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Mary Portas: ‘Things are better for women on the high street today than when we started’

It was just a year ago that a major survey claimed that women aged 50-plus felt ignored by the high street, despite the fact that 90% of British retailers had seen most growth from the over-50s sector.

Eleven months later and things do seem to have moved on – whether it’s Joan Didion becoming the face of Céline or the smattering of brands launching specifically with over-50s – or at least over-40s – in mind. All of which throws up a rather more nuanced question: while older women rage at being overlooked by the high street, do we really want to be specifically marketed to?

If there’s one person who understands this powerful consumer group and can answer this question, it’s the 55-year-old retail guru Mary Portas. I remember being giddy with excitement at the launch party for her House of Fraser collection, a little more than four years ago. The original concept – a range of wardrobe staples to help women over 40 get dressed in five minutes and look brilliant – was inspiring. And, with Ari Seth Cohen signing books, Thelma Speirs DJing and some of London’s finest Advanced Stylistas in attendance, the party wasn’t bad either. But what started with a fashionable flourish has recently gone out with a very un-Portas-like whisper. Spring/summer 2015 was the final Portas collection and, earlier this year, House of Fraser and the Queen of Shops politely signed off, wishing each other well.

Hope grey drape knit top, £110, from

It’s a shame that the collection is no more (it’s also worth noting that there have been huge changes at House of Fraser – last year, it was taken over by a Chinese conglomerate in a £480m deal). Portas says it’s simply because: “I’m doing other stuff. I’ve just opened my 20th Living and Giving shop for Save the Children. It was brilliant while it lasted, but now I’m moving on. I loved it and I loved putting women over 40 on the map, women who felt invisible.”

The average age in the UK is 40 and for Portas it feels a bit silly to even ask whether the high street should target the over-40 woman: “Almost all luxury fashion brands target women in the 35-plus age group because they are most often the ones who can afford designer clothing, and also may have the professional or social lives that require high fashion,” she says. “Just look at the advertising campaigns. Dolce feature Monica Bellucci, who is in her 50s, but they are not doing it with a big blazing number 40+ flicking on and off above their heads. It’s implicit, not explicit.”

Yasmin le Bon models for Winser London.

For me, this seems to signal that we are moving into an era of ageless style. One where, regardless of date of birth, grownup women want good-quality clothes that fit well and feel comfortable and timeless. Kim Winser, founder and CEO of another brand with a significant mature fanbase, Winser London, concurs: “I believe in style for women of any age. A perfect example was Yasmin le Bon wearing our soft tailored blazer at London fashion week, and her daughter Amber le Bon wearing it at New York fashion week.” This generational blurring is more prevalent today, when we all wear Stan Smiths, opt for easy, relaxed dressing and listen to Adele on our iPhones.

There’s always room for improvement, but the high street does feel more inclusive. The likes of COS, Zara, Other Stories and Whistles are all great for everyday basics, whatever your age. Jigsaw’s new A-Line collection has a luxury high-end feel (with prices to match) and is modern, smart and grownup. More of this, please. Online there’s Boden, Toast, Finery and Winser London all providing wardrobe essentials for women of all ages.

Carine Restoin-Roitfeld, who has designed a range for Uniqlo. Photograph: LaurentVu/SIPA/REX Shutterstock

It’s also worth noting that two of the biggest high-street collaborations at Uniqlo – not a brand particularly associated with the grey pound – are by Inès de la Fressange (58) and former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld (61). Those queuing up to buy Roitfeld’s collection, when it launches on Thursday, are unlikely to have been attracted specifically because of her age. Some women want to look like De la Fressange, some like Roitfeld, others like Portas. Women over 40 are a diverse group and don’t fit into one mould.

It’s no wonder, then, that MS, with falling clothing sales and, according to Mintel, the highest number of customers over 55 of all retailers, is trying to refresh its offer and create a broader appeal. Seeing older models is one way customers can feel included. MS seems to have finally got it right with its latest Art of Autumn campaign. Using a range of models of different ages, including gorgeous grey-haired Eveline Hall, and keeping it chic and simple, feels so right just now. We all want to look like that when we get older. New fashion label Hope, too, has used 65-year-old Pia Gronning in its launch campaign. Available online and via social selling – like jewellery brand Stella Dot, or, for those of us of a certain generation, Tupperware – its clothes are designed to be “easy to pull on, comfortable to wear, and to make women feel fabulous”. Sound familiar?

Jigsaw’s new limited edition A-Line collection.

I’d say it’s highly likely that we haven’t seen the last of Pret-a-Portas, given Portas’ expertise. “I’m in talks,” she replies, when I ask if she’ll continue her fashion range elsewhere. “I can’t really say; very possibly.”

What she can say is that “when I created Mary Portas for House of Fraser, it was to show that great high-street clothes could exist for grownup women,” she says. “It was also to make a bold statement that the high street needed to cater more to women beyond their 20s. It made people sit up and listen. Things are very different and better for women on the high street today than when we started.” Tentatively, optimistically, I’d say that she is right.

Alyson Walsh is the author of Style Forever: the grownup guide to looking fabulous, published by Hardie Grant. She blogs as That’s Not My Age @thatsntmyage

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