Mary Queen of frocks: Where’s the designer?

So Cheryl Cole is the latest celebrity to design her own range. She has just launched a footwear collection for the new online shopping concept Stylistpick. Good for you Cheryl, why shouldn’t you, isn’t it every girls dream to be a designer and after all, lots of other celebrities have done it!

Except cynical (or some might say realistic) old me and many of my designer friends, know that in real life Cheryl, Vicki B, Kate Moss and even the Queen of Shops Mary Portas, aren’t really designers, are they.

When we watch the tv programmes, videos etc of them ‘putting together’ their ranges, somewhere in the background there is usually a pair of magic hands (with no visible body) sketching the styles, choosing the fabrics and making the celebrities ideas real. Because believe it or not, it isn’t actually that easy to put together a range of clothes, shoes or accessories for real women on the High Street.

What we are actually buying is a version of a celebrity’s own style; a cheaper, less extreme Roland Mouret, pared down Balenciaga, simplified Antonio Berardi, or indeed any other designer that a stylist may have chosen for the celebrity to adopt as their ‘signature style’. Which is all well and good if you want to look like someone off the telly! Personally we have no desire to look like a mini me and prefer to try and develop our own unique style, based on what suits our body shape and sense of ourselves.

Mary Portas was right when she stated on her new Queen of Frocks programme, that ‘no-one on the High Street was catering for the 40 plus woman’. We had high hopes for her collection and our first impressions were positive, she is passionate about creating a range for women like us and we liked some of the styles. That was until we saw the TV programme. Oh Mary, how disapointed we were when we saw you in that first meeting at HOF, you admitted you weren’t a designer and then proceeded to go down the same route as every other ‘celebrity’/tv personality – and made it all about you!

Mary has many many years experience in retail and surely must have observed how hard it is to design a commercial range. She must also know there are lots and lots of great designers out there with lots of experience, who are just itching to tackle this untapped market (me for one!) But did she draft them in to tap into their wealth of experience and get them to design her range – oh no, she proceeded to try to do it all herself – with a little bit of help from Antonio Berardi. It’s a little like me turning up at University College Hospital and saying ‘I’m a mother and I gave birth, let me be a midwife, oh and I’m getting Dr Hilary in to help me’!

Designers train for up to four years to learn their trade. They are taught how to draw clothes on a body and appreciate proportion and form, they learn how to pattern cut and model on a stand, taking into account how darts and seams can alter lines and flatter bodies. They learn about fabric, how it falls and what works in what style, and most of all, over the years they learn to appreciate the women they are designing for.

Give most designers a free reign to design their perfect collection and they will probably come up with something beautiful that suits their own personal sense of style. But ask a designer to create a commercial range that will sell on the high street and its a whole different ball (gown) game! The mark ups on high street clothing ranges are huge, meaning fabrics have to be low cost and low maintainance, details have to be kept to a minimum and styles have to  be commercial. What every retailer wants from a designer is a ‘best seller’. Which was evident in Queen of Frocks, when the House of Fraser management team bombarded Mary with the huge profits they expect her range to make.

The other and probably most important thing a high street designer learns over time, is what the customer wants. A good designer will constantly push for new styles and high quality, but they will always respect the customer profile and design within those boundaries. It will never be about what they personally would wear – that simply doesn’t come into it – it’s about what makes the customer feel good and what they will want in the future. Here lies the difference between a ‘celebrity’ range and a range designed with a specific customer in mind. The celebrity range is all about ‘me’ and the focused, well designed high street range, is all about the customer.

We really want Mary’s range to succeed and hope it marks the start of the High Street targeting our age group as fashionable consumers who need specifically designed collections. Mary is clearly passionate about her customers receiving an excellent retail experience and outstanding customer service, but we are yet to be convinced by the range. Do us a favour Mary – employ a designer. As you so rightly said when your partner was trying to get you to put your face on your ad campaign ‘it’s not about a celebrity endorsement,  it’s about women’.

PS. Who made Liz Jones a fashion expert? #justsayin


  • gillian taylor says:

    Her shop looks amazing, her House of Frazer selling site is lovely with how to wear a shirt, how to tie a scarf etc but I am just so disappointed with the clothes and I so desperately wanted to love them! I wanted her to understand how hard it is when you are 55 to buy clothes that actually fit – not too short not too tight not too young! I just feel that she has endorsed a collection of clothes for herself rather than for the people she is supposed to be catering for and whilst I understand that admirers of her style are probably her core customers she really has not designed for the average middleagedmum who just wants to look damn good for her age!

