Mary puts passion back into fashion

Mary Portas believes successful future fashion careers are likely to involve more marketing than pure design - which is good news for the 40 fashion marketing graduates from Northumbria University who will be meeting the industry at the forthcoming River Island Student Graduate Week in London, starting on June 3.

Mary Portas believes successful future fashion careers are likely to involve more marketing than pure design - which is good news for the 40 fashion marketing graduates from Northumbria University who will be meeting the industry at the forthcoming River Island Student Graduate Week in London, starting on June 3.

Successful fashion marketing can create a successful brand, irrespective of the design qualities. And these are the people who will devise cunning ways to sell us fashion, in retail design, window displays, advertising campaigns and through inventive public relations.

Retail guru Mary Portas is on a mission to help the independents fight back against the all-consuming high street Goliaths in a new troubleshooting TV series. Vicky Pepys finds out more.

Why is it that some fashion sells and some doesn't?

It's how it's `packaged'. And that doesn't mean a carrier bag. It's the difference between seduction and rejection. We are charmed into some stores and give others only a cursory glance.

A new TV troubleshooter programme, in the same vein as Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and music promoter Harvey Goldsmith's Get Your Act Together, brings yet another guru to our screen, this time in aid of our ailing independent fashion boutiques.

Many will say this fashion retail guru is long overdue.

And she is one who might change the face of fashion up and down the country more effectively than anything we've seen before.

She is retail strategist Mary Portas, and she is the star of a new four-part BBC2 programme, Mary Queen of Shops, starting on May 31.

The series promises to be compulsory viewing both for those in the business, and everyone who loves to shop but doesn't know why.

Mary talks about shopping in the way that others talk about a love affair: enticement, excitement, and seduction smatter her sentences. This woman has studied shopping and made it into a science. But it's a science based on passion.

"My theory is that we are now a nation of voracious shoppers who have forgotten how to be good shopkeepers," she says.

We're all familiar with the current high street which often resembles a battlefield as stores vie for our attention.

The high street giants versus the smaller, independent boutiques is an unfair contest.

Yet the smaller independent, because of its freedom, has a character and individuality that's much appreciated by those who don't want to dress or behave like clones.

How such shops survive, however, is largely due to their appeal and the service they offer.

And yet so many fall by the wayside, citing both high rents and a downward trend in retail.

In her series, Mary questions boutique owners on their current offers, both in terms of product and the store itself, dissecting problems, turning them around and attracting new custom.

Does she see her ideas as revolutionary or common sense? "It was revolutionary to some of the shops we featured in the programme," says Mary. "But total common sense to me."

The tragedy, she explains, is that some independents are `lost.' The answer lies partly in being aware of how much the current retail climate has changed, and then `riding' this wave effectively.

"It's not enough to have the attitude `we're local, we're nice to people', anymore," says Mary.

"Fashion by its nature is contemporary; independents have to be ahead and different, they have to have the eye, the understanding, the passion and the hunger and to be able to identify who they're appealing to."

Mary has approached each of the businesses featured "not in any old dried-up marketing speak, but by going in and saying, `let's look at this, why would I want to go into your shop? Why would I want to buy from you'? and identifying for them which so-called `fashion tribes' are going to be their target audience."

Mary Queen of Shops and an accompanying book, How to Shop with Mary Queen of Shops, has taken two years of thinking and planning and nine months of filming. Each of the stores featured has reacted differently. "Some said `help me'!; some said `we don't need help', but I had to point out to them `well you're losing £700 a week, let's try the question again'." Mary has her own mantra to create a successful selling formula. "Product and price, place and promotion, and people - the most essential to retail, which stands for the people running the shop but also the people you are hoping to attract."

There's a danger that this formula, used on its own minus the individual creativity which Mary brings to each project, might lead to a spate of costly disasters by those who get it wrong - again.

"Oooh, don't try this at home," laughs Mary. "But, seriously, what I'm hoping is that some will learn from it and some will regain their passion. I hope that's what will happen.

"When you look at designers' own shops, they're a natural follow-on of the personality of the designer," she adds, talking of one of the featured retailers who had lost her spark, weighed down by the minutiae of detail and administration she faced in running her own business.

As well as giving the store a complete makeover and introducing her to new design lines, the owner received a personal mini-makeover. "I gave her back her spark," Mary says, and consequently revived the whole business.

