, however, by definition, has to be both close to brand and customer.”
“Our High Street has not changed much with the multiple retailers (Boots, WHSmith etc) in the last decade but the independents have changed their attitude to what is needed by the customer,” says John Taylor, president of Godalming Chamber of Commerce. “Godalming is different to many high streets in having about 80% independent shops. The biggest challenge is convincing the public that the internet is not the answer to everything. You’ll struggle to order paint, made to measure blinds, feel the grip of a hammer and see how that clothing looks on you online – quality of service will still win through. I feel that the future depends on the government. When asked for support for our campaign to stop Tesco opening on the edge of town, taking business away from the High Street, only local MP Jeremy Hunt went out of his way to help. The other problem for many towns is the parking charges and business rates. We are currently working on pop-up shops, which could be a response to empty premises.”
“Our High Street in Reigate has changed for the better over the last ten years, in my opinion,” says Shirley Cox, chairman of Reigate Business Guild. “At one time there were many derelict and empty shops but now we have hardly any. As soon as one becomes vacant it is snapped up straight away. Yes, we do have our fair share of eateries and tasteful shops but that is the beauty of our town. We strive to maintain the balance of luxury and necessity. The only worry we have is that rents are still continuing to rise and we are losing some of our independents. Although we would not want to see too many multiples in our High Street, they do keep Reigate alive and buoyant and our diversity continues to attract new visitors and shoppers. I am positive that we will retain the success and vibrancy we have strived to create for many years to come.”
“Our area’s high streets have held onto or improved their respective characters in recent years,” says Anne Newton, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce for The Borough of Richmond upon Thames. “But, of course, the national trend is no different here, just less extreme. The biggest challenges remain online trends, high property occupancy costs and a difficult economic climate. There have still been notable success stories recently. To name just a few – Olivers in Kew, A Cena in Richmond and East Twickenham, Cook and Garcia in Richmond, Sandys fishmonger in Twickenham, Teddington Cheese, So Jewellery in St Margarets... and there are more. In the future the high street will continue to change and at an accelerated pace. We have to adapt to prosper.”
“Guildford seems to defy the economic gloom and continue to trade well from the retail point of view,” says Kevin Lorimer, chairman of Guildford Town Centre Management. “Recent collapses of HMV, Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster make grim headlines but Guildford generally manages to re-let the empty units within a relatively short time. It does, of course, remain a challenging environment but clearly there is a lot of faith in the future of Guildford Town Centre, as shown by the huge investment in the Friary 18 months ago and the future investment by Waitrose to come. The redevelopment of North Street would help to make Guildford the capital shopping centre of the south. Becoming a Business Improvement District recently also gives us a five year future for marketing initiatives and business support through the Experience Guildford group.”
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“Banstead Village appears to be thriving mostly – lots of little independent shops have sprung up and it’s very difficult to park because it is so busy,” says Lindy Williamson. “I don’t think we really need any generic cafes though as Cafe Italia is so much nicer and has great service.”
“I shop in Camberley and recently we have lost clothes shops, Homebase, Jessops, HMV, Barratts shoes, Comet, La Senza... to name a few,” says Sally Medcalf. “Our outdoor high street has a small selection of shops, which are outnumbered by the boarded up shop fronts (an attempt has been made to make them look nice with life-size photos of real shops on the boards!). Useful, day-to-day stores seem to have been replaced with beautiful but very expensive alternatives in places.”
“On Epsom Downs we have a brilliant butcher, Buckley’s, whose meat is tender and price competitive,” says Jo Forrest. “I rarely buy any from the supermarket now. I enjoy shopping in the chains for clothes though. I like to try things on in the shop and enjoy the whole experience. There should be room for all tastes, budgets etc.”
“Reigate looks good – but it’s more style over substance,” says Suzan Gunnee. “Too many places to eat and high-end ladies fashion stores; not enough other shops to make it the only place you need on a Saturday. No bookshop! Perhaps that’s the way they’re all destined to go.”
“Tadworth has everything you need in walking distance,” says Beverley Prideaux. “Great greengrocer with helpful staff; I ask for a box of veg and fruit and pick it up on a Saturday but they deliver as well. Wonderful fishmongers, Anthony Kay, who are always good for something inspirational; Alligator Pear for all those last minute gifts or a little treat for yourself; and Chalet Bakery for fresh bread on a Saturday morning. Five pubs, four restaurants – what more would you want?”
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