The first time that I met Mary Portas was in 1990 when I approached her for a search for a visual merchandising director role that I was working on at one of the world’s most revered department stores. It was one of those moments as an executive search consultant (which happens less often than you might think) when I just knew that I was in the presence of a future star.
Really young at the time, Mary was witty, sharp, inspirational and completely brilliant. She was part of the small leadership team that included Amanda Verdan, the brilliant buying director, and Patrick Hanley, and they were responsible for making Harvey Nichols the destination store in the world. Buyers, CEOs, journalists and fashionistas came from world over to pore over the merchandise and most importantly, the windows – Mary’s stage.
Those memorable windows are what helped make her who she is today. People could be seen standing in awe in front of the windows on an evening out in London. Other stores desperately tried to compete but she was always one step ahead. Mary started out as the window dresser at Topshop (just like the incredible Faye McCleod, now image director for Louis Vuitton), and when The Burton Group CEO Ralph Halpern, who knew how to spot talent and grow it, bought Harvey Nichols, he promptly sent Mary to work at the department store. Back in those days, it was unheard of for someone to go from the high street to the world of luxury.
The history of menswear has always been dwarfed in the shadow of womenswear, so Harvey Nichols’ decision to relaunch their menswear department was met with a little trepidation. When Topshop spun off from department store Peter Robinson in 1964, it would be another 14 years before menswear counterpart Topman would be launched in 1978. Menswear was never on the same level, but that has definitely changed: this Business of Fashion report shows that the growth of the menswear sector accelerated faster than that of womenswear from 2009 to 2014. The category has also grown 17.4% online between 2010 and 2015, outpacing all other categories. And with Balenciaga’s menswear collection to be released this autumn, there’s no question that this sector is only getting better.
When we placed Stacey Cartwright in the role of CEO at Harvey Nichols, her remit was to make it relevant and great again. So it’s no surprise that I was excited to hear that she was starting right at the bottom of the Knightsbridge store – as she puts it, the foundation – in menswear, and with plans to work her way right up to the top floor. No-one has ever had the courage to start on menswear – but Stacey, who is astute and highly analytical, clearly did her homework and started in exactly the right place. Menswear is now positively fabulous and has to be one of the most innovative and forward thinking anywhere.
Interestingly, Stacey calls Harvey Nics a large boutique – not a department store – and menswear is merchandised by end use, not by shop-in-shop brands. Stacey says: ‘our size is our advantage – we are large enough to have all the brands with the best edit’. Seamless to navigate, with mobile point-of-sale tablets and colleagues with ear pieces to communicate with the stock room, the experience is personal, hassle-free, warm and very approachable. In some ways, the development of the brand new menswear department at Harvey Nichols mirrors that of the industry at large, with Carlos Virgile of design firm Virgile + Partners dealing first with perhaps the least-luxurious part of the building – moving the sprinkler room to gain the full 28,000 sq ft for the space, making seven interlinking boutiques.
‘Our size is our advantage … No man in London should want to shop anywhere else’. – Stacey Cartwright, CEO of Harvey Nichols
Featuring a ‘man cave’ full of gadgets, screens showing football and a bar serving beer and cocktails, the department is an experiential one, making the customer journey the number-one priority. During my tour of the new department, Stacey mentioned details including personal shoppers without a minimum spend, and the dressing room is absolutely enviable. She says: ‘No man in London should want to shop anywhere else’.
Remember, Stacey came from Burberry where as CFO, online and digital reported into her for a time. Between her, Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey, digital and online was at the forefront of their thinking, so it is no surprise that Harvey Nichols is making online a priority in the transformation – Harvey Nichols has also relaunched their website and started a new marketplace rewards app – the next step after archaic rewards cards, according to her. It was inspiring for me to do the menswear store walk with Stacey and retail aficionado Stephen Marks – who just happened to be there checking it out. My dream? To walk it again with Mary, Amanda, Patrick and the MD from all those years ago, Richard Maney – I just know that they would approve.