Mary Portas’s big plans for smalls
Retail guru’s new channel 4 show will see her try to revitalise UK textile manufacturing through a posh underwear business
She has tackled independent businesses, charity shops and high-street retail for the cameras: a formidable one-woman advertisement for the power of branding, customer service and sharp, flame-coloured haircuts. But this time Mary Portas has a rather softer target in mind: the great British bottom – or at least, what covers it.
Portas’s new Channel 4 show, on next month, will see her trying to revitalise UK textile manufacturing through knickers.
Made with Nottingham lace, the retail expert’s Kinky Knickers range – priced at £10 for a beautifully packaged pair – have been made in the newly re-opened sewing room of a factory in Middleton, near Manchester.
The price puts Portas’s pants among the posher knicker-drawer purchases. But the presenter thinks that is where British-made clothing should pitch itself.
“Should we compete with the sweatshops who can make knickers more cheaply? No. That’s not what we should do morally as a nation,” said Portas. “But we can compete with the Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Boots [market]. That’s where I believe we can genuinely compete.”
Portas seems unfazed by launching a quality product in a recession. “We’ve got a consumer today who thinks she’ll buy less rather than buying cheaper. She’ll buy less and buy better,” she said.
Nightwear manufacturers Headen & Quarmby, which stopped producing garments in Britain eight years ago, has recruited eight apprentices, who earned the minimum wage while training, to make the knickers using British-made lace.
The margins are admittedly not big, admitted Lynn Birkbeck, who oversees production at the company founded by her parents. But the figures do add up, with retailers including Liberty, Selfridges and Marks & Spencer all placing orders.
And Portas, who calls herself “extremely patriotic”, hopes British knickers could go international: “I believe we can build a serious empire here.”
But even for a woman as determined as Portas, helping Britain’s long-declining textile manufacturing industry to a great profit will be quite a stretch.
Tim Leunig, chief economist at the CentreForum thinktank, said: “Most of the value in an expensive pair of knickers is already in Britain, even if the actual knickers are produced in China or another low-wage economy,” said Tim Leunig, Chief Economist at the CentreForum think tank.
“Nevertheless, it is slightly better for Britain if the knickers are produced here. Some people are employed who otherwise might not be, and with 2.7 million people unemployed that is obviously to be welcomed.”