Looking at Marks & Spencer's current collections, I wonder whether the charming and rather stylish Marc Bolland is actually paying attention to the clothing on sale in the high street giant he has been running since June 2010.
Transforming the fashion offering was never going to be a quick fix, but two years should be enough to at least have begun to make improvements if the will and the fashion expertise existed in the M&S boardroom.
But looking at the merchandise, in-store and online, I can't help wondering whether there is either. As someone who has covered M&S fashion for more than two decades, I have seen them at their best and their worst; I have seen them criticised for being overpriced and I have criticised them for, among other things, their policy of producing key styles in a single colour as if they were Lanvin or Dior rather than a high street chain. But I have never seen anything quite as depressingly awful as what is on offer right now.
With the exception of their lingerie, notably the Rosie collection, they seem to have got their fashion heroically wrong. I assume their success in bras and pants means they have some fresh blood in the lingerie-buying team, or perhaps Mr Bolland's shake-up is working its way outwards, starting with undies.
And while little of the outerwear is good, the Twiggy collection aimed squarely (and I use the word advisedly) at the Twiggy generation - i.e. purportedly stylish women aged 50-plus - is beyond appalling. The words 'frumpy' and 'unflattering' don't even begin to describe the awfulness and irrelevance of most of what's on offer.
And even if some of the clothing is passably okay, the styling for the website images and in-store displays is so unutterably off-trend that the stylist should be sent away and only ever allowed to style furniture in the future. And in an era of online shopping, the styling is hugely relevant. It is worth remembering that the first impression - via an image - is what propels us towards (or away from) an online purchase.
With its Twiggy collection, M&S is behaving as if it was living in 1975 - and I'm not referring to the poorly executed 1970s trends. The people behind the collection - and I am guessing here, but I suspect they are in their 20s and 30s - have an image of women of over 50 which is dangerously out of date for a commercial organisation where 50-plus is a key target demographic.
Their vision of a woman of 50 or 60, personified by Twiggy's recurring semi-bouffant hair-do and frumpy shoes, so profoundly fails to mesh with the reality of what women in this age group wears and behaves - and SoSensational knows, because we, too, cater to the demographic and have done our research - it is not surprising that women of that age are turning away in droves, and derailing M&S's profits at the same time.
And where are these women going?
Why, to Zara and Primark, of course. Which is, in itself, an interesting development, because it demonstrates that it is not a specific attribute, i.e. price or quality, which is the determining factor for this age-group when shopping. After all, Zara prices are similar to M&S, and Primark is perceived as offering poorer quality. The appeal of those two chains in particular is the delivery of stylish, perfectly on-trend clothing, much of which will be loved by a woman of 50-plus.
If M&S wants to appeal to that vitally important demographic - the Twiggy generation, which currently, and for the foreseeable future, has greater spending power than any other socio-economic group - they really need to put a bit of effort and research into creating clothes they will want to buy. Stop relying on 20-somethings with a distorted view and start speaking to the right people.
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