The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jan Shure Headshot

Last Chance Saloon for M&S Fashion

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

The latest set of M&S results, revealing a 3.8% drop in general merchandise, aka fashion and home, means it is once again open season on chief executive Marc Bolland.

I do feel a little sorry for him, but that sales dip was entirely predictable to anyone who has stepped inside an M&S store in the last few months and stalked the fashion aisles in search of something, anything, wearable. Or, indeed, to anyone with a professional interest in the collections, such as SoSensational.co.uk, which focuses on grown-up women and for whom the M&S collections should be infinitely alluring.

But to say dear old M&S has lost the plot, fashion-wise, is not just a supreme understatement but inaccurate. They lost the fashion plot about a decade ago, and only now are they taking steps to find it again with the departure of Kate Bostock and the installation of a new team led by John Dixon, as executive director of general merchandise, and Belinda Earl as style director.

The additional problem for M&S is that John Dixon only took up his new post on October 1 and Ms Earl took up hers on September 1 - both too late to have any impact on the chain's Spring/Summer 2013 collections, which were virtually ready to roll into stores.

I have viewed M&S's S/S 13 collections, dear reader, and, frankly, they made me want to go and have a little lie down. The collections across their myriad labels (and there are nine of them, nine!) - Limited, Autograph, M&S Woman, Twiggy for M&S Woman, Indigo, Per Una, Per Una Speziale, et al - are, for the most part unlikely to divert any stylish woman from her journey to Zara, or even to Debenhams with their "Designers for..." and Editions collections, the latter corralling the talents of a younger, hipper and even more high-profile group of designers including Jonathan Saunders, Marios Schwab, Roksanda Illincic and Preen.

The M&S spring collections feature merchandise which is frequently frumpy and ugly. Often, garments are in horrible fabrics and nasty, synthetic colours - and again, often still available only in one colour, which may work for Lanvin but is an arrogant concept for a high street store, and yet another unwanted legacy of the Bostock regime.

There are a few shining lights in a dark M&S fashion world, world, like a highly covetable over-the-knee leather pencil skirt in cobalt, a cropped, tweedy biker jacket (cloth bikers are a key item for spring), a pale snake-print collarless coat with matching ankle-skimming trousers, which has the kind of catwalk credibility that one could - in a long-gone era - rely on from M&S. But the very fact that I can actually recall these, without recourse to my notebook, says a great deal about the mediocrity of the rest.

But the spring collections also reveal a continued failure in joined-up thinking which the new team need to address if the results are ever to improve. Those nine sub-brands are too many and too confusing and they certainly don't help the consumer. If you want on-trend merchandise - let's call it "Zara-esque" - do you head for Limited or Autograph or perhaps Per Una Speziale? Who knows, who cares? It's easier to head to Zara.

And what about the three different shades of red used for potentially coordinating merchandise within a single brand, making it impossible for the customer to buy in depth. Or the red dress with sleeves which has a matching jacket, and a red dress without sleeves which does not have a matching jacket (and trust me, from a style and wardrobe versatility point of view, the latter needed a jacket, the former did not). If your aim is to optimise sales, surely it is merchandising 101 to make it easier for the customer to buy add-on pieces... Not, seemingly, at M&S HQ until now.

Of course, the biggest issue for M&S fashion is its lead times - yet another problem the new team will have to tackle if M&S is ever again to properly compete. The Spanish high street giant Zara has a turnaround time from design to manufacture of an incredible 15 days. That means that not only can they bring to market new merchandise as trends emerge, but they can repeat best-selling items and have them in-store before the consumer has cooled on them. M&S's turnaround from its "by committee" selection procedure to store is probably closer to three months, and that is unsupportable in today's fashion climate.

The fashion world has changed forever. The internet has made "next season" what everyone wants now. And by everyone, I don't just mean 20-somethings. SoSensational is proof that women of all ages want fashion when it's happening, even if they may eschew some trends and adapt others. If M&S wants to stay relevant in this new world it has to adapt or, like the dinosaur, it is going to perish. Do let's hope that Bolland, Dixon and Earl can prevent such a fate. But the clock is definitely ticking...