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Something Up Their Sleeve That Might Just Save M&S

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It is fascinating how sleeves have become the focus of all things negative about women's fashion at M&S. Fascinating, but entirely understandable.

In common with the rest of the fashion press, SoSensational.co.uk has taken issue with the horrid little cap sleeves and nasty sheer sleeves which have been a feature for some considerable time and which the chain's new Style Director, Belinda Earl this week promised to banish.

Addressing shareholders at the company's AGM, she said the chain had listened to customers and would revive "real sleeves".

"You told us you wanted dresses with sleeves, so for autumn 90 per cent will have sleeves," she announced to loud cheers.

"I can personally promise that I mean real sleeves - full, three-quarters and half," she added, noting that the much derided cap sleeves had been reclassified as sleeveless.

If I hadn't seen the drop-dead gorgeous dresses in their A/W collection - many with the kind of sleeves most grown-up women crave - I might be less excited by her announcement. But Ms Earl, 51, brings back to M&S that intangible something - call it class, call it good taste, call it style - which has been so sorely lacking in the past decade. During that time we have consistently seen some of the worst clothing I can remember from any chain associated with the fashion industry.

Cap sleeves were just part of the problem. Fabrics were vile, often recalling nuclear waste; colours were nasty, brutish and unflattering, and weren't even used across ranges, so a red dress from Autograph rarely matched a red jacket from Autograph, let alone one from Limited or the frumpy"Twiggy" collection.

And then there was the inability to distinguish between trends and gimmicks, with the latter greedily embraced and the former ignored or misinterpreted; and the prints that were reminiscent of cheap sofas and so garish they nearly blinded you.

But based on the new A/W collection, they have recaptured their ability to find winning styles. They have borrowed from the right designers and been inspired by the right catwalk trends; there are statement coats and also wonderfully understated coats (sometimes you want to be noticed, sometimes you just want to look quietly elegant) in beautiful shades and good fabrics; the dresses are on-trend but not gimmicky, made in appealing, winter-flattering colours and in strong shapes that will not transform us into puddings (as many of recent years' offerings did - even ex-model Twiggy); the knitwear is in the subtle, basic shades we all need and want in our wardrobe (and that rarely means the turquoise or icky pink of last winter).

Ms Earl seems to have the magic touch, and chief executive Marc Bolland - under fire from shareholders for a poor quarter's trading - was the man who found her. He also, let us not forget, inherited from former CE Sir Stuart Rose the team which was responsible for most of the fashion disasters and it took M Bolland time (possibly more time than it should) to weed them out.

But he brought in Ms Earl and he should be given the chance to reap the benefit of her fashion savvy. I, for one, cannot wait to go back into an M&S store and experience that almost forgotten feeling of not knowing what to buy first...