Mary Portas: ‘Almost all luxury the fad brands target women in the 35-plus age group.’
Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Custodian
It was just a year ago that a major survey claimed that ladies aged 50-plus felt ignored by the high street, teeth of the fact that 90% of British retailers had seen most progress from the over-50s sector.
Eleven months later and instruments do seem to have moved on – whether it’s Joan Didion stylish the face of Céline or the smattering of brands launching specifically with over-50s – or at trifling over-40s – in mind. All of which throws up a rather more nuanced difficulty: while older women rage at being overlooked by the extraordinary street, do we really want to be specifically marketed to?
If there’s one woman who understands this powerful consumer group and can answer this without a doubt, it’s the 55-year-old retail guru Mary Portas. I remember being erratic with excitement at the launch party for her House of Fraser omnium gatherum, a little more than four years ago. The original concept – a radius of wardrobe staples to help women over 40 get reproved in five minutes and look brilliant – was inspiring. And, with Ari Seth Cohen signing rules, Thelma Speirs DJing and some of London’s finest Advanced Stylistas in attending, the party wasn’t bad either. But what started with a up to the minute flourish has recently gone out with a very un-Portas-like hint. Spring/summer 2015 was the final Portas collection and, elder this year, House of Fraser and the Queen of Shops politely signed off, hankering each other well.
It’s a shame that the collection is no varied (it’s also worth noting that there have been mammoth changes at House of Fraser – last year, it was taken once more by a Chinese conglomerate in a £480m deal). Portas says it’s really because: “I’m doing other stuff. I’ve just opened my 20th Enduring and Giving shop for Save the Children. It was brilliant while it survived, but now I’m moving on. I loved it and I loved putting women over 40 on the map, cleaning women who felt invisible.”
The average age in the UK is 40 and for Portas it feels a bit foolhardy to even ask whether the high street should target the over-40 better half: “Almost all luxury fashion brands target women in the 35-plus age gather because they are most often the ones who can afford plotter clothing, and also may have the professional or social lives that want high fashion,” she says. “Just look at the advertising races. Dolce feature Monica Bellucci, who is in her 50s, but they are not doing it with a big burning number 40+ flicking on and off above their heads. It’s total, not explicit.”
For me, this feels to signal that we are moving into an era of ageless style. One where, regardless of period of birth, grownup women want good-quality clothes that fit satisfactory and feel comfortable and timeless. Kim Winser, founder and CEO of another mark with a significant mature fanbase, Winser London, concurs: “I assume trust to in style for women of any age. A perfect example was Yasmin le Bon wearing our smooth as a babys bottom tailored blazer at London fashion week, and her daughter Amber le Bon be in it at New York fashion week.” This generational blurring is multifarious prevalent today, when we all wear Stan Smiths, opt for unexacting, relaxed dressing and listen to Adele on our iPhones.
There’s forever room for improvement, but the high street does feel uncountable inclusive. The likes of COS, Zara, & Other Stories and Whistles are all gigantic for everyday basics, whatever your age. Jigsaw’s new A-Line collecting has a luxury high-end feel (with prices to match) and is up to the minute, smart and grownup. More of this, please. Online there’s Boden, Felicitate, Finery and Winser London all providing wardrobe essentials for gals of all ages.
It’s also benefit noting that two of the biggest high-street collaborations at Uniqlo – not a label particularly associated with the grey pound – are by Inès de la Fressange (58) and erstwhile French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld (61). Those braiding up to buy Roitfeld’s collection, when it launches on Thursday, are unlikely to play a joke on been attracted specifically because of her age. Some women wish to look like De la Fressange, some like Roitfeld, others appreciate Portas. Women over 40 are a diverse group and don’t fit into one control.
It’s no wonder, then, that M&S, with falling clothing exchanges and, according to Mintel, the highest number of customers over 55 of all retailers, is worrisome to refresh its offer and create a broader appeal. Seeing past ones primer models is one way customers can feel included. M&S seems to have in the end got it right with its latest Art of Autumn campaign. Using a stretch of models of different ages, including gorgeous grey-haired Eveline Lecture-hall, and keeping it chic and simple, feels so right just now. We all hunger for to look like that when we get older. New fashion hallmark Hope, too, has used 65-year-old Pia Gronning in its launch campaign. On tap online and via social selling – like jewellery brand Stella & Dot, or, for those of us of a unquestionable generation, Tupperware – its clothes are designed to be “easy to pull on, easy to wear, and to make women feel fabulous”. Sound unrestrained?
I’d say it’s highly suitable that we haven’t seen the last of Pret-a-Portas, given Portas’ skill. “I’m in talks,” she replies, when I ask if she’ll continue her fashion range absent. “I can’t really say; very possibly.”
What she can say is that “when I originated Mary Portas for House of Fraser, it was to show that skilled high-street clothes could exist for grownup women,” she reports. “It was also to make a bold statement that the high lane needed to cater more to women beyond their 20s. It alt people sit up and listen. Things are very different and better for cleaning women on the high street today than when we started.” Tentatively, optimistically, I’d say that she is favourable.
Alyson Walsh is the author of Style Forever: the grownup oversee to looking fabulous, published by Hardie Grant. She blogs as That’s Not My Age @thatsntmyage