Anna Burnside: Can M&S’ autumn line deliver?

The decline in clothing sales at M&S slowed in July, according to the latest industry data. Picture: Contributed
The decline in clothing sales at M&S slowed in July, according to the latest industry data. Picture: Contributed
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What do women want? After equal pay, a self-emptying dishwasher and Alexander Skarsgard in a tuxedo, it turns out that half of the population has modest desires.

Working women dream of a dress with sleeves; a flattering shirt that does not gape at the bust; a pair of comfortable shoes that go with a skirt. It doesn’t sound like much. Given the parlous state of the economy and the number of clothes shops on the high street, it should be easy to walk into any one of them and buy any number of arm-covering frocks and foot-soothing sandals.

But it’s not. Marks and Spencer, that venerable 129-year-old retail institution, official supplier of the nation’s pants and party snacks, has been brought almost to its knees by its inability to provide them. For its shareholders, many of them older women who would very much like to buy smart, well-cut, appropriate-but-not-frumpy clothes, it has become a crunch issue. They, unlike the succession of men who have run the company, see a direct correlation between the racks of unsold vest tops and sleeveless dresses and the drop in the value of their shares.

Marc Bolland, who took over as chief executive from Stuart Rose in 2010, has been working hard to win back their core customers, women over 40 who are more than happy to buy M&S’s dinner for a tenner but head for Zara, Jigsaw or Monsoon when they want to buy a new coat or pair of trousers. They would also like to bring in her friends in their 30s, all without alienating their mothers.

It’s working – up to a point. The decline in clothing sales slowed in July, according to the latest industry data. But while better weather helped the whole of the high street, M&S is underperforming compared to key competitors such as Debenhams and Next. Its market share is still dropping, although that too is slowing down.

Bolland’s own background is in food retailing, so it’s a fair guess that hemlines are not his specialist subject. To drag M&S womenswear into the 21st century, he replaced Kate Bostock with Belinda Earl, formerly of Debenhams and Jaeger. Hilary Alexander, once fashion editor of the Daily Telegraph, came on board to revamp the widely derided Per Una range. After the triumph of hiring Twiggy as a model, in comes Dame Helen Mirren to show exactly how a hot 68-year-old can work a sleeve and a bit of judicious Lycra.

Earl’s first autumn collection arrives with great confidence. “Back in the game” declares the website (which has had a revamp and looks not unlike the high fashion portal Net-a-porter). The picture used is from a recent Vogue shoot, featuring the type of model more normally associated with London Fashion Week than the matrons of Milngavie. “With truly great style, exquisite quality and exciting innovations,” it boasts, “we’re proud to be featured in the September issue of Vogue”.

Is there substance to the spin? It looks that way. Earl spent her first two months on the shop floor talking to customers. She discovered that women wanted sleeves, higher necklines, comfort and quality. And more sleeves.

Adding arm coverage is relatively straightforward. Some 90 per cent of the pieces for autumn have them. Necklines are an average of 2cm higher. Shirts have a cunning cut and touch of stretch to stop them creasing under a jacket and popping open across the bust, which is never a good look in a marketing meeting. Shoes have built-in gel insoles and other hidden comfort features.

Quality is trickier. The brand used to be synonymous with the kind of serviceable cotton and woollen items that could be passed down through the generations. Responding to the threat of fast fashion, it moved manufacturing overseas and embraced the man-made fibre. In recent years, many of the store’s high street competitors have further reduced the quality of their fabrics and finishes to keep their price points low.

As a result, M&S’s target customer has wearied of flimsy, flammable materials, plastic buttons and pleather bags. Earl’s response is to give this new collection 20 per cent more silk, cashmere and wool. The cashmere is now 10 per cent heavier, softer and still the same price. But the prices are not inconsiderable. Will these customers actually be prepared to pay more than £100 for a jumper from M&S?

And, crucially, what do they look like? Sarah Murray, owner and buyer for the Jane Davidson boutique in Edinburgh, was pleasantly surprised. “I would say the collection is surprisingly raunchy for good old M&S. Lots of leather, black and red, and directional fashion shapes. There are some strong basics such as the black polo and straight-leg trousers. The black bouclé biker jacket coat is very like a coat Sandro did last season. Just about every woman in Paris owns one. It’s a great price at £89.”

It all looks great when styled and shot for Vogue. But will it bring back the shoppers who have deserted M&S? There, Murray has her doubts. “Overall, it’s a bit of a mish mash. They are ticking boxes on trends, not thinking about their shoppers’ age and lifestyle. I am unsure whether their rather conservative customers will embrace the leather and studs.”

And what about these target customers? Lindsey Cartwright, 41, is an employment lawyer with Morton Fraser, working in an environment with a sombre dress code. She wears trouser suits or a dress and jacket for industrial tribunals, and smart trousers and shirts for the office. Having once bought most of her working wardrobe at M&S, she now rarely ventures past the food hall.

“Now I go to Hobbs, LK Bennett and TK Maxx. M&S’s styles became very unstylish and I never really went back.”

This new collection, however, might change her mind, containing as it does several items she finds difficult to buy. “I like cropped trousers for summer because I don’t want to wear skirts and tights. I hate my legs, so I want skirts that come to my knee. I see they have a skater skirt that is a longer length than most of the ones around just now, and other styles that are more suitable when you are in your 40s.”

However, senior civil servant Lorna Gibb, 46, was unimpressed. “Dull, frumpy misjudged ... I’m struggling to see even one piece that I would wear. They seem to range from the frumpy (that checked mohair jumper) to the ‘what on earth were they thinking?’ (the leather dress). There’s way too much black and no tailoring. But my 75-year-old mother might like some of the tops.”

For Gibb, M&S has the added disadvantage of being so ubiquitous. “I don’t want to go out in something new and find half the women in my office are also wearing it. I’d also like more good-quality fabrics that don’t have to be dry cleaned.”

Both women pine for a shoe they can wear all day, for commuting, meetings and the school run, that goes with skirts and trousers. In water-repellent material. “I want reasonably priced, funky shoes with a medium heel,” says Gibb. “Flats are OK with trousers but with a dress I want a stylish, elegant medium heel. And not in suede, which is useless when you live in as city that gets as much rain as Glasgow.”

She would also buy “trouser suits with a bit of an edge – I like black suits as much as the next professional woman but there must be scope for something with a bit more design or in a different colour – and I don’t mean charcoal or navy. And why does nobody make a tailored winter coat with a hood?”

Cartwright, who has two young daughters, wants a one-stop shop for officewear that is professional and just feminine enough for a male-dominated work place. “I only have a certain amount of time to go shopping. I want to go somewhere I can see it all put together, with the accessories. Also, my husband does not like me looking like a man.”

Over to you, Belinda Earl. Let’s hope you have a few more tricks up your sleeve. «

Twitter: @MsABurnside