Mary Queen of Frocks her new fashion line

So, is Mary Queen of Frocks? Mary Portas talks the talk but will her new fashion line to conceal problem areas for the over-40s pass the test?
By Liz Jones

Are women over 40 badly served on the High Street? Have we been ghetto-ised — sent to the wilderness of Wallis, Next and BHS? Mary Portas thinks so. The fashion PR, former Harrods shopgirl and now Channel 4 TV star has turned her hand to designing fashion.

Today, she opens the doors on her very first shop. Located inside House of Fraser on Oxford Street, it promises grown-up clothes for women who neither want to shop amongst leggy teens in Topshop, nor retire to the Classics section of Marks & Spencer.

In Mary’s own words: ‘It’s for women who are old enough to know who they are and what they want. They want a really good bottle of wine, good coffee, and clothes that are a bit edgy, fun, but really good quality.’
LIZ SAYS: This dress, a winter staple, will suit any woman, and look great on curves.
LIZ SAYS: I love the colour, and the shape is great for women who have curves.
LIZ SAYS: Despite the busy fabric, this dress is simple and well-cut.

The USP of her store, which she hopes to wheel out to the provinces, is its commitment to service. She has personally trained all the staff, which means they will be knowledgeable about fit, colour, trends and how to put a look together. She won’t be in the store all the time, but she is giving every customer a number they can phone to either complain, or make suggestions and Mary will listen and respond to their messages each night.

Still, a store for the over-40s may be a difficult concept to pull off. I tell Mary that I’m over 40, but wouldn’t shop in a store for geriatrics. If I want a black trouser suit, I go to Alexander McQueen. ‘Ah, yes, designers do great clothes for grown-up women, but not many can afford those prices.’ I disagree. I buy one or two pieces a year, and certainly spend less than the women who regularly stagger out of Primark with six or seven carrier bags, seduced by the notion they are saving money.

I make fewer mistakes because I consider each purchase carefully. And, anyway, there are great pieces for women of a certain age on a budget: they just have to snuffle them out. This is where Mary’s nose for a good piece comes in: 60 per cent of the clothes in her boutique will be cherry-picked from other stores including Levi’s, Pied A Terre, Whistles, J Brand and Barbour. The concept reminds me of Joseph, a store that opened its doors in the late Seventies, carefully editing the designer collections while producing own-label basics at a fraction of the cost. So far so good, but what of Mary’s own collection?
LIZ SAYS: A real party dress — you can style it up with a bold necklace.
LIZ SAYS: The leggings are supportive and the shirt is nice and voluminous.
LIZ SAYS: Perfect work wear. Flattering skirt for those with hips.

The posters, the logo (a big M forming the head of a graphic woman), the slogan Pret a Portas (Mary claims to get dressed each morning in ten minutes flat), are all slick and compelling. I like, too, that the ad campaign used Cecilia Chancellor, who is over 40, not a flibbertigibet of 25. Mary seems nervous as I cast my eye over the rails. The quality of the fabric is excellent. There is a lot of black and white, which is great, but also splashes of colour, and lots of print. I would buy the black leggings, which are nice and high on the tummy, in a thick Lycra that reminds me of early Liza Bruce.

The silk shirts remind me of those by Equipment, but at a third of the price, while the printed silk shifts and balloon dresses channel Diane von Furstenberg, who also does a very good job of dressing anyone aged 20 to 90. A pencil skirt is wonderfully supportive over the buttocks. There are lots of scooped necks, as Mary thinks older women can show off this part of their body. But my big bugbear is that this is all very well, as long as you are a size ten. There are lots of skinny trousers, and sharp jackets.


1. Avoid dressing like a teenager

2. Edit your trends

3. Work with your proportions

4. Keep it low maintenance

5. Don’t buy rubbish

‘What if you have a bust?’ I say, and Mary insists that, just because you are over 40, it doesn’t mean you are bigger. The trouble is, in the main, it does. I had in my mind what a woman like the presenter of Country House Rescue, Ruth Watson, another Channel 4 stalwart, could buy here that would wean her off the big-shouldered, bright dresses that make her look like a house. But I can’t see anything at all that would suit someone like her.

I also found much of the collection over-embellished — not in a Jaeger beaded evening gown sort of way, but in a Per Una way. ‘Per Una!’ Mary exclaims, insulted. Um, well, yes. I also don’t like the shoes, however comfy they are: they are just not pretty and elegant.

‘What else don’t you like?’ asks Mary, and I tell her I wouldn’t buy a baggy black and silver lurex sweater, nor would I buy the scoop-neck cardigan with batwing sleeves. I don’t want twiddly bits, I want cashmere tanks, a great V-neck sweater. I’d rather she had done just one or two things well. I feel she has spread her ideas too thinly. There are, though, some good pieces, such as a pair of pyjama trousers that are slouchy without being harem; Mary is very dismissive of weird fashion trends, as well she should be. The black ‘bandage’ cocktail dresses with upper-arm coverage are lovely and good value, at £150. They remind me of Herve Leger.

‘I showed these to Antonio Berardi,’ she says, naming the designer who made the outfits she and Melanie Rickey, a fashion editor at Grazia, both wore for their wedding last May. ‘Just to see if I had got the cut right.’

It was Melanie who came up with a really brilliant idea: the Armery, a pair of tights for the arms, which means you can buy that sleeveless cocktail dress, even if like me you hate your triceps. The Armery firms up and shapes flabby arms in a similar way to Spanx. They can be worn under clothes for shape and support or as an accessory teamed with sleeveless dresses. They are, I think, an absolutely brilliant invention and I commend Mary for it.
I also love the black leather dress but worry that, for £300, you could buy a dress from Prada, designed by a woman who has been making clothes for 30 years.
New venture: Mary Portas (left) with Liz Jones surveying the new collection that Mary has created she opens the doors on her very first shop for House of Fraser

I also take issue with the fact Mary has opened a store within a huge, homogenous chain. Didn’t David Cameron just assign her the task of revitalising the British High Street, making it more diverse, rescuing the poor independents squeezed out by these retail monsters?

‘The answer for the High Street isn’t necessarily more independents,’ she says. ‘People shop differently now. They use the internet, for example. I want to come up with ways the big stores can encourage people to meet up, where children have somewhere to go. I want to nurture new talent.’

I want to come up with ways the big stores can encourage people to
meet up, where children have somewhere to go

The reason she chose House of Fraser, with its infrastructure, manufacturers and supply chain, was speed. This venture, Mary Queen of Frocks, is being filmed by Channel 4, and will be broadcast in the autumn. Setting up from scratch would have taken too long. It turns out, too, that both M&S and John Lewis turned her venture down. Maybe they think they are doing a pretty good job already. Commercially, though, Mary could be on to a winner, given 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth is in the hand of the over 40s.

‘If I can make it easier for women who want a great Christmas party dress, or a perfect pair of trousers, or something to wear for a wedding, liberating them from that awful assault course that is shopping for something special, then it will have been a success,’ says Mary.

Mary is 51, has more energy than a teenager, and her unique, look-at-me style certainly turns heads when most women her age are invisible.
If even some of that joie de vivre rubs off, then this new venture will be deemed a triumph. But I feel a smaller collection, rigorously pared down, that would suit women of varying body shapes, would have been a more wise first try.

All clothes, shoes and accessories are available from Mary at House of Fraser, 316 Oxford Street, London W1 (020 7003 4000;