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Mary Queen of Frocks

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Retail guru Mary Portas stakes her professional reputation on designing, launching and selling her own high-street fashion range exclusively aimed at women rather than girls

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      13.10.2011 12:27
      Very helpful



      Mary is good at what she does

      So, whose ego is running away with it more, Jamie Oliver or Mary Portas? Both are on our screens this month with their latest motivational lifestyle programs, allowing them to express their expertise and charisma, but more importantly plug and shift branded merchandise for Christmas. What Jamie is to food Mary is to clothes and people just love to indulge in their soothing reassuring tones and authority on what they know best. But of late both have been drifting away from their core talent as their grand visions of guru to the people expands some more, 'Jamie's Dream School' seeing the pseudo cockney vainly attempt to educate chavs through the use of celebrity teachers and Marys latest seeing the old clotheshorse try and start her own fashion chain, 'Portas'. She has come full circle with 'Mary Queen of Frocks' and now has to prove that all her retail experience and advice actually works in practice, many people in the industry secretly hoping she fails, no doubt.

      Jamie and Mary have their core followers; make no mistake, their respective facebook pages full of obsequies and positive comments towards their heroes, the encouragement and admiration needed by the pair to branch out those egos into pastures new. Whereas Jamie's show didn't really work because the naughty pupils sussed the exploitation early and so messed around and played up to the cameras (the point of the show, right), Mary, at least, has most of her lab rats onside as she begins to build her fashion for the over 40s clothing range, that's both sexy and chic, as she puts it, what Mary definitely isn't it but no one dare tell her. Unfortunately her idea of sexy and cool fashion may not be that of her target customers. And what's with that Blackadder haircut Mary???

      A couple of shows in and already Marys ego is tested and the tears are flowing, her plans to have it all her own way just not happening. Her shop will be situated on the third floor of House of Frazer's London flagship store and so she can't complain about footfall and location to sell as one of her excuses. But the HOF boss is determined to milk Portas celebrity, why he has gone ahead with the project it seems. They want their moneys worth for the prime real estate, all 2000 square of it, not only from her seven million BBC2 viewers she brings to the project but her celebrity, three million pounds a year the expected annual return. But Mary doesn't want it to be all about her face and celebrity to secure those sales and determined to build the brand on the clothes style alone. She insists from the off that her mug isn't to be used on the promotional stuff for the project and store opening, one of many contradictions on the show. Are you not doing the TV show for exactly that Mary? For some reason she thinks House of Frazer got involved in the project with that exposure not on the table. Marys move to Channel Four for this particular show contradicts her protestations that she doesn't want the commercial publicity to help brand her name and image. Channel Four did a similar show last year with Lilly Allen opening a boutique with her sister, another celebrity rebranding at the end of the day, Allen board of being a pop star to kids and so needing to get the publicity and fame elsewhere that people like this just can't let go of. As much as I want to believe that Mary Portas is doing it for the girls and a real hero for women of a certain age, as far as the high street goes you can't help but think she loves the attention. I would.

      "For women my age it's cream and beige, beige and cream. With a bit more cream if you want."
      (Mary Portas, 2011)

      In early customer product tests for the type of clothes she wants to sell it becomes pretty clear her fans admire Mary more for her business acumen and enthusiasm than her fashion sense and so don't really want to buy the clothes she wears. Those fans are amongst her potential customers and may not be extravagant dressers. What well to do ladies that lunch don't want to be told is what to wear and when by Mary, which Mary clearly didn't vector in when she started the project. Does the world need millions of Mary Portas clones in mohair polo necks and weighed down with earrings the size of satellite dishes. Women have this real crisis of confidence when it comes to clothes and prefer to be lied to, designers size 10s really size 12's and mirrors that make you look thin the norm in boutiques and high street stores. Women say they want the models and mannequins that model the clothes to be more realistically sized yet blank that on the high street, the illusion that we can all be glamorous and thin the only selling point of fashion. Women do not aspire to be themselves. Mary has grasped that point but wants women to spend over the top to be like her, which, if she is honest, is down to her stylist that sees her wear ten different outfits a day on these shows.

      As with all of these shows there is a contrived entertainment element to it and so that means casting the characters to entertain in the three show run, the predictable eccentric bunch picked to do the selling and pricing on the shop floor for the new venture. There's a token gay man called Declan that the Little Britain boys would be proud of if they created him and a nutty old spinster straight from The League of Gentleman. Deliciously, only one of the House of Fraser staff applied for a position to work in her store, another punch in the gut for her ego, the Mayans refusing to kneel before her, no doubt fearing decapitation from one of her shoulder pads if they didn't agree with the boss.

      The problem with the concept of this show - can Mary make a go of it against the odds- doesn't really work because she has her name and the prime location and a secret financial backer to make sure it does work and so no real challenge or tension to enjoy, just a free publicity stunt for a wealthy lady, and so therefore the show is quickly flawed. And what happened to supporting the small high street independent retailer Mary, House of Fraser hardly that and their job to clearly put the little guys out of business through economies of scale. Therefore, yet again, it becomes about sniggering at the peripheral characters in the show, like it did the charity shop shows and those small struggling boutique owners back in the day, the little people the entertainment and not the message, fashion selling the dream...



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