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Every trick in the book

Former Harvey Nichols marketing director Mary Portas launched Yellow Door Creative Marketing in 1997 and works with brands such as Dunhill, Clarks, Fullcircle and John Smedley, as well as writing books and magazine articles on retail issues. Her four-part BBC2 series Mary Queen of Shops starts on May 31 and will be accompanied by a book, How To Shop, published by BBC Books.

How did the TV show come about?

Since I've been doing my Shop! column in the Telegraph Magazine over the past two years I've been asked to be a retail spokesperson for a number of TV shows. After I did Richard & Judy I was asked to do lots of branding stuff, and I mentioned to someone that I'd like to focus on small fashion retail businesses and see how they can compete with the high street. I like the show because it's not too formatted - it's about the individuals involved.

Why was now the right time to shine a light on the inner workings of retail businesses?

I think our retail landscape has changed fundamentally; we've become a nation with a very overcrowded high street. It's all so boring. I'm so rarely inspired in a totally new way, and I think that's a tragedy. There are now more international newcomers on our retail streets, but where are the home-grown newcomers? No one has ever really put shops under the microscope and broken down how they work before.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about the businesses you've visited?

I suppose it was seeing just how small their world is. I'm in a position where I'm in the middle of the fashion and business worlds; I can just pick up the phone and find out what's going on at Arcadia or Harvey Nichols. For small independent retailers, it's almost like their heads are in another age.

Was it difficult to find businesses to take part?

We've covered a pretty wide sweep of the country, with shops in Brighton, Doncaster, Surrey and Islington taking part. Some people were a bit reticent, but the further north we went, they were literally lining up. It was all about finding the right shops. They had to be in a bad enough state to warrant attention, but also needed to have potential. We spent about a month at each store, looking at their business. It kept me awake at night. I asked what their dream was when they started. Could we recreate it? Can they deliver?

How important is PR in this celebrity-obsessed climate?

Most consumers today want to know they are getting fashion right, so they look at magazines and the internet for confirmation. As we all know, retailers are not known for spending big on marketing, so they also rely on press coverage to bolster their sales.

What's the secret of operating a successful brand?

Real success is about connecting with consumers, and that can happen in lots of different ways. If you really like a brand, there is something warm in it that connects with you. For instance, I love Gap. I hope they manage to turn the brand around - for me it will always be a bright, breezy, upbeat kind of business. You can't break it down; it's that holistic feeling you get from a label.

If you could create a new department store using certain elements from existing stores, which would you choose?

I'd take the sex appeal of Harvey Nichols and make it more contem-porary and high gloss; the fashion mix of Harrods; the energy of Selfridges; and the homewares floor, smell and music of Liberty, and give it a proactive spin like the Corso Como area in Milan. I'd put homewares on the ground floor, with fragrances and candles to create a beautiful entrance to the store. No one has ever got that right.


What is your biggest fashion weakness?

Hoarding archive pieces. I've got loads of late 1980s and 1990s Azzedine Alaia, Montana, Jean Muir and early Dolce & Gabbana in a box under my bed.

What was your best fashion moment?

For me the best is always the most recent. I had a great night in a really slick Marios Schwab dress for a do at London's Serpentine last year.

And your worst?

An early 1990s jumpsuit by Arabella Pollen. It led to my most embarrassing moment ever, which involved having to take the whole jumpsuit off to go to the toilet on a train.

Who is your industry icon?

Miuccia Prada. She is a true innovator.

What would you be doing if not fashion?

Probably acting. I trained as an actor and I'm always acting. Or I would create the perfect home store.

Who is the best retailer on the high street and why?

John Lewis is superb. Gap is also really good. In Zara the product mix is amazing, but the service is terrible. Topshop's Oxford Circus store is a phenomenon, but no more than that. My favourite shop is Start on Rivington Street in Shoreditch, east London. It's brilliantly edited and the service is like a dream.

What are you reading?

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

Who is your style icon?

It has to be Yves Saint Laurent.

Who is your pop idol?

I'm obsessed with The Killers, but David Bowie is my ultimate.

Who is on your mobile's speed dial?

Philippe, my Belgian masseur.

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