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She used her considerable retail skills to transform Harvey Nichols, but it’s as TV’s Mary, Queen of Shops that Mary Portas has found her true vocation, combining her first love of acting with her business talents. Sarah Butler meets the straight-talking guru
You might expect lunch with a fashionista to be something of a non-event. A light salad and a mineral water, perhaps. Luckily, one thing that Mary Portas is sure she is not, is a fashionista.
Portas may be a fashion icon for the fortysomething woman, but she is first and foremost a successful businesswoman with a reputation for straight talking. Still, bang on time for our meeting at Baker Street restaurant Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, Portas looks just as glamorous as she does in Mary, Queen of Shops, the BBC television series in which she advises independent fashion stores on how to revive their businesses.
Sporting a Louis Vuitton handbag, dramatic Liberty necklace and skin-tight trousers, she is happy to strike a pose for our photographer. Bantering with the staff, Portas is clearly a regular at the restaurant. She says she loves the friendly atmosphere reminiscent of restaurants in New York or Paris, but Galvin’s main appeal is the ‘bloody brilliant’ service – and that’s quite a compliment from a woman who admits she is ‘definitely the first to complain’. She says: ‘I think we lack service in retail quite badly and I’m obsessed by it.’
A particular bugbear is upmarket restaurants that lack a sommelier, whose skill she describes as ‘like going into a great boutique where they say “try this on, believe me it will fit”.’ Accordingly, Alfonso Egea, Galvin’s Spanish sommelier, is asked to choose wines to accompany each course. Portas orders endive, walnut and Roquefort salad for her first course – ‘it’s the best,’ she enthuses. For the main course and dessert – yes dessert! – she takes the recommendation of our waiter and praises both to the rafters.
For Portas, such personal service should be a given in any store or restaurant. ‘We are living in an age where people will buy from the internet and unless you make their social time an experience, either shopping or food, why would people go out?’
She believes that retailers will have to make more effort in the future. ‘We’ve got a shopper coming over the horizon who is going to take their time and be much more qualitative in their thinking. The big retailers will have to deliver more of a service-based experience, and specialist stores will become popular again.’
As for the luxury market, ‘I’m not sure we know what luxury is tomorrow,’ she says. ‘Luxury will be those things which have a much greater meaning in our life. I think we are going to lose things which are about ridiculous bling.’
One of Portas’s favoured ways to relax is enjoying good food and wine. ‘That could be anywhere. It’s about a time and a place and the people,’ she says. Her love of food was kick-started when she helped launch Harvey Nichols’ Fifth Floor restaurant and food hall in the early 1990s with chef Henry Harris. ‘I went on this journey of total obsession with food and drink,’ she says.
When it comes to cooking at home, Portas admits that her partner, Grazia fashion features editor Melanie Rickey, does most of it. However, she says her mother taught her to bake and she has taken pleasure in passing on those skills to her two children.
Portas’s mother died when she was 16 and her father two years later, leaving her to care for her younger brother. She had to give up a place at RADA and her dreams of becoming an actress. Instead, she found herself on a graphic design course at Watford College of Art, which she hated, although it did lead to a spell of work experience at Harvey Nichols.
‘It was like coming home,’ she says, ‘with fabulous queens mincing around dressing windows. I had the best two weeks, and I felt, “Now I know what I am going to do – this is retail and this is theatre at its best.”’
She talked her way into a traineeship at Harrods, moved to Topshop and 10 years later was back at Harvey Nichols as head of display and visual merchandising. She joined the board at just 30, and was credited with helping to turn the store’s fortunes around with some high fashion rebranding, before quitting to start up the advisory business Yellowdoor.
Her work with brands, from Louis Vuitton to high street stores such as Oasis, led to her TV slot, and despite the potential tabloid fodder of a split with her husband to move in with a woman, Portas’s in-your-face attitude has made her one of the nation’s girl crushes.
Portas feels as if she has found her vocation and we can expect to see a lot more of her on TV this year. But then what? Given the growing band of fortysomething Portas impersonators stalking the streets, what about starting her own fashion brand? ‘One day,’ she says, but right now she couldn’t squeeze it into her very full diary.
Still, she is keen to inspire more creative dressing among working women. ‘I look at The Apprentice and think “why do they always dress like blokes?” I think if you talk sense and you look fabulous, people take you seriously. And fabulous depends on you as a stylish individual and your expression of that. It’s about confidence.’ It’s clear, as she holds court, that confidence is not something Portas lacks.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009