  • Freethequay says:

    Oh how I agree. And my only hope is that you will somehow spin enough £ out of your wonderful website to be able to design and sell a TWR collection. I’m just 45 but being tall and well built have grown out of the high-street clothes which is all I can afford, while not having earned £ for four years means I can no longer afford Old Town/Margaret Howell/Prada etc etc. Am seriously thinking of going back to making my own clothes as I did as a teenager…

  • Well said. Much as I love Mary, I think the collection is designed with her rather than the majority of women over 40 in mind.

  • Johanna says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’m 49 and my body is changing (fat belly!). I’m having trouble to find affordable clothes that are fashionable but grown up – and grown up but not frumpy.

  • Louise says:

    I think we all love Mary, but don’t necessarily want to wear versions of leggings and a loose top (remember the ’90’s??)
    I’m tall and not stick thin either, and similarly to Freethequay, the labels I’d love to afford I can’t, so picked up one of the wonderful Merchant & Mills patterns recently to see if I can’t turn my hand to clothes (I sew home and pet wear but find real life three dimensional clothing intimidating!) The patterns here are great for women in their 40’s I think and look quite simple. I got to try samples on at the Knitting and Stitching show so know they will fit and look great made up.
    ps I think their shop is another for the ‘shops I would move in to’ list

  • Amanda says:

    OMG how fab is Merchant& Mills? Louise, I can feel a post about them coming on…….terrifically interesting comments ladies,anyone else have a view? A

  • Amanda says:

    I think it was apparent in the first episode where this collection was headed when, having carefully selected a focus group of “real women” to provide feedback, Mary was horrified by the body suit they sent her showing a “real woman’s size and shape!

  • Miss Magpie says:

    I agree I agree!
    As a young designer I spent many hours working on “Butterfly” by Matthew Williamson for Debenhams. I never ever met him, and have since been pretty dubious about such collaborations.
    Therefore I was thrilled to hear that Mary Portas, with all her commercial industry experience, would be getting her hands dirty and creating a focused and commercial range. I was sure I’d hear soon enough that a friend had been head hunted to work on this very project, but that never happened and so I waited for the show for the answer.
    So far I’ve spotted the back of Marie Jones’ head, and a random hand pointing at a sketch. Indeed, where’s the designer!?
    I wanted everyone to see the whole process. The research, technical sketches, colour palettes, prints, comp shops, first samples being made in far flung places, then the fitting of the clothes on a ‘real’ woman.
    But sadly the TV show has just given us some sort of X-factor for sales staff and errr some arm tights. And lots about Mary.
    I too hope that it goes well for Mary as she’s clearly passionate about it and she’s right, there is a gap in the market. However I agree that she’ll need a great designer if this is to be a continued success.

    PS. If you ever hear of Sam Cam looking for a Designer, then send her my way. She’ll surely be next, right?!

  • Julie says:

    What really irritated me was all that guff about designing for older women and when the clothes were shown to the press what did we see, but stick thin gorgeous young girls…where were the older ladies then? and what an ego Mary has, she should have some humility….

  • Jane says:

    Am loving your comments and great to hear we are not the only ones who think this.
    Oh if only some one would let us design a collection, how fab would that be, and we are getting Miss Magpie in to help us if we do.

  • Monika Day says:

    Oh how I empathise with your howls of pain! But the frustration you feel is just what we as graphic designers deal with every day – anybody with a laptop is now a graphic designer just as any celebrity is now a designer. It’s the “democratisation” of the internet and media- innit!
    I am so disappointed in Mary’s project (she lives a few doors down from me and have to report she is much taller and slimmer than the screen shows, so not the average 50+), the clothes are totally about Mary and not about over 40’s.
    Where are the clothes for a City worker? A lawyer? A teacher?
    Arm leggings? Pleeeze…
    So if there is a designer out there able (and damnit able to get the funding) to design for the over 40’s the market is still well and truly open.

  • Agree with so much of what’s been said above, and think that Mary and House of Fraser have missed a big opportunity. Times are tough, and design is one of the first areas to be hit when money is tight but if a design team wasn’t involved, that would have been a big gap in the team. It must be flattering to have a range built around your own style,, but Mary is an expert in other areas, and it just seems a shame considering how sound the concept is. Mind you, bigger names have failed on this one. I’m thinking George Davies and GIVe.