Is the clothing almost of secondary importance for a store that has a magnetism which draws people in and makes them want to spend?

"One of the most exciting shops just opened in the UK - Abercrombie and Fitch - is upbeat, sexy, dynamic and successful. Yet the clothing itself... who's noticed the clothing?" asks Mary.

Mary may be an already familiar face to Saturday Telegraph Magazine readers. Her Shop! column, which has been running for two years, allows her to review retail outlets in what she calls the `real world'.

Think of a spontaneous visit to Fat Face in Bath, rather than a pre-arranged flagship store meeting. And, like a restaurant or theatre critic, she will say `rubbish!' if it's deserved.

What kind of reaction does she receive from the featured companies? "Some tell me I'm wrong; others say `thanks, we've been trying to tell our bosses this for years'."

It must be tempting to revisit them to see if any of her suggestions have been taken on board, but her agenda is too full.

Mary's original career, creating window displays for Harrods, widened to include the whole retail experience as creative director at Harvey Nichols, where she was responsible for the look of the entire store (their windows became a talking point in London).

She's always been aware that a visual approach is the initial enticement to make people take notice, but it's just one piece in the jigsaw.

When not filming and writing, Mary runs a successful retail branding and communications agency, Yellowdoor, with four divisions (public relations, creative, events, and retail strategies) which offer a lifeline for any new, inexperienced or ailing fashion concerns.

Clients have included Clarks, Oasis, Swarovski, Dunhill and Boden.

Mary confesses her only experience of the North-East has been with Gateshead's Top Shop early on in her career, and she promises a long-overdue visit.

Will she ever have her own shop? "No, no, no," she cries. "Too much hard work!"

So, how would she sum up the current fashion independent retail conundrum?

"There's not enough people loving it," she says.

Mary Queen of Shops could be where the revolution starts.

How to Shop with Mary Queen of Shops, is published by BBC books; £14.99.

Kimberley Beaumont, 22, from Mirfield, West Yorkshire.

An A-level art student in Huddersfield before joining Northumbria's marketing course, Kimberley knew the course presented opportunities to incorporate graphics, design, buying, illustration, sourcing, trend reportage and textile design.

"The most interesting thing for me has been learning how all aspects of the industry fit together," she says.

She's come-up with a range of `craft-inspired' clothing called Best Before. An eight-collections-a-year range, it is intended to create the idea that garments have a sell-by date, a `best before' way of thinking which will encourage customers to buy as quickly as they can.

She has worked out its potential selling position in Selfridges, London, with a calendar of when each new mini-collection should cross over with stock in other branches. She worked out a range plan, public relations and advertising imagery and packaging, even down to the price label's design.

She sees the collection sitting well in independents. "I love independents for the way they consider the layout, decoration and furniture. I like stores to have an atmosphere and exciting window displays, like artistic installations, and I like stores that are a little bit lived in. I hate shop assistants following you around, re-spacing hangers on rails 2cm apart.

"I'm attracted by friendly service and a more unique experience. My favourite store if money was no object? Liberty in London.

"And my favourite store closer to home? Fenwick. It's a bit of a one-stop shop for young adult brands, although I still can't really afford it."

Rob Freeman, 23, from Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Rob cites the Collette independent store in Paris as his favourite.

He says: "The experience of clothes, music, jewellery and books altogether is great. The first thing that attracts me to a shop is the way the product is merchandised. If I see an outfit I like in the window, I will try and have a closer look."

His own shopping habits? "I buy basics, Levis and T-shirts from Gap," he says but finds Reiss offerings attractive. "I think they are the best in that they have a strong masculine look, nice detailing, fit and colours.

"I do like the odd piece of sportswear, so vintage shops are great for this. If I have the money, I will invest," he concludes.

Rob's final project in his Northumbria University fashion marketing course is a menswear brand called Avatar.

"It's an amalgamation of performance design (waterproof and windproof) mixed with traditional design details and silhouettes. It's a range for independent menswear stores rather than the high street, because of price," explains Rob.

His collection has a rather exclusive edge. While he has been studying fashion marketing, he sees his future more in design. Yet he sees the course as being invaluable.

"The options covered on it are fantastic and create more of an all-rounder person. I think that (doing) fashion design would have enabled me to create a catwalk collection, whereas now I am doing more of a mini-capsule collection."

And one with a very clear idea of where it's going.

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