As Marks & Spencer closes 30 stores, we ask what it’s doing wrong — and the experts reveal their hidden gems
The good stuff is there, it really is, but golly it can be hard to truffle out. Such as the double-breasted wool-mix grey Ellerby coat from the latest Archive by Alexa range that I have my eye on: it looks three times as expensive as its price tag of £125. Or the Limited Edition £15 resin earrings, the poor woman’s Marni. Or the black lace pencil skirt I picked up for £45 recently, the poor woman’s Dolce & Gabbana, which passed muster very well indeed on the front row at the shows. That one’s M&S Collection, for reasons unclear.
This is problem No 1 when it comes to Marks & Spencer’s fashion offering. Meaningless nomenclature — Collection, Autograph, Limited Edition, to name but three of the nine (yes, nine) different categories in womenswear, categories about which even those of us whose job it is to understand them remain vague.
Problem No 2, and it’s related: endless, frustrating-to-navigate overlaps of product. I don’t want to have to choose between five velvet blazers. I just want there to be one that’s great (there is — see below). The modern shopper is busy and results-orientated, especially when it comes to buying the sartorial bread-and-butter, the clothes that will get her or him — or, as is often the case with M&S, the him that the her is buying for — through the week. She wants solutions, not more problems. She wants decisions made for her, not rendered more complicated by too much choice, some of it bad.
Part of M&S’s problem is that, as a national institution, rather than a mere shop, it has long sought to be all things to all people. The difficulty with that approach is you end up being nothing to no one.
The women’s jeans section on the website is a case in point. While other shops offer a simple edit of cuts, here you have to scroll down through 198 options, the frumpy, the acceptable and the covetable cheek by jowl. Life is too short. M&S is trying to appeal to the Brexiteers and the Remainers of denim at the same time, and it should be clearer than ever to all of us right now what an impossible juggling act that is.
When Steve Rowe, the M&S chief executive, announced yesterday the stupendous 88.4 per cent fall in six-month statutory pre-tax profits to £25.1 million, and the closing of 30 stores, he spoke of the need to create a “relevant and convenient” portfolio of real estate for customers. Relevance and convenience. That’s what a mass-market clothing line-up needs to offer too. A visit, whether in the real world or the digital one, needs to feel worth our while. The best way to ensure it does is for the retailer to follow the dictum that less — a well-executed less —is more.
What we all crave from M&S is consistency
That Rowe also spoke of “style not fashion” is a good sign. M&S gets it right is when it aims at the former not the latter. That coat is a for-ever-after classic; I have wanted a lace pencil skirt — like the one that courtesy of Team Rowe I now have — for a good five years. I am not advocating a further hit-and-miss hurtle into high fashion. Quite the reverse in fact. What we all crave from M&S is consistency: to know that the styling is right, and will last, and that the quality and the fit can be relied upon. (Over the past year I have bought clothes in my supposed size that have ranged from the far-too-small to the far-too-large; some have looked expensive, some painfully cheap.)
The modern shopper wants an edit, not a deluge. Hectic as she is, she wants — needs — her retailer to show her the way. There may be somebody somewhere who likes the revolting Classic Ultimate Comfort Slim Leg jeans in just the wrong shade of blue, but why not produce something better for that woman, still £18.50, still classic but more stylish? As it is, it’s the presence of things such as these jeans that are losing the chain countless other customers. Save us from ourselves, please, M&S, and in so doing you will save yourself.
On the fashion experts’ shopping list this season
Harriet Walker, Times fashion editor
Every time I wore Marks & Spencer’s ribbed poloneck dress during Fashion Week, somebody asked me where it was from, which is always the most fun part of wearing M&S clothing: the big reveal. They were astounded. For £49.50, its “feel” (how fashion editors refer to the touch quality of a fabric) is surprisingly silky. Not only that, the tie-front detail is something of a high-fashion look, which is great because it’s also perfect for disguising a bit of a tum. One editor even asked if it was from Joseph, which is just about the highest praise available on the high street.
Mostly I go to M&S for the chicken kiev
I’ve lost track of how many people’s eyes have glazed over as I’ve been extolling the virtues of my black leather M&S ankle boots — they really are one of the best things I’ve bought for ages. They’re sturdy but not too clompy, comfy without looking as though that’s the reason I bought them (God bless Marks’s patented Insolia Flex cushioned soles) and, perhaps most importantly, they look far more expensive than £85. Lace-up work boots are “a thing”; I like to think they’re a subtle homage to the Saint Laurent version (about £600), but I’m sure I’ll be wearing them next year too.
Nicola Moulton, beauty and health editor, Vogue
I‘ve just bought some great things from the Marble Arch M&S. A pair of navy pixie boots. Also a floral skirt with a red border round the bottom — very this-season Gucci — and a camel cashmere jumper to go with it. A friend of mine receives the store’s weekly email bulletin which sends you an edit of items you’ll like and she is always finding brilliant stuff. The Josh Wood blending wand is amazing, and I like Philip Kingsley hair care — also M&S is really good for essentials like cotton buds and cotton pads.
Jo Elvin, editor, Glamour
I recently bought a really great A-line leather maxiskirt and some flat, pointy patent-leather shoes with several straps.
Robert Johnston, fashion director, GQ
I love M&S’s thermal luxury dressing gown. Brilliant for lounging around the house on a Sunday morning.
Natasha Pearlman, editor, Grazia
My three favourites are the animal-print Harper dress by Alexa Chung, her Briggate trench, and the Indigo Collection collared neck maxi coat — an absolutely great coat.
Hilary Rose, writes a style column in The Times Magazine
Most of Alexa Chung’s range makes me laugh, but I make an exception for this season’s Clarendon velvet tux for £75. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s balcony bras are the best I’ve found for big busts — they are sexy and supportive and don’t look like boulder-holders. I’ve just bought Per Una’s £35 Ponte pencil skirt because it looks like Roland Mouret. In summer M&S does a nice line in £40 dresses that you can chuck in the machine, although they usually bury them at the back of the store. Cashmere tracksuits — good colours, no awful “design details”, why pay more? There are limits. Shoes: never. Jackets: Zara. To be honest, mostly I go to M&S for the chicken kiev.
Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief, Elle
The thing I loved this season was the double-breasted velvet jacket with matching wide-leg trousers in black — everyone needs one velvet piece now
Lesley Thomas, Times beauty editor
I’ve got a few favourite M&S cosmetics. The Rosie for Autograph range of make-up has impeccable, lasting formulations and great colours, Rosie for Autograph Lipstick (£14) in Laugh Out Loud (a perfect red) and Nude Mink (a suits-all nude).
Marks & Spencer’s anti-ageing range, Formula, has some products as good as some I’ve tried for five times the price. The Absolute Ultimate Sleep Cream (£22), somewhere between a mask and a night cream, has been flying off the shelves since it launched a couple of months ago with very good reason.
The celebrity hairstylist Josh Wood has created a fantastic range for Marks. You absolutely have to use the Josh Wood Colour Care Masks (£10) if your hair is dyed or highlighted.
Margaret Dabbs, as famous a podiatrist as podiatrists can be, has made a line for M&S called Bare Feet. The foot conditioning cream — at a manageable £7.50 — will soften the gnarliest of feet.