  • Miss Magpie says:

    Just a thought, have you directed Mary to this blog post? Would be really interested in her thoughts and feedback. Everyone wants her to succeed so I don’t think this would be difficult for her to read, and I’m sure she realises the need to listen to as much constructive criticism as possible? Mary Portas, any thoughts? Would you have gone about the process in a different way, given your time again or has the show been edited in an unfortunate way?
    (PS TWR we need to design a collaborative capsule collection! Put the sketches/illustrations online for the masses to comment on, then see which retailer wants to buy the designs/concept! Contemporary prints, beautiful fabrics, easy outfitting and fab attention to detail. Or Mary, give us a call!)

  • Jane says:

    Actually Miss Magpie I have been thinking about that very idea a lot recently – if only I had time to design it – but need to make time!
    And yes we definitely need to ask Mary for her comments – will get onto it.

  • Jude says:

    I do agree with a lot of what Mary feels so passionately about – the importance of great service, loyalty to small local stores, excellent quality etc – but you’re spot on with this well-thought out, honest post. Your “…let me be a midwife..” comment sums it up beautifully. Although MissMagpie does seem to have recognised someone in the background – is there actually a designer working away in the background who simply doesn’t want to be revealed?

    Like Amanda I was a bit disappointed when Mary opened the parcel containing the “real” womans body suit and appeared horrified. I presume it was a look of horror, as opposed to a look of surprise, as she’d spent quite some time with those ladies seeing them in different outfits and listening to their shopping-for-clothes woes, so shouldn’t have been surprised at all.

    However, I really liked the ‘cherry-picked’ items selected from various other other brands (a bit like the old Whistles in the Lucille Lewin days) although some of those pieces very definitely weren’t High St prices, so I wondered if some Mary stock hadn’t arrived in time for the opening and it was just temporary padding?

    Maybe a Mary/TWR-designed collaboration could be the thing?!

  • Lilac says:

    It just adds to the despair that someone who purports to want to represent the invisible consumer (we are there – buying for ourselves, our partners, our families but nowhere are we shown – not in windows, not in ads and def not on the runway) and yet has failed to understand the basic truth, which is, as we age we need clothes that still fit and flatter. It’s not rocket science, and whoever sorts it will reap our gratitude and our £’s.

  • Karen Inglis says:

    I’m not the world’s most fashionable lady (!), nor shopper, but I watched the later part of the Mary Portas programme last night and couldn’t help feeling it looked a bit cloned. [Possibly not helped by the customer with the identikit Mary P hairstyle :) ] And if I’m honest I felt that some of the staff looked as though they were trying too hard. Off the top of my head, my measure of this is when I see clothes wearing a person, rather than a person wearing clothes (if that makes any sense..?) Some interesting if depressing comments here about the non-role of real designers and lost opportunities to meet real customers’ needs. Mary looks like a lady who values customer feedback, so it will be really interesting to hear her comments on this post.

  • Karen Inglis says:

    Oh dear, I hate it when the system converts to those yellow smiley things!

  • Joanna Davis says:

    Hi Jane,

    Great post, we are trying to do something similar to Mary, except we are trying to do this for “Grown up women” with curves! and we are doing it at the higher end of the market because there is even less choice there for curvy women. You totally correct about designers. I’m not a designer and I’ve not tried to be.

    What I have done is gone out and looked for existing niche designers and selected items from their collections that will work for curvy women like me who who want to dress well, in good quality clothes that are not young (teens and twenties) but equally not old and frumpy. It’s not easy but we are hopefully getting there.

    We started Vida Moda, our online store before Mary, but I’m not a celebrity, I’m not on TV and I don’t have House of Fraser (bloke in a suit) backing me to the tune of £X00′ of 000’s. However I do admire Mary and what she says she is trying to do. Call me cynical but I don’t be believe HOFF really care, all they see is cash via the opportunity to profit from Mary’s current public profile. Business is all well and good good but shouldn’t it be based on some tangible desire to make difference and add value? Mary clearly has this view as do I but I’m not sure HOFF do.

    Watching this weeks programme made me feel a little cyncial, is Mary really battling against the big bad wolf (HOFF) so she can bring her vision to the high street? or is it all part of making “good telly”! I hope not, and I hope her integrity is intact. It would also be nice for us normal retailers to be able to be successful without the aid of celebrity endorsement. I can only hope…

    Joanna Davis

  • Jane says:

    Like the sound of Vida Moda Joanna, we will definitely check it out. I feel the same about “good telly” lots of the scenarios on this weeks programme just didnt ring true and anyone that knows about retail knows that HOF are all about the bottom line and probably see Mary as a cash opportunity. Still would love to see more retailers focus on our age group whatever the reasons!!

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