Defining moments interview series: Mary Portas
15 November 2021
Mary Portas on fear, regret and capitalism with a conscience.
There can be few moments so defining as losing a parent. And the death of her mother from encephalitis and meningitis when she was 16 was, says retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas, “a paradigm shift. I felt like the life I had was over. I went from feeling secure and safe to, well, the opposite of that.”
Portas had just done her O-levels: “I remember celebrating with my pals and we were all going down to Rickmansworth Aquadrome with cigarettes and wine listening to Donna Summer and it was just a laugh. One day later I went home and my brother said our mother was dying. It felt like the sun set and didn’t come up again for a long time.”
Her father remarried and then died within 18 months, leaving the family home to his second wife. The whole thing, says Portas (now 61), made her kick into survival mode: “I had this fear – an exhausting fuel – underneath me.”
Instead of heading to RADA, where she’d been offered a place, the young Portas stayed to look after her brother and began working in retail. She eventually made her name working for Harvey Nichols as its first ever Creative Director, transforming it from a loss-making business into a profitable global brand famous for its innovation and shopping experience. “Those were incredible, heady days and it was done with instinct and feeling.”
Another defining moment, she says, was “walking away from a corporate life – which was a very comfortable life, but increasingly devoid of creativity and meaning – and going it alone.”
She founded Portas, a retail consultancy and creative agency, with the belief that “understanding people – how we’re all living, feeling and changing – has always had a wonderful, sexy connection with business. It’s what truly creative business ideas thrive on”. Portas and her team now work with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Sainsbury's, Cult Beauty, and Mercedes.
Back then, she earned the nickname ‘The Queen of Shops’ and for a time was all over the TV as a retail makeover maven. She’s also written several books including Work Like A Woman and Rebuild – How To Thrive In The Kindness Economy, which describes her views on how to rebuild business for a better world.
When Covid-19 hit, all her early fears came back. “My marriage [to fashion editor Melanie Rickey, who she was with for 17 years] had finished, I’d sold my family home, my business changed shape overnight,” she says. Like most people, Portas sensed that nothing would be quite the same again.
“I’d felt for some time that a seismic shift was happening – that the high-volume, fast-paced ‘more more more’ consumer society I’d fed and served, needed and wanted to change,” she says. “My team and I were telling clients: this is coming your way. But the jeopardy felt arms-length. Then this trauma hit us all, and with it came a ‘Covid conscience’ which has completely changed the conversation.”
Portas is candid about her role in the glorious materialism of the nineties. “I am a creative person who is really good at commerce. But the way we do that has to change. Consumerism is rapidly changing. We are all re-evaluating the way we want to live – and how we live is how we buy, and how we need to sell. There’s no space anymore for mediocre businesses just selling piles of stuff.”
The answer is what she calls the new ‘kindness economy’. “Capitalism with a conscience, fuelled and measured by kindness and inclusivity, is what she describes it as. This means businesses managing profit in light of people’s wellbeing and the planet. We’re seeing the floods, we’re seeing the fires, we’re seeing what’s happening across the world. So we have to create business that says, ‘OK, we’re still going to buy clothes, we’re not going to sit here naked, we’re still going to eat, we’re still going to want homes, but how do we do this and create businesses that look after our people and our planet as well as profit?’ It’s that simple. But like all simple things – bloody hard to get on and do.”
The ‘how-to’ of this new era of business is the focus of her latest book, Rebuild, which sets out the thinking she and her team at Portas are now applying to a series of client challenges. And in her podcast, The Kindness Economy, she interviews those brand leaders who, she says, “are knocking the sh*t out of this.”
Of course, there’s a business imperative for doing the right thing now. “It’s a case of small and good versus big and bad,” she explains. “Many of our biggest clients are the ones facing up to this most openly and urgently, because they get that if they don’t, they’ll get left behind.”
The fashion industry still has a long way to go, says Portas: “Anyone who says they’re fully sustainable yet is talking bullsh*t. There’s a lot of marketing polish masking what is broadly business as usual. The brave ones like Ganni are the ones who are unflinchingly honest about how far they have to go and how they’ll get there.”
It’s clear the high street is still a subject dear to Portas’s heart. We are, she says, in what the philosopher Gershom Scholem called ‘the plastic hours’, those moments when it is possible to make change, often after a crisis. “We have seen, undoubtedly, a return to people wanting their local high streets for functional reasons, there are people for whom a third of their week is going to be spent working from home,” she says. “But it goes beyond that, our need to feel grounded and connected as part of a community has never been greater. But what’s the government doing? It’s letting shops change to residential, because all they see is growth of online. Of course, online is going to grow exponentially because we’ve been LOCKED INSIDE FOR 18 MONTHS.”
In the end we need both physical and digital to thrive says Portas. “Done right, there’s magic in the blend – to meet people’s needs, solve problems creatively, to help us all live, buy and sell better.”
Things are changing and Portas is hopeful about the future: “We’re seeing global furniture companies looking at the resell market and how to give back to the community. We’re seeing fashion brands tell customers ‘don’t buy another coat, you don’t need one. Make do and mend.’”
She adds: “There will always be the ones who go for the quick buck and sell dresses on Black Friday for 10p. But believe you me, as soon as a competitor offers those same customers that value piece plus the values we’re all wanting to buy into, it won’t be business as usual anymore.”
First published on the FT.com and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.
What does it take to be successful and how do we navigate key moments in our lives? We explore stories of success with the FT.Defining moments interview series