A designer by training but with retail in his veins, Terence Conran at 80 is now taking M&S by storm
He started Habitat and grew it into a hugely profitable chain before setting his sights on other parts of British retailing, revitalizing everything from Mothercare to British Home Stores and launching Next. He is, of course, Terence Conran and his influence on the shape of British retailing is undeniable.
The recent well-documented, near-demise of Habitat – down to three London stores owned by Argos of all things – is in his own words ‘very depressing’, but ever active, and as celebrating his 80th birthday he’s launched a massive new furniture collection with Marks and Spencer. The retailer is also launching a series of homewear pieces by the more leftfield Dutch designer Marcel Wanders.
‘In some ways this is my substitute for Habitat,’ opines Conran, ‘because it’s an entirely democratic collection of furniture.’ Pushing the new M&S catalogue across the desk he adds: ‘It’s interesting, we seem to have taken over! If you look at that you would think it’s a Conran catalogue. It isn’t, it’s M+S. This is a vast job. We have a long contract with them.’
Highly enthused, Conran also describes the whole experience as ‘terrific’ and unbidden, and expresses a great admiration for M&S chief executive Marc Bolland: ‘He is passionate about design… and totally interested in improving the quality of their merchandise.’ Bolland, in turn, is mutually appreciative: ‘Sir Terence is Britain’s most influential designer and I’ve long admired his work.’
Called, perhaps somewhat unsnappily, ‘Conran Exclusive Design Only at Your M&S’, the collection was officially launched at the latest M&S store at Westfield in Stratford towards the end of September. It includes furniture and upholstery, home accessories, lighting and soft furnishings and will be available to buy in 23 stores nationwide, online and via mobile. Eventually there will be 300 products, and the upholstery is all being individually made to order at M&S’s eco-factory in Wales, which ties in well with Conran’s evangelical enthusiasm for British manufacturing.
And after all these years in the industry, design is still very much in his blood. He describes his role in the new collection as ‘very hands-on. I’ve got eight people there as a team and every day they say, “Well, we’ve got this problem to resolve, what do you think?” So I draw my sketches and explain it to them, they do the detailed work and I give them my view of the ideas. Or they produce ideas themselves, which I will change quite often. ‘ And his design interest doesn’t stop with the product. He’s even been to see the visual merchandising for the range mocked up in M&S facility in Hammersmith: ‘It is a sort of prototype shop bigger than their average shop, but in it they build displays so they work out how best to display it. So our furniture collection was built as a prototype there – we obviously took a big interest into how going to be retailed.’
Conran isn’t a designer who scribbles on a piece of paper and leaves others to realise his ideas. Throughout his long involvement in the retail industry, he’s always liked to be in control from product design to final retail environment, and he still is.